Secrets, Lies & Videotape

Film still for Secrets, Lies & Videotape

Michael Haneke is best known for films that violently play on the western audience's guilt about an unequal world. His new film Hidden describes a more psychological game, anticipating terror as much from within as from the world outside. By Catherine Wheatley

Michael Haneke's Hidden (Caché) opens with a long shot of a house facing a street called the rue des Iris, which, as any Paris street map will show, isin a quiet part of the 13th arrondissement. There is no movement and no foreground sound, only the murmur of cars in the distance and birds twittering. As the title credits appear letter by letter across the screen as if they were being typed, the camera holds the shot. As they finish, some five minutes later, the shot is unchanged. During that time a cyclist comes and goes, a woman leaves her apartment. The camera remains static. "Well?" a disembodied male voice asks. "Nothing," a woman replies.

Then a closer shot of the same setting focuses our attention on the house door. A man and a woman leave. The camera pans to follow the man as he crosses the road and then comes back to re-enter the house. We return to the original shot, still static, still 'empty' of apparent significance. Suddenly tell-tale white lines appear across the cinema screen - we are watching the image now in the video fast-forward mode. "The cassette runs for nearly two hours," the female voice says. We are looking at a video, and we are not the only ones doing so.

If this effect seems at all familiar it may be because it's not the first time that Haneke has placed viewers of his films at the mercy of a character with a remote control. The Austrian director's breakthrough film Funny Games (1997) uses a similar device for a scene in which Anna (Susanne Lothar), the mother of a family held hostage in their holiday home by two cartoonish serial killers, shoots one of her captors - only for his cohort to seize the remote and rewind the film from within the narrative in order to 'replay' events altered to his own advantage.

Funny Games , like Hidden, combines a familiar narrative scenario - the family under threat from an outside source - with classical suspense strategies in order to situate the film within the thriller genre. The earlier work, based on the question of whether, when and how the family might escape, uses the internal rewind as its trump card, hitting the spectator with it at the exact moment when they are most caught up in the film's fantasy of retribution and escape, thus violently shattering the cinematic illusion. In Hidden, centred on the epistemological conundrum of who is persecuting whom and why, the fast-forward functions as a warning to the spectator not to get too involved in what they see on screen, to be distrustful or at least sceptical. For it is introducing a film in which simulation and dissimulation form the twin pillars not just of the narrative but of the structure. Indeed, had it not been commandeered by Atom Egoyan, Where the Truth Lies might have made an apposite punning and paradoxical title for Haneke's latest offering.

Holding the remote here is Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), the presenter of a literary television chat show, the set of which is an almost exact simulation of his own dining room, lined wall-to-wall with books. While one may be fake - made up of plastic replicas - and the other 'real', both collections are just as unlikely to be read: the apartment Georges shares with his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), who works in publishing, and 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) is characterised by a bourgeois minimalism that combines generic flat-pack furniture with aspirational antiques, and the books are as much props in the home as on set. Indeed, a television eclipses half of the bookshelves, foregrounding the medium that is more likely to be the focus of the Laurents' attention and will play a pivotal role within the film.

The apartment, and indeed the Laurents' bourgeois-bohemian universe, shares the same palette of greys, browns and beiges as the Viennese salons of The Piano Teacher (2001), the summer house that acts as the arena for Funny Games and the middle-class Austrian apartments of The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny's Video (1992) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1995). It's a colour scheme that indicates a climate of disaffection and alienation as powerfully as Douglas Sirk's Technicolor spectacles convey his characters' emotional excess, and Haneke's framing of the Laurents, who rarely face each other or the camera, reaffirms this atmosphere. At dinner parties the two adults talk at cross-purposes, neither looking at nor listening to the other. Anne seems to be on intimate terms with a family friend, Pierre (Daniel Duval). Georges' mother (Annie Girardot) refuses to discuss an event from their past. And Georges is hiding from his wife his suspicions about the mysterious tapes he is receiving.

