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Ranking the Films of Michael Haneke

March 23, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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In contemporary cinema, few directors wield the same level of unyielding intellect and unapologetic exploration of the human condition as Michael Haneke. With a career spanning over four decades, Haneke has carved out a niche for himself as a master of discomfort, challenging audiences to confront the unsettling truths that lurk beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary lives. His stories are parables; critiquing topics such as violence, sex, authority, guilt, and death.

Since making his debut in 1989, the Austrian filmmaker has become one of the most decorated filmmakers in modern cinema. He’s premiered nearly all his feature films at the Cannes Film Festival; raking in two Palme d’Ors, the Grand Prix, and the award for Best Director. His penultimate film, Amour, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature, with Haneke himself being nominated for his direction and screenplay.

While this is a ranking of his filmography, it would be dishonest to consider it a review of his “worst to best” films, as he has no bad films (well, except for one). For transparency, I have not seen his Glaciation trilogy consisting of The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny's Video (1992), and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994). Once I see those, then his filmography will be completed. But let’s not focus on what’s absent, instead let’s dive into this ranking of cinema’s most enigmatic auteur.

8. Time of the Wolf (2003)

I can't believe someone this talented wrote and directed this piece of trash. Despite being near the height of his powers, Haneke veered his sights on the lowest hanging fruit there is for a lesson on human cruelty: the apocalypse. In all of his other films, Haneke spins his message into an intricate web that obscures truth, leaving the viewer to look at themselves to fill in the rest. Here, he angrily draws the picture for you while repeatedly shouting "Do you get it now!?"

7. Happy End (2017)

Happy End is an amalgamation of Haneke's classic tropes: unrelenting bleakness, slow-paced long takes, unresolved narratives, and, of course, suicide. But the one usually dependable ingredient Haneke forgot to add was a reason why we should take an interest in these people. Apart from Jean-Louis Trintignant's character, every personal narrative fails to rise above the surface. They're all (partially) connected, but need help to play off each other well, and by themselves.

6. The Piano Teacher (2001)

While many may argue that its material is purely for shock value, Haneke lets his sadism tell a compelling of desire and repression. Complicated characters such as these, both wonderfully played by Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel, don’t have to be fully explained. Haneke refuses to sensationalize anything, challenging viewers to confront their notions of intimacy and power dynamics.

5. Amour (2012)

As a great companion piece to The Father, Haneke’s second Palme d’Or-winning film is poignant in its exploration of love at the end of life’s road. Autonomy and dignity are stripped away from Anne as her body deteriorates, with the only role her husband able to play is a witness. But even if the ending isn’t pretty, Haneke and the actors perpetually allude to a life worth living with the person you love.

4. Caché (2005)

A pleasant (or should I say unpleasant because this movie is - as always with Haneke - very depressing) rebound for Haneke following the abomination that is Time of the Wolf, Caché (Hidden) is a thriller stripped of the usual cinematic tricks. It becomes the ultimate "What would you do?" scenario. Would you go down the rabbit hole, or leave it alone and hope nothing else happens? Haneke assures us that no choice will leave us with a happy ending.

3. The White Ribbon (2009)

Leave it to Haneke to create a mystery film that gives absolutely no answers to any of your burning questions. It's deeply troubling to only be on the reactionary side of events, without explaining why any of this is happening. He observes the simple roots of authoritarianism, which eventually led to the rise of the Nazi party. As people's sense of safety begins to crumble, so does their guard against tyranny. Opportunities are seized by those in power, and we are worse off because of it. And in a cruelly hilarious way, it's probably his most uplifting message to date.

2. Funny Games (1997)

“Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does." To give a movie a glowing rating would indicate that I really liked it. In the case of Funny Games, the opposite is true. I hated this movie. I hated every interaction. I hated every character. I hated every line of dialogue. I hated every little thing that happened. And in all that hatred, I surrendered myself to Haneke's sadistic lesson. He's the anti-Quentin Tarantino, delivering violence in the most unsatisfying and grisly way possible. It's unbearable to watch as Haneke twists the knife even more with his cinematic tricks.

1. Code Unknown (2000)

An interconnected mystery film that offers no answers (are you sensing a pattern?), Code Unknown frustratingly fits into Michael Haneke's twisted filmography. Told in a series of vignettes that both are and aren't connected (but all of which are told in unbroken long takes), Haneke presents a puzzle with only half the pieces available. While the chronology is tossed off without remorse, Haneke's contempt for humanity is pinpointed. Racism, domestic abuse, and abandonment are touched on through third parties, with Haneke casting doubt upon his bystanders.

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