Monday, 6 October 2008

Cries and Whimpers: Hollywood’s Apocalyptic Ending vs Being-towards-Death in Haneke

Boris Knezevic

Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.'

-Nietzsche, The Gay Science

‘…he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.’

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Apocalypse as Shock Therapy

The basic thesis of Naomi Klein’s book on ‘disaster capitalism’, The Shock Doctrine, can be paraphrased thus: the real disasters of our age are not the wars, natural disasters and economic crises that occupy the daily news, but the more lasting tectonic shifts that pass unnoticed beneath these phenomena; the surreptitious elimination of the public and the democratic, the brutal remaking of the world in the neoliberal capitalist image. The cataclysmic shock of the surface phenomena functions to distract and pre-emptively extinguish dissent and opposition. Collectively immersed in the act of mere survival, in world events, mesmerized by the forces of nature or of evil and tranquilized by our powerlessness as individuals, by our fear of being taken over by aliens, murdered by nuclear-armed terrorist thugs, swamped by floods, etc – we fail to see the gradual and hostile takeover carried out under our noses by the very people whose job is to protect us.

It is through this politicised version of Heideggerian Dasein that we may read the proliferation of apocalyptic themes in cinema in the past two decades: contrary to the conventional wisdom that apocalyptic cinema is an expression of ‘millenial fears’ and anxieties about the future, the fear of apocalypse is a psychological tranquilizer that shields us from a revelatory Angst in the present. As the ultimate objectification of biological death in the far-off spectre of some final fantastic showdown between humanity and its other – aliens, nature, God, etc - it blinds us to the true nature of Dasein, our being-towards-Death. By obscuring the way that death intervenes in life at every point, it hides the true cost of our obedience to power, and exaggerates the cost of resistance.

In the films of Michael Haneke, by contrast, the external spectacle and the subterranean Angst have reversed roles: existential dread derives from the pervasive sensation that the cataclysmic event, which has always-already occurred, intrudes unnoticed into ordinary everyday reality, while the latter takes centre stage. Death is no longer the objectified finality external to life; it is a reality embodied in the present. In Hidden, the life of an ordinary French middle class family is disrupted when they receive anonymous tapes and children’s drawings that evoke the personal repercussions of a massacre of Algerian immigrants in Paris 30 years before. We never find out who sent the mysterious tapes and child’s drawings, let alone who made them. The guilt cannot be explicated or objectified; the ethical position is deliberately left ambiguous, and we are permitted no distance.

Similarly, in The Seventh Continent, based on a true story, a family inexplicably destroy all their possessions and commit suicide. One can easily imagine a Hollywood version of this film: some pathological explanation would inevitably be provided – the family were in financial trouble, or the father was an abusive monster, or one of them had a fatal and incurable illness, etc. Yet it would be a mistake to treat Haneke’s subversive gesture as one of mystification. It is precisely the opposite – it is a revelatory step which sweeps away the cultural debris and clutter of cliché, pathology and explication to reveal behind our immersion in the world, our ‘fallenness’, the true state of Dasein. Haneke’s aim is to permit no distance; one cannot leave the cinema comforted by the knowledge that ‘that’ happens to other people, who fit a certain pathological profile. It is pathology and explication that obfuscate the true picture, the slow trickle of Being towards Death.

It is the latter notion that Haneke conveys even more explicitly in the final scene of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, as we watch for an entire minute or so the slow oozing of blood from the body of one of the victims in the bank; a body which is not dead, but dying. It is not simply TV that objectifies historical events, we collectively objectify them, and have done so long before TV existed; even the notion of ‘war’, as illustrated in 71 Fragments with the news footage of global conflicts (Bosnia, Somalia) interspersed throughout, is ultimately a quasi-apocalyptic objectification suggesting the simple dichotomy war/peace, which shields us from an acute awareness of the ever-present threat of violence in our midst. As the heroine in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis declares, “I had been through a revolution and a war, half my family were either dead or in prison, yet this trivial love affair nearly finished me off…” This is not a simple contrast, and there is no real irony here: it is not that in spite of having experienced the terror of revolutionary Iran she cannot handle a ‘trivial love affair.’; rather, the emotional trauma has deprived her of the ability to cope rationally with a betrayal, leading her to homelessness, starvation, and near-death from bronchitis. The war is not only over there – it extends into the apparent tranquillity of refugee life. Complementary to this insight is the inverse or vice versa operation in 71 Fragments, where among the footage from wartime Sarajevo we see a boy and girl decorating a Christmas tree at home during a relative ceasefire.

It is thus by pervasively undermining all forms of objectification that Haneke provides the most effective critique of ideology. In mainstream cinema, cataclysmic historical events, especially when they involve human guilt, are portrayed from a safe distance. Films such as Schindler’s List and Amistad leave us content in the knowledge that the tragedy at hand – the Holocaust, slavery, etc – has been properly dealt with, safely buried in the past, never to repeat. This is complementary to the apocalyptic film, which objectifies the threat of the future. In Haneke’s work, on the other hand, the past and future are always-already here; the historical burden must be continually reassessed. (A Haneke film dealing with slavery, one suspects, would not take place in 19th century New York but in the present-day ghettos of Philadelphia or L.A., for instance.)

This is the point about what Arendt calls the ‘banality of evil’ - it is neither the blind systemic or objective violence of a bureaucratic machinery nor simply the subjective violence of guilty individuals; any such concretization of evil is ultimately an objectification that safely distances it. It is Eichmann’s “normality” that was “much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together”; this was a “new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani…”1 There is no clear pathological reason why the student in 71 Fragments decides to go on a killing spree, or why the family in The Seventh Continent decide to commit suicide, or why Georges in Hidden lies about his adopted half-brother. ‘Evil’ is always partly hidden from view, the key struggle against it is always internal - the very gesture of totally isolating it in an object is what ensures its re-emergence. When Bill Clinton declared ‘never again’ at the opening of the Holocaust museum in New York in 1992, a genocide was taking place at that very moment in Bosnia – with concentration camps, mass rapes, and the like – and was quietly ignored for several years.

