After seeing Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) a few years ago at the Sydney Film Festival, a mass hugging session ensued on the street outside with my friends who’d also survived it, sitting in various other corners of the State Theatre. We were all tender, brutalised, and somewhat elated by the shared experience of being ripped open. Even if it was too much, we felt that it was worth the trauma.
I often find myself seeking out this beautiful, yet brutalising kind of cinematic experience, without particularly thinking about why. In her essay ‘Sadomodernism’ for N+1 magazine, Moira Weigel details how Michael Haneke’s films make the viewer complicit in their suffering. The clinical, static authorial gaze that underpins his films places the spectator as a voyeur; we feel increasing discomfort as his protagonists suffer. We are both helpless and guilty.
Amour focuses on a bourgeois Parisian couple, Anne and Georges who are both highbrow music aficionados. They have a pleasant, caring relationship, until Anne has a stroke, and is left partly paralysed and slowly declining while Georges cares for her. We are implicated in the watching of their tragedy from the very outset, in a long, static, wide shot of a theatre, taken from the position of the stage, watching the audience stream in. They are told to switch off their phones, while we in the audience also sit, adjust, note our position in relation to them, watching them watching us, on stage, strapping in for some entertainment. Nearly all Haneke’s films play with this self-reflexive mode, blurring the viewer’s relationship between the watcher and the watched.
In Caché (2005), we are at times unsure whether we are watching ‘the film’, or surveillance footage that the TV producer protagonist (also Georges) has been sent of himself. The footage becomes increasingly foreboding as the film progresses, and we feel sadistic, voyeuristic as we watch – unable to distinguish ourselves as the empowered, passive viewer, or the unempowered, victimised object. In Funny Games (1997), the two men who invade the home of Anna and Georg slip through the fourth wall at the most frightening moments. With the couple tied up, wounded and begging for mercy, Paul quips, ‘We’re not up to feature film length yet,’– a reminder that this is for our entertainment, that as viewers we are excited, possibly elated, by the horror of it all.
This relationship Haneke creates affirms that we as an audience are also full of guilt – post-colonial guilt, comfortability guilt, narcissistic guilt (let’s be honest, nearly all of Haneke’s audience is white and upper middle-class) – and it is this dynamic that plays upon the viewer, stripping us of our usual spectatorial distance. This is Haneke’s mission, in his own words: ‘To rape the spectator into autonomy’.
What a privilege for the bourgeois class to have the time and inclination to go and see devastating cinema, for the positive effect it will have on their life! It’s so scummy and squirmy to have that privilege – to have highbrow cinema to shake us instead of say, actual violence – but unsettling art is far more transformative than the feel-good. We are familiar with the sunset tropes of the happy ending. We require a more rigorous upheaval, and Haneke is the cold master of that art.
A friend once had free tickets to see the rom-com-for-the-tertiary-educated Liberal Arts (2012). We walked out after fifteen minutes, went and bought a tub of ice cream, walked to the local DVD store and rented Snowtown (2011) instead. We took it back to her house and soon the ice cream became ridiculous – how do you spoon gourmet deliciousness into your body while this is going on?
Our gaze into the world in which Snowtown is set – a small, working-class town on the outskirts of Adelaide – is through the sixteen-year-old Jamie, who is before long raped nonchalantly while Richie Benaud commentates the cricket. We see him in a gorgeous tableau of victim-children, holding their 30c cones on a hopeless street in this hopeless town; and then along comes John Bunting. His certain, charismatic eyes offer us a blanket of safety and protection, soon to turn us into murderers.
I remember riding home in the fog afterwards, barely aware of what I was doing, misted up, hyper-real, and so incredibly grateful. And then at some point, lying awake, I reached an ethical dilemma: when is it justified to set out to devastate your viewer, and when is it gratuitous? Why do I feel so moved, so ‘authentically’ affected, by this kind of film, and yet so dismissive of other violent films, other, perhaps more didactic spectacles?
In Justin Kurzel’s depictions of the real-life ‘bodies in barrels’ murders that took place in and around Snowtown, we are implicated on Jamie’s journey from victim to perpetrator, feeling the same voyeuristic sensation as that of a Haneke film, though the method is certainly different. Kurzel uses the ‘blank slate’ technique to draw us in – through the protagonist Jamie, who is passive to nearly all that goes on around him. While in films like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), the ‘blank slate’ protagonist is portrayed as stoic and vaguely heroic – in Snowtown, when bad things happen to Jamie, he does nothing. We learn very swiftly that he has grown up resigned to his own victimhood, and barely flinches or protests when being shamed or sexually abused.
With vulnerability comes dependency, and so when John Bunting arrives on the scene, taking on the role of a father figure, with an empowered, outspoken hatred of paedophiles, Jamie is easily taken under his wing. Then we watch as John’s power over Jamie and his family transforms, and Jamie becomes an accomplice to John’s plan to rid the town of ‘paedophiles and faggots’. This soon expands to anyone seeming ‘weak’; which soon expands to wanton, indiscriminate torture and murder.
These lines are all so grey; Jamie has known nothing but fear and abuse all his life, and we as (again, upper middle-class) viewers are reluctant to judge or abandon him to the unsympathetic, Othered tag of ‘murderer’. But of course he is. The world Kurzel creates is immensely ambiguous, and matched by the aesthetic of the film – grey, washed out lighting, depicting a featureless, unremarkable suburbia.