The tapes are being delivered to their doorstep by an apparently unknown source, along with a series of childish but sinister drawings of a small boy vomiting blood and a decapitated chicken bleeding from its severed neck. The tapes' content - film of the exterior of the apartment and of the family home where Georges grew up - is menacing, perhaps, but we are hardly in the nightmare world of Funny Games or Time of the Wolf (2003). The real threats start when Georges confronts a suspected culprit Majid (Maurice BĂ©nichou), an Algerian whom he had known as a child and the course of whose life Georges determined with a selfish childhood act.

Rather than expressing concern, or trying to find out what has become of Majid, Georges initially refuses to speak of what happened between the two as children, though an oblique discussion with his mother reveals that the event brings back "bad memories". When he eventually re-encounters the now-broken man in a run-down apartment, Georges sees not Majid's suffering but only an intention to do harm, and he takes an aggressive stance, warning Majid to stay away from his family. That Majid poses no real threat to Georges, as the police tell him when they refuse to press charges, is no obstacle to his harassment of the supposed 'terrorist'. Majid is resigned, responding that Georges is bigger and stronger, but "kicking my ass won't leave you any wiser about me." But even after the 'kidnapping' of Georges' son Pierrot turns out to be a misunderstanding - the result of another breakdown in communication - Georges refuses to accept the possibility that anything other than a simple desire for revenge might be at work. Paradoxically, this very belief suggests that Majid has sound reasons for wanting to avenge himself on Georges: reasons that Georges does not admit until he is forced to by the events that the delivery of the tapes sets in motion. He eventually reveals, under duress, that he lied to his parents in order to persuade them against adopting Majid, whose own parents had been killed in the Paris massacre of 17 October 1961; the images in the drawings are visual reminders of the lies he told.

Collective gasp

The allegory of the historical treatment of the Algerians by the French is hard to miss, foregrounded as it is by the deaths of Majid's parents. The events of 17 October 1961, when a protest against French policy in Algeria sparked a huge police operation in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed or injured, were not acknowledged at the time, nor for decades afterwards. Even today the subject remains taboo.

At first glance, then, the narrative preoccupations of Hidden appear to correspond to a general move on Haneke's part away from the direct concern with visual depictions of violence in cinema that characterises Funny Games and Benny's Video and towards a more socio-political bent. Haneke's last three French-language works - The PianoTeacher, Code Unknown (2000) and Time of the Wolf - have all provided cultural commentators with plenty of material to get their teeth into: the first prompting readings of the film as an examination of western society's repressive attitude to sex and sexuality; the last two perhaps more directly linked to Hidden in their treatment of migration, race and social hierarchy.

This obvious thematising of political concerns is perhaps one reason why Hidden is being heralded as Haneke's most accessible film to date. In internet chatrooms and arts publications alike Hidden is compared to Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal The Battle of Algiers (1966) as well as to Alain Tasma's Nuit Noire, October 17, 1961 and Philippe Faucon's La Trahison/The Betrayal (both 2005): two films that document the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonialism and were shown alongside Hidden at last year's Toronto film festival. But Haneke himself has long railed against his films being seen as treatments of specific national situations. Ever since a journalist asked of his debut feature The Seventh Continent whether "Austria is really that bad?", the director has stressed the universality of the situations his films depict. The protagonists of Funny Games might be Austrian but their holiday home could be anywhere in Europe; the events of The Piano Teacher take place in a Vienna inhabited by French speakers; Time of the Wolf is set in a nameless state.

So while the events of Hidden might take place against an unmistakably Parisian backdrop, their implications reach far beyond. As Haneke told Christopher Sharrett in an interview for Cineaste in summer 2003, Hidden is "about the French occupation of Algeria on a broad level, but more personally is a story of guilt and the denial of guilt." Haneke stands in a long line of Austrian artists concerned with such questions of guilt and complicity. Among others it includes the novelist Thomas Bernhard, whose works tackle Austria's role in Nazism and World War II, a subject that remains taboo in Haneke's homeland, and the author and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, who focuses primarily on women's responsibility for their own oppression and whose novel provided the basis for The Piano Teacher. It's no accident, however, that when transposing Jelinek's novel to screen one of the few changes Haneke made was to move the episode in which Erika spies on a copulating couple from Vienna's Prater Park to a drive-in cinema. For Haneke, modern-day politics are dominated by how we perceive them - and the site of our political education is, more often than not, television. The subject of Yugoslavia, for instance, comes up frequently in interviews with the director, but always in conjunction with its televisual presentation. "Years ago," he writes in his notes on 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, "when we first saw television reports on the war in Yugoslavia, we were shocked. But today most people regard such coverage as an unwelcome irritation. Why? Because repetition dulls our perception. But that is the case not only for pictures of atrocity; it is also true for every image and every information." Part of Haneke's project in Hidden, then, is to restore shock-value to the image, a project in which he incontrovertibly succeeds, to judge by the collective gasp that shook the cinema audience at the film's Cannes screening during one key scene of unexpected finality.

