Being Watched

When God is dead, there is not nothing. Worship abhors a vacuum. So when God or gods cease to be recognized or acknowledged, it becomes immediately necessary for us, who are worshipers by nature, to imagine and create bad copies of the old gods. To what will we attribute omnipotence or omnipresence? Science fiction and horror films have long made use of human or machine replacements for an all-seeing god. Big Brother or his concomitants are fertile ground for terrifying theories of observation and control.

In Funny Games, Michael Haneke experimented with the audience as eager consumers of violence, playing with our sense of what it means to casually observe horrible things. Caché (2005; streaming on Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime) imagines a camera essentially as the eye of a god that observes one family’s life, but not dispassionately. There is not only observation, but interference. We view the videos, drawings, and cards through the eyes of Georges, but it becomes clear throughout the movie that his interpretation of what “they” or “he” is trying to do is not the only possible interpretation. He views them as a threat, as an attempt to terrorize or tear apart his family.


There is no overt threat, however. The pictures are childishly creepy, and it would be disconcerting to know that various parts of your life are being observed by an unknown spectator. But it is Georges’ own speculation—not the tapes themselves—that leads him to his own conclusions about who is behind them, which then leads to tragedy and violence. The course of events proceeds as it does because Georges refuses to own any responsibility for things that happened in his childhood with the orphan Majid. Nothing forces his hand. Nothing suggests the culprit except his own mind.

Does he feel any guilt for contributing to Majid’s being taken to an orphanage, rather than being adopted by Georges’ parents? He continually denies it, although the fact that he lies to his wife without any apparent reason suggests he wants to hide something. Perhaps if he were to take any responsibility for what happens to Majid, it would be too devastating. It would undermine his entire self-perception. And yet, his dreams suggest a subconscious desire to make things right. And after being confronted by Majid’s son, he leaves work early. But within the world of the film, Georges never confesses any guilt or responsibility.

It wasn’t until the film was over and I was thinking about it that I realized that we never discover who is actually behind the filming and the pictures. Georges thinks it’s Majid, and then his son, but both convincingly deny it. Nor do we know what Majid’s son says to Pierrot, Georges’ son, at the end of the film.

But the catalyst for everything is the unknown omnipresence. Who is watching? In one sense (at least for us, fourteen years on), everyone is watching. There is very little that is private. No matter where we go, someone has a camera, filming. It was once only the famous who had to worry about having their bad deeds caught on tape. Now anyone’s actions might go viral. Anyone’s information might find its way to the omnipresent internet. Anyone can be shamed, exposed, humbled.

When God is dead, there is not nothing. When God is no longer believed to be the source of Law, the Law always surfaces in another way or form, even if it’s only in the privacy of our own homes. The Law exposes, lays bare, and brings our hidden sins to light. “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad” (Luke 8:17). And when they are brought to light, we either confess or deny, self-justify or despair. Georges self-justifies. Majid despairs.

Finally, the reason we find surveillance so unsettling is that we hate the idea of being known so fully. We want to present our best faces and hide our faults. The threat of exposure will cause the self-righteous, sinful flesh to revolt and lash out in blame against anyone else, as long as it’s not ourselves. Exposure, not surveillance, is the truly terrifying thing.