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Hidden: a film for our time

Hamish Ford on Michael Haneke’s Hidden

Hidden Hidden
The extended run and conversation-generating impact of Michael Haneke’s film Hidden in Australia problematises the idea that audiences these days are only interested in ‘dumbed-down’ fare or middlebrow period dramas. Viewers responded deeply to this dark, challenging cinematic vision of contemporary Western life. Meanwhile, beyond our borders the film is quickly on its way to an unusually swift canonisation, though barely a year old. It may not enter the Sight & Sound Top Ten list in second place, as did L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) only 2 years after release. Yet while not as formally revolutionary, Hidden shares with Antonioni’s film the uncanny ability to resonate with a particular yet also broadly relevant social, political and psychological reality. Mark Lawson’s big claim in The Guardian that this is the first masterpiece of the 21st century shows the extent of the film’s critical reception, especially in Europe and the UK. Though cautious about such a backlash-inviting call (which may also betray a ‘Eurocentric’ taste vis-à-vis recent world cinema), for me Hidden deserves its rapidly growing reputation. I’ll try and articulate why.

Inside: The ‘Post’-Colonial Story

The thematic obsessions of Haneke’s previous films—violence, guilt, complicity, the hypocrisies of postcolonial societies, voyeurism and a quasi-apocalyptic vision of Europe—return in Hidden. However, historical context is more precise this time, relating to a very particular, though relatively unknown, atrocity committed at, and by, the very heart of civilised Europe: the long-suppressed events of October 17, 1961, when French Police murdered at least 200 unarmed Algerian protesters in central Paris.

This substantial story provides the background to the tale of Georges, who while only 6 at the time has since suppressed a very personal, related crime, the abject selfishness of which effectively ruined the life of an Algerian boy, Mahjid, after his parents died in the October ’61 protest. The film builds to a notable limit point in the interiorising (hence also repression) of colonialism’s subject/other relation. Rather than the ‘problem’ and its violence occurring largely across the sea during the colonial period itself (famously told in Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers 1966), or unnervingly nestled in Paris’ poverty-stricken banlieu regions (as seen in Kassovitz’s La Haine 1995), Hidden forces us to see the relationship from completely inside the western subject clearly haunted by guilt-laden fear of revenge.

As if to properly mirror their suppression in France, the events of October 1961 are only briefly mentioned once in the film, during Georges’ reluctant, partial recounting of his role in Mahjid’s fate to his wife, Anne, in the process of belatedly explaining to her his suspicions as to who is harassing them with surveillance-style videos of their home. The scant treatment of the broad historical context, in favour of Georges’ ‘smaller’ but related story, means that viewers can consider the same essential narrative played out within their own part of the world (an Australian version of this tale could be mounted with very minor historical alterations).

Bright, Cultured Surface

Considering the film’s dark thematic focus, it is notable indeed that with important exceptions (the adult Mahjid’s airless apartment building corridor and Georges’ bedroom scenes), a bright, clean and airy visual palette predominates. And compared to Haneke’s earlier films (not to mention US cinema’s treatment of social crisis), we are shown almost no violence, making the millisecond’s worth we do witness deeply shocking. Rather, Hidden presents an anthropologically precise account of the fully civilised ‘surface’, forensically charting the mask beneath which unseen historical violence and ongoing injustice underpin an advanced social reality.

The bright tonality and decorum that renders the visible markers of dark, ‘hidden’ subject matter also works on this side of the screen, in a similarly deceptive way, to quietly generate a complicitous relation between the film’s largely middle class audience and the onscreen milieu. Though many critics deny it, Georges (a public TV literature talkshow host) and Anne (an intellectual-end publisher) are far from monstrous; working within the embattled—presumably ‘liberal’—intellectual sphere of Western culture (and its most romanticised form, literature), they’re likely to be respected or even envied by an arthouse film audience. Initially lured into empathy, we are soon also implicated in this onscreen couple’s ‘problem’ because of who they are—and perhaps as we sense it is also our own.

This cultural complicity only increases in discomfort as Georges cumulatively makes up a devastating portrait of the Western subject (again, but never has it been more timely) positioning itself as the victim of the feared—and repressed—ethnic/cultural ‘other’, irrespective of his possessing all the economic, political and social power. In the remarkable scene when Mahjid’s teenage son comes to see Georges at work (the young French-Algerian obviously an impostor in this culturally powerful domain of state-run media), during their exchange in the office bathroom Georges’ apparent fear of attack sees him on the verge of violent rage as the young man requests the chance to discuss his father’s suicide to which Georges was witness. The ‘winner’ of colonial relations gets very angry indeed when faced with the reality and personification of his personal history thereof, the seemingly benign and polite nature of its young representative notwithstanding.

Here and throughout the film, such anthropological concentration on Georges’ reactions and behaviour means that we cannot resort to a familiar reductive point scoring game between opposing sides (under the guise of ‘balance’, as in frequent ‘serious’ media treatments of military and political conflicts) wherein any ethical debate is short-circuited. Rather, we are trapped with the subject who likely most resembles the viewer, irrespective of one’s ethico-political opinions and allegiances, and left face-to-face with the myriad implications of this hermetic mirroring.