It is Haneke’s embrace of Heideggerian temporality that is most subversive: what gives his work such terrifying immediacy is the fact that everything takes place in a pure present, the terrifyingly ‘normal’, eternal now. Irredeemably trapped in the moment, his characters are on one side haunted by a tragedy that has always already-occurred, on the other overshadowed by a repressed anxiety about what will happen next. Yet this true picture is to the characters themselves obscured – for the most part and most of the time - by their ‘fallenness’, their tranquilized immersion in the world mediated by the notion of apocalyptic death. In one scene in 71 Fragments the bank security guard secludes himself in the bathroom before bedtime to say a prayer; after asking God for the usual – good health for himself and family, etc – he pleads “please do not let a nuclear catastrophe or a third world war happen….” While praying to avert the apocalypse-to-come, we avoid confronting the actual tragedy, the evil already in our midst.

The Banality of Death: Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears

This always-already aura of apocalyptic time is tacitly or even unwittingly (subconsciously) deployed in mainstream cinema. As Mike Davis points out, Hollywood’s “pop apocalypses and pulp science fiction” with their carceral inner cities, high-tech police death squads, sentient buildings, urban Bantustans and the like, only “extrapolate from existing trends” in urban development in “post-liberal Los Angeles.”2 These post-apocalyptic dystopias do not reflect anxieties about the future, but about the present as a future that has already taken place. It is in this sense that we can reformulate (or twist) Primo Levi’s claim that Kafka’s The Trial, written in 1925, foreshadows the Holocaust. The Holocaust appears in Kafka in the same way in which apocalyptic death appears in Haneke – not a foreshadowed death-to-come, but Death that is always-already here. The horror of Kafka’s world is not merely the horror of modern totalitarian bureaucracy – it is the horror of a world in which the Holocaust has already taken place.

The courtroom thus yields the perfect metaphor. Even more than Hollywood films, the language of the law is the objectifying mirror that limits any possibility of an authentic ethics: “Despite the necessity of the trials…they helped spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome.”3 This is the gist of Bob Dylan’s ballad ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol’; after repeating “now ain’t the time for your tears” with each verse, it is only when he delivers the court’s decision that Dylan cynically urges, “bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.” When the crime is objectified in legal judgment (and precedent), the tragedy is no longer only that of ‘Hattie Carroll’; it is the tragedy of a society in which a certain kind of (class) crime is partly pardoned in advance. (always-already) It is only with this collective, unchallenged submission to power that Hattie Carroll truly dies.

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha urges his followers to ‘practice charity without abiding in the notion of practising charity.’ By the same token, Slavoj Žižek holds that “the moment democracy is no longer 'to come' but pretends to be actual - fully actualized - we enter totalitarianism.”4 This is just the kind of insight Haneke is after: by abiding in the notion of apocalyptic death-to-come, or inversely that our being is synonymous with biological existence, we obscure the way in which death conditions our entire being, regardless of external threats. When we avoid death at all costs, we risk a death-in-life, whole or partial; we risk submission to power. To rephrase the standard existentialist wisdom in the Buddha’s terms, in order to be truly alive, one must live without abiding in the notion that one is fully alive; one must take risks when necessary, and live each day as if it were the last. The moment we pretend that life is fully actualized in biological existence, we enter death.

The muselmann, the ‘living dead’ of Auschwitz, is the epitome of a life fully surrendered to death, shocked into submission (‘abiding in the notion’ of living) by the cataclysmic spectacle. In Auschwitz - “the gray zone in which victims become executioners and executioners become victims”5 - the Muselmann “makes it forever impossible to distinguish between man and non-man.”6 It is the point where the division between subject and object (man and non-man/victim and executioner) dissolves in a perverse culmination of the liberal notion of equality before the law - the Hegelian ‘end of history’. The apocalypse has already occurred, is occurring – the ‘end of history’ is always-already here, not a utopian end-to-come, but a catastrophic failure of humanity that one must struggle against in every moment of the present. The terrifying voice that haunts much of Haneke’s work, that emerges in the background of all those pregnant dinner table silences, passionless routines, and clicking movements of machinery like a slow, bewitching incantation, sounds very much like that final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

A whimper – a sentence. (“now’s the time for your tears...”) The entire poem, written in the aftermath of WWI, can be read as a tribute to Haneke’s themes…”Paralysed force, gesture without motion…Lips that would kiss/Form prayers to broken stone…In this last of meeting places/We grope together/And avoid speech…” We are all post-apocalyptic ‘hollow men’. Our fear – fear of death – is what prevents us from truly living.

Yet this conclusion is not quite as dismal as may at first appear. For if we accept the possibility of a death-in-life – its most concrete form being the musselmanner of Auschwitz, whose plight for Agamben documents “the total triumph of power over the human being”7, we simultaneously invoke the inverse possibility, of life-in-death – the revolutionary possibility that death is not purely and simply the end; that through love one may continue being, not in some religious ‘afterlife’, but in this world, beyond the limits of biological existence – Love, the total triumph of the human being over power, over mere death.

1 Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), 253.

2 Davis, Mike, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (2006), 223.

3 Agamben, Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz : the witness and the archive (1999), 18-19.

4 Žižek, Slavoj, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion (2002), 155.

5 Agamben, 17.

6 Agamben, 47.

7 Agamben, 48.


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