If Haneke is in tune with his compatriots in asking how we can take responsibility for our actions, his films put a decidedly cinematic slant on the question, and nowhere is this more in evidence than in Hidden. Georges Laurent is a man terrorised not by violence but by videotape. It's a premise familiar from films such as David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1982), David Lynch's Lost Highway (1996) and Hideo Nakata's The Ring (1997), but in Hidden the tapes initially show nothing more sinister than scenes from day-to-day life. It's not the tapes themselves that constitute a threat but their unspoken significance. "Who is sending the tapes, and why?" the film's suspense strategies prompt the audience, and Anne, to ask again and again.

An obvious culprit repeatedly fails to surface. While Georges' initial suspicions fall on Majid, before transferring to his unnamed son (Walid Afkir), both men convincingly deny having sent the tapes, and the film's final image offers us a third possibility - maybe even a fourth. It's an image that, as Jonathan Romney puts it, "caused more debate at Cannes than most films on show did in their entirety." And it is in keeping with the director's stated agenda of providing what he terms in his notes to 71 Fragments "a construct and nothing more". He continues: "[the film's] interpretation and its integration into a value and belief system is always the work of the recipient. That is my principal concern after all: the film should not come to an end on the screen, but engage the spectators and find its place in their cognitive and emotive framework. The author of the film puts markers and signposts into place; the spectators' potential for fantasy and emotion then unfolds between these markers."

Director as stalker

In Benny's Video footage taped by Benny with his video camera is distinguished from fictional reality by being manipulated from within the narrative - rewound, put into slow motion, paused - just as we see here. But this footage is also visually coded as amateurish documentary: it is grainy, unedited, marked by handheld effects. Hidden sees Haneke's first use of high-definition video cameras which allow him to set up a narrative device that will mix the images from the videotapes with the images of Georges' 'life'. In this way, the director formally achieves the maturity of a meta-linguistic style he has long been developing which makes the image itself a central character of his movies. The video sequences are generally marked out from the filmic 'reality' by the use of static cameras, but even this doesn't give the viewer any purchase on what kind of images we are seeing as the line is blurred not only between film and life but between whether we are seeing an image in the process of being filmed or being played back. When Georges first visits Majid at his flat, the scene is shown in a classic realist style that incorporates close-ups, reverse shots and a mobile camera. We then watch the scene again and this time the camera is static, the action continuing after Georges leaves the room: so it comes as no surprise to us when Haneke cuts to Anne watching the scene on her television. But when Georges visits Majid on another occasion the scene is filmed from a static camera in the same position as earlier. There is no cut to someone else watching the same scene, no rewind or fast-forward, and we see the scene only once: is this 'reality', recording, or playback?

One problem that poses itself is that the vast majority of the taped scenes are shot from seemingly 'impossible' angles: filmed from outside walls where bookcases stand, or from a position too high for a handycam operator unless they were standing very conspicuously on the roof of a car. We know that this can't be the case since Georges tells Anne that he would have seen the cameraman as he passed him. So what's going on? As one of Haneke's anti-heroes tells us at the end of Funny Games, "The fiction is real." Or rather, the real is fiction.