Slippery Images

Though Hidden at first looks more conventionally narrative-based than previous Haneke films, there is also a mirroring at the level of form. At first innocuous enough, the opening shot turns out to be a subtly reflexive image combined with an unnerving, voyeuristic kind of observational realism, as we watch still footage of a suburban Paris street in which nothing seems to be happening—before the image is rewound as a VCR playback. This straight-up initiation into a central, incrementally spiralling ambiguity will increasingly inform our reading of the whole film. The central recurring question is whether we’re watching a ‘transparent’ filmic image or rather a video tape from Georges and Anne’s unknown harasser (through the camera in its moment of filming, or as an un-framed image being watched).

Yet there is something curious about the surveillance-style videos: the camera that must have shot them doesn’t seem ‘hidden’ at all. Besides the obvious point that we’re much more likely to be filmed in the ‘post-September 11 world’, the apparent omniscient impunity of the unseen-yet-unhidden video camera compounds the deeper perceptual, ethnical and political questions the film has asked from the start. This deepening formal-thematic nexus gains further traction and impact from the fact that there is no narrative resolution to who has been sending the tapes. (Some critics briefly ponder that, irrespective of the film’s apparent realism, the tapes business could in fact be ‘metaphysical,’ in a Kafkaesque sense). We are faced here with an explicitly mediatised virtual ‘return’ of repressed feelings and guilt—as manifest in the inherently prosaic yet also digitally hyperreal, and hence very disturbing, video images. In this way, the lines between Georges’ dream/flashback sequences (the most clearly demarcated ‘interior’ parts of the film), the ‘realist’ scenes and the videos becomes completely flattened; in terms of both filmic language and conceptual suggestion, this is a troubling epistemological breakdown indeed.

The implications of all these highly ambiguous long-take, fixed position images, culminate—as did most of the post-screening discussions—in a final image way beyond the ‘ambiguous ending’ that amounts to a very limited choice of possible narrative outcomes. Even before the question of interpretation, here are two distinct images in one, depending on the viewer’s perceptual response. Though on the lookout, upon my first experience of the film I was one of what Haneke estimates is 50% of viewers who fail to see the 2 boys enter the frame and have an unheard conversation. (The ending still ‘works’ big-time, and my essentially non-narrative experience of the shot generated thematic shards such as: the contemporary religious clothing in French schools controversy; state education’s role vis-à-vis the nation’s ongoing ‘post’-colonial politics; Western paranoia about public space and our children as innocent, vulnerable targets for terrorism; and of course, the ubiquitous lingering question as to whether we are watching another ‘video’, in production or consumption.)

But whether one sees the boys or not, this ending is genuinely open in regards to a critically—non-doctrinaire—political and philosophical vision of the precise historical moment in and from which the film emerges. Does this final image suggest a continuation of a terrible colonial heritage subject-other relation that (though with a different history and specifics of power) might be seen as the French/Algerian version of the German/Jewish bond sometimes called ‘negative symbiosis’? Or, keeping in mind not only the boys’ part-appearance at the end but also the mysterious observer and elliptical inquirer roles they play throughout Hidden, do these new generation figures instead suggest a forging of some kind of solidarity made possible by historical acknowledgement opening up the possibility of a new, reconciliatory future?

Productive pessimism

In addition to the film’s aesthetic layering, I believe the key to this spectatorial and generative openness (I’ve listed only the most discussed possibilities) is Haneke’s rigorous pessimism. Like many of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, Hidden is powered by a seemingly hopeless or even nihilistic sensibility with which to chart social reality. It’s the necessary ‘cold shower’ antidote to the disempowering tendency of much cinema to suggest solutions that in real life would seem simplistic or childish fantasies. Instead, a seemingly bleak world view actually grants the audience the ultimate respect and space so that, separately and together, we might take responsibility for processing the ethical conundrums played out on screen—because in many ways they are our own, or our culture’s—and only thereby, albeit provisionally, ‘completing’ the film and creatively re-entering the world. Without the kind of negative space Haneke provides, literally and philosophically, we have no such room, opportunity or potential empowerment.

The cumulative affective and conceptual impact of Hidden is brought home in its last 3 shots: the finest image of ‘cocooning’ I’ve seen in the cinema, when the self-styled victim draws heavy bedroom curtains after taking an afternoon sleeping pill, disrobes and slips beneath the duvet; then, his flashback/memory/dream/imagined image of the young Mahjid being forcibly carted off, as a result of Georges’ jealousy, to an orphanage; and finally, the quietly eerie and very open double-image of a public school in the afternoon. For me, this sequence seals a cinematic experience that resonates so close to perceptual and conceptual home that it is impossible to escape. No wonder so many people are talking about a film the swift canonisation of which is testimony to the uncanny timeliness of its confronting thematic concerns and inextricably linked, insidious and deceptive aesthetics.

Hidden, writer-director Michael Haneke, actors Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, cinematographer Christian Berger, editors Michael Hudecek, Nadine Muse; 2005; Madman DVD, release date Oct 11

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 18

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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