We are told both that evil can be immensely mundane and everyday; and also – through a graphic death scene in which Jamie murders his half-brother as an act of mercy – that we are not in a position to judge, or condemn these people, or this little nowhere-town. Because while it is horrible, it is not simple.
Writing for The Lifted Brow, Rebecca Harkins-Cross suggested that Snowtown represents a fear of the working-class – that the depiction of the town is hopeless, unredeemable, and offers no solution. Snowtown does indeed present a truly bleak picture, of a town with no hope and no way out, but I would suggest that Kurzel doesn’t fear the kinds of people he is depicting. By brutalising his audience, he challenges our neglect and disinterest, making a statement about the brutality that can occur when a place is abandoned, and underlining the complexity of casting judgment on these assumedly evil people. After sentencing, one of Bunting’s real-life accomplices said from the dock: ‘Paedophiles were doing terrible things to children. The authorities didn’t do anything about it. I decided to take action. I took that action. Thank you.’ By stripping us of hope, and drawing us in and terrifying us with the reality of the situation, Snowtown lets us fully engage with this fearful Other. We are challenged to sympathise with him, to treat the victim-perpetrator as a subject rather than an evil object – which is the only way to truly question our relationship to the Other.
When 12 Years a Slave (2013) was awarded Best Picture at the Oscars this year I felt like progress was being made in taking this difficult, critical darling, narrow audience kind of film toward a mainstream audience. 12 Years is a devastating, unflinching film, full of graphic violence and zero fun – and it gained a wide cinematic release and was lauded by the Hollywood elite. Its subject almost guarantees a level of support – it’s a rare and important thing to tackle the subject of slavery seriously – but director Steve McQueen’s achievement was greater than simply winning critical approval. Despite the film’s difficult subject matter and abject violence, it cuts through the expectation of historical drama to build a devastating, undeniable affect.
Along with Amour and Snowtown, I found 12 Years a Slave totally shattering. Solomon Northup’s story is a tragic one – once a free man with a family, he is kidnapped and sold into slavery, with all hope of redemption immediately removed. While the film is brutally violent – Solomon and his companions subject to horrendous emotional and physical degradation – it always seems justified, both because of the obvious historical truth of the story, and because of McQueen’s beautiful, unflinching, yet also unsentimental portrayal.
There are certainly moments throughout the film that take the emotional pitch of the film further than McQueen attempted with his subject matter in Hunger (2008) or Shame (2011), the much-cringed-at whipping scene being one; but even when the strings swell in the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, McQueen keeps us at attention. With his consciously aesthetic style, with immaculately composed shots, often prolonged enough for you to notice them, he draws attention to the filmmaking artifice, as if to say, ‘Even through this, remember, this is still a film.’ By touching on self-reflexivity, the viewer can interrupt their grief and appreciate the beauty of the image.
Though is it not all the more devastating, to watch such degradation happen so gorgeously? Is it unethical to aestheticise such suffering?
While in Snowtown, cutaways are often employed to suggest normalcy, regularity, and the mundanity around which such horror can lurk; and in Amour, we are essentially offered no respite from Anne’s decay, suffering her undignified, unremitting decline; in 12 Years there are asides alluding to the natural beauty in the Southern American landscape; it affirms our hope that something more, or better, is possible for Solomon – that this is not the natural state a human should endure. This notion of redemption is out of keeping with the usual strategy for cinematic devastation, which is simply to not offer hope, but in the case of 12 Years it is all the more affecting. It affirms what he has lost, what he knows as right and yet cannot grasp, and provides the pivot for the devastating truth that while for Solomon, this hardship found an ending, for most slaves, there simply was no hope of rescue or redemption.
To this end, the most devastating shot in the film is not the incredibly graphic whipping scene that had the whole cinema audibly wincing, or the animalistic, barbaric performances of Paul Dano and Michael Fassbender as slave-drivers. Instead, it is an un-violent, simple mid-shot of Solomon in the carriage being driven away from the plantation, rescued after his twelve years in slavery. The focus shifts to Solomon’s face on the right of screen, and the plantation becomes a vague blue-green in the background. Solomon, and by extension the viewer, is to return to the ‘real world’ where he is free; and the horror we’ve just endured seems almost dream-like. But for the people who suffered alongside Solomon, and the people who continue to suffer through similarly institutionalised degradation, there is no hopeful escape to be had. Our empathy is questioned: must he – and must we – switch off that empathy valve in order to return to our normal lives? He cannot stay, or return, but how can he leave them behind?
Solomon is reunited with his family, and title cards tell the rest of his story: lecturing at universities around the country on slavery, writing his memoir, dying in obscurity. We leave the cinema, wipe off our tears, go eat frozen yoghurt.
There is a power in the kind of film that is not afraid to shake us, to make us uncomfortable to the core, to be, as Kafka would have it, ‘the axe for the frozen sea inside us’. It is frightful perhaps to think, that by putting ourselves in the hands of film-makers with such deliberate, immaculate, conscious aesthetics, that we open ourselves to violence: both on-screen, and in the way they can control and dictate our experience of the film. But when the filmmaker is conscious of this contract, and trusts the viewer to know the difference between real and represented violence, then a transformation can take place. We can be devastated, yes, but this is the site for change.