Consuming Violence

The way that we hear the “news” was never strange to me until I read Amusing Ourselves to Death. The fact that news anchors, whether on the radio or on the TV, can go from somber to smiling in seconds is one of the most bizarre aspects of our time. How is it that we can watch a minute or two of a story about ethnic cleansing or civil war, and shift so quickly to watching 30 seconds of the local dachshund race? It ought to give us moral and cognitive whiplash, and yet we take it as the natural way we consume the news.

And “consume” is the right word. As with nearly everything else, we mostly do not take any time to examine what any of it means, or what it might have to do with us at all. We simply take it in, along with the weather and the local football scores, and then we might, if some piece of news is interesting enough, regurgitate it to someone else as an item of curiosity. Violence and death become part of the fabric of our backdrop, no more startling than a spot on the wall.

Michael Haneke does not think you should remain comfortably unstartled. And the last thing we should do, he would say, is consume violence, whether in the form of war or of murder. So his 1994 film 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Criterion Channel) begins and is interspersed with various fragments of television news. As in The Seventh Continent (and, if I recall correctly, Caché and Funny Games; still working my way through his other films), there is no soundtrack. If there is music, it comes from radios or other sources within the movie. This creates a sort of documentary effect, where we may believe that we are not being manipulated, even as (quite intentionally) we are being manipulated by the pictures.

The single repeated news item in the film is a prime example of the “news” juxtaposition: first we hear how people are hoping for peace in Bosnia over Christmas; then, immediately, we hear about how Michael Jackson is trying to defend himself from abuse allegations. While one is about a “foreign” civil war, the other involves a prominent entertainer. Both war and abuse are acts of violence, or clusters of such acts, but this sort of reporting actually turns both into bits of entertainment.

Those news reports in 71 Fragments, occasionally watched in particular by a lonely, elderly man, are part of the “fragments” leading up to an inexplicable moment of violence. If this were a different movie by a different filmmaker, we would see in the end how all these moments of “chance” actually came together in the final moment of violence. We would receive an explanation that would resolve the unease we feel throughout, and we would say, “ah, now I see.”

Haneke keeps us uneasy by the constant cutting, chopping up any narrative into only partially connected pieces. And we do not receive such a resolution in 71 Fragments, because Haneke doesn’t believe that there is such a thing. Violence that can be understood by psychologizing the perpetrators rings false. With an explanation—no matter how uncomfortable we might have felt during a movie—we can go back to our easy comfort, feeling good about ourselves. During the Q&A for Funny Games at the Cannes Film Festival, people kept trying to diagnose the antagonists: where did they come from? Is their anger and violence a result of being confined to a lower class than their victims? Why would they do such a thing?

Haneke is interested in none of that. He refused to say anything that might suggest even a hint of a motive. In another interview, the ever-reticent Haneke lays bare part of his own motive for the motive-less violence: “That’s the fundamental ethical question: ‘Why do you commit evil?’ It’s a question about whether God exists or not, about the meaning of our existence. Because there is no argument against the argument, ‘Why not?’ [as one of the characters in Funny Games says] If someone doesn’t believe in certain norms and values, there’s no way to convince them otherwise.”

Haneke is a self-professed atheist, and so probably does not mean a literal existence of God; instead, as he says, it is about believing “certain norms and values.” “God” here stands in for a normative morality, which perhaps used to be more wide-spread, regardless of the specific religious beliefs one held. He follows Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky in exploring what might happen in the world if people simply give up a formerly agreed-upon moral standard for action. If God is dead, it is foolishness to continue to pretend that we can still hang on to the vestiges of the moral behavior for which God might hold you accountable—especially if we refuse to recognize that they are the re-warmed leftovers of a previous system of belief or body of doctrine.

So Haneke refuses both baseless arguments against apparently senseless violence and also explanations of that violence. Here he says that “explanations always minimize things.” They are “always simplistic.” In movies such explanations serve to “reassure the audience” with satisfying answers, rather than forcing them to decide for themselves what they will think and what they will do.

This goes beyond entertainment, however. When things happen in the real world (such as the event on which 71 Fragments is based), we quickly look for explanations. To which political party does the perpetrator belong? What did the murderer post on social media? What explains the actions? (And why does no one ever see it coming?) We want explanations to reassure ourselves that it can’t happen to me, or I could never be implicated in such a thing. We want explanations so that we can be vigilant. But they are so often simplistic, minimizing the events to make them palatable, curios in our gossip cabinets, images for our feigned horror.

Michael Haneke’s films will not let us consume violence in this way. That means that they are hard to watch, making us observe events far longer than we otherwise would. And it also means that they are compelling depictions that expose our prejudices and predilections, sometimes more than they do the characters in the films.