Ultimately the scenes from Georges' 'life' are filmed just as the tapes are, and the only person present at the filming of both is Haneke himself. "Whose idea of a sick joke is this?" Georges asks his wife as the second tape arrives. Well, it's Haneke's. The stalker's camera is the director's camera. And the person who is really 'sending' the tapes can only be the director himself. The images on the postcard drawings correspond to a series of flashbacks or dream sequences which see a young Majid vomiting blood and using an axe to slice the head off a flailing cockerel before turning menacingly upon Georges. And yet we learn that these images are not representations of real acts, but of the young Georges' lies. Majid did indeed chop the head off a chicken, but this was at Georges' instigation, and Georges fabricated the ensuing attack. The precision of the match between the two sets of images is thus such that no one within the narrative but Georges could have created them. Perhaps it is Georges himself, or at least his guilt-ridden subconscious, that is the culprit? Or perhaps the source of the tapes, like that of the impossible camera angles, lies beyond the limits of Hidden's fictional world? The person responsible for the tapes is Haneke himself.

We're back to Funny Games, with Haneke as the games master. The very names Georges and Anne - used by Haneke in every one of his features to date save the adaptation of The Piano Teacher - mark out the protagonists as mere puppets, with Haneke controlling the strings. There's one thing that certainly isn't hidden in Haneke's films, and that's the presence of the director himself. And if Haneke is always the person doing the filming, then the spectator is always watching the playback: of course everything we see on screen occurs in a second moment, after the filming has taken place. The spectator is never in control of what we see but is always at the mercy of what Haneke chooses to show us. While it might lack, for the most part, the unrelenting brutality of Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Hidden is as much concerned with punishing the spectator as the most overtly polemical of Haneke's films. And as is ever the case, the real victim is not on screen but sitting in the darkened theatre.

Shrouded in darkness

So the spectator is both subjected to Haneke's film and asked to take responsibility for it: he or she is at once the victim of the film and the guilty party. But there is something of a paradox in Haneke's regular insistence that the spectators work out the answers for themselves at the same time as he so vehemently asserts his own authority over the film. Doesn't the knife cut both ways? If the film is meant, at least in part, as an indictment of the viewers' voyeuristic tendencies, then what does this say about the director who incites them? Haneke's films to date have been concerned for the main part with the audience's consumption of the cinematic spectacle. Only Benny's Video touches on the issue of film production: Benny, who films his murder of a schoolfriend in order to play it back over and over again, is both director and consumer of the eponymous video. But outside of this, it seems that there is no place for any criticism of the director's role.

The apparent hypocrisy of a director who criticises those who are complicit with the cinematic spectacle while leaving those who put it on screen untouched has been best articulated by J. Hoberman in his 1998 review of Funny Games for the Village Voice. He wrote: "Symptomatic of the fascist mind-set is the self-righteous application of a strict code of civility from which the ruler himself is naturally exempt." The director, claims Hoberman, "despises the mass audience's vicarious pleasure in make-believe mayhem while demonstrating his own capacity to dish it out. The most honest aspect of Haneke's movies is the evident satisfaction the director derives from the authoritarian aspects of his position - demonstrated most spectacularly in Funny Games when the worm, as it were, finally turns. The wheel is rigged so that only Haneke can win."

And what are we to make of the director's own claim that he wants to "rape [his] spectators into autonomy and awareness"? Metaphor this may be, but it seems indicative of a violent attitude towards his spectators that chimes with the brutal treatment of his bourgeois protagonists, whose existences are all upended by dreadful suffering. Benny's parent in Benny's Video, the Schober family of Funny Games and Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher all reach a new self-awareness through their subjection to violence (and we might add to this list of victims the two Annes played by Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert in Code Unknown and Time of the Wolf respectively), but the ordeals they must undergo to reach this awareness seem disproportionate to their faults. Georges Laurent may initially appear the most deserving of such brutality, punished not just for being a self-satisfied bourgeois but for a specific act of cowardice and selfishness with which he shatters another person's life. But after all, this is a child's act, and as John Rawls states in 'A Theory of Justice', a child cannot fully understand the principle of guilt.

So perhaps Georges is punished not for the act itself, but for his adult attitude to it. In so far as Hidden is an allegory of the French treatment of the Algerians, Haneke is not calling for the French to be punished for the events of 1961 but for them to acknowledge and apologise for what happened in the past. What is disturbing in Hidden is the way Georges' total denial of responsibility for his part in Majid's fate falters but does not fail. He eventually confesses his childhood act to Anne, but not until the closing scenes, when the ultimately horrifying consequences of his relationship with Majid have seemingly left him no choice. What's more, his confession is over in minutes, and it doesn't seem that Georges' behaviour is in any way altered as a result of this acknowledgement, which is tempered by the fact that he can still refer to the horrors he has witnessed as "a twisted kind of joke". When, towards the end of the film, he is confronted at work by Majid's son, he re-enacts the same scene of denial, accusation and threat that took place with Majid. The two characters even repeat almost word-for-word the earlier dialogue: once more it is Georges who makes the first threat; once more the Algerian tells him that he is stronger, but that's beside the point.

It seems that Georges' attitude remains unchanged despite being forced to face the impact of his actions on Majid not only on videotape, but also, in one literally breathtaking scene, in their all too real implications. And following this confrontation he continues to hide events from his wife. One senses this is not only, as he claims, to protect her, but also to protect himself. In his final appearance on screen Georges climbs into bed with two sleeping pills, shrouding himself in darkness in an attempt to avoid his own bad conscience.

Whether sleep indeed offers oblivion, however, is called into question by the following images. The film's penultimate scene opens with a shot of the family home taken from the same barn that was the site of the rooster's beheading. Looking out on to the courtyard, the camera assumes approximately the same position as the young Georges did in the earlier scene, as we gather from the view of the chopping block, which stands ominously in the foreground, within the dark and shadowy interior of the barn. Outside, the courtyard is sunny and spacious, littered with chickens which can't help but call to mind the slaughtered cockerel. A car pulls up to the house, and a couple gets out. Another couple brings a boy into the yard. Gradually we realise that these are Georges' parents and that the child must be Majid. Sobbing and shouting, he is half-led, half-dragged away from the Laurents and forced into the back of the car, where he is restrained by one of the visitors. As the car drives out of shot the static camera lingers on the empty courtyard. The position of the shot seems to indicate that this is Georges' point of view, but the static camera once more troubles our understanding of what we are seeing, associated as it is by now with questions of filming and playback. It seems we have entered another level of 'reality'. Is this a flashback? Or is there another explanation? Georges tells his mother when he visits her that he has been dreaming of Majid. At the time this seems a convenient excuse to raise the subject without mentioning the ominous videotapes. But now we wonder, has Georges' sublimated guilt finally seeped through into his dreams?

Footsteps in the hallway

At its heart, Hidden functions as a reflection on the power of images and their ability to generate guilt. The tapes and postcard drawings sent to Georges act as the Sartrean 'footsteps in the hallway', which signal to the voyeur that someone can see him peeping at the keyhole and so induce a feeling of having been 'caught out', forcing him to be conscious of his own actions. Georges can ignore his childhood mistake as long as no one else knows about it. But once the mysterious images introduce the idea of someone who has 'seen' his error, he can no longer deny it happened. If, even now, Georges feels some guilt for his actions, as is implied not only by the dream sequences but also by Daniel Auteuil's nuanced performance as a man desperately struggling to maintain his self-deception for the sake of his sanity, then at some level he knows he has contravened his own moral code. But in continuing to deny any responsibility for Majid's fate - even if others could forgive his mistakes - he is deluding himself. By the time he asks Majid's son whether he wants him to apologise, it is too late.

So it is Georges' self-deception that Haneke really condemns in the film. It is a similar form of denial that the director sees as characterising the audience's complicity with the cinema spectacle. In effect, Haneke's film serves the same purpose as the anonymous tapes, refusing its audience the possibility of escape through fantasy and asking them to question their own relationship to the on-screen image. Indeed Hidden could well be a response to critics and spectators such as Hoberman who deny that Haneke's films are pertinent to themselves, as well as a defence of his own position. Its unresolved ending prompts so much speculation about who might be sending the tapes that in a way the question becomes irrelevant, the implication being that it doesn't matter about the motivations of the messenger; it is not the source of the image that is important but its relationship to the recipient. To what extent the film is pertinent to each of us is left open for the individual to decide, but what Hidden makes clear is that none of us is totally without guilt. Or at least no one, so it would seem, except Haneke himself.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012