European Guilt in Michael Haneke's "Hidden" By Pedro Butcher

in 58th Cannes Film Festival

by Pedro Butcher

The burden of European guilt weighs heavily on a single character in Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché). Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a successful TV presenter, lives what seems to be an impeccable life with wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) and son Pierrot (Lester Makedonski) up to the moment that some mysterious videotapes start showing up on his doorstep.

At first, the tapes seem totally harmless, though strangely accompanied by bloody drawings in the style of an adult imitating a kid, suggesting that they are more than inoffensive jokes. Little by little, however, they reveal that whoever is making them knows more about George’s past than he would like them to.

As the film begins, we see a long shot of George’s upper-middle-class house in a calm Parisian street. The credits appear letter by letter, filling up the screen as if they were being typed – an interesting resource that establishes one of the main points of the film: the spectator is invited to “read” the image as a whole and see beyond its surface.

Suddenly, as we see Daniel Auteuil’s character pass by the camera on his way out of the house, we start to hearing the voices of a couple discussing the tape, as the image starts rewinding. This is how we learn that what we see is the content of the tape itself – the images that from now on will terrorize George’s life.

In Hidden, Michael Haneke uses for the first time high-definition video cameras, allowing him to set up a narrative device that will mix the images from the videotapes with the images of George’s life. In this way, the director formally achieves the maturity of a metalinguistic style that he has long been developing (especially in Benny’s Video and Funny Games) which makes image itself a central character of his movies.

Haneke’s ‘human’ characters, however, are submitted to a heavily judgmental point of view. The content of the tapes will force George to face a past he has long ago forgotten, and the way he will deal with this inevitable fact will be the worst possible, trying to keep it hidden, denying it and threatening those who (he believes) are making the tapes.

According to Haneke’s point of view, there’s no redemption possible for a character who, as we will learn throughout the film, has being taking cowardly decisions since he was six years old. The lack of redemption is not a problem in itself, but a whole series of details suggest that Haneke is constantly judging his character in a very moralistic way, thus putting himself in a superior position.

For example: it is, of course, no coincidence that George is a TV presenter. Haneke, who wrote the screenplay and the dialogues, seems to use all his power as an established European auteur heavily to criticize the dangers of TV through this single character. Even though he is more of a prestigious cultural broadcast, presenting a literary chat show, he is the recipient of a Big Brother-like revenge as he starts to be watched closely by a hidden camera.

More serious, however, is the way in which Haneke depicts the Algerian characters who are part of George’s past. In a way, it is the portrait of the immense European guilt towards its African colonies – this unbearable conflict between humanist ideas and a deeply contradictory praxis that was oppressive, violent and exploitative. When the Algerian characters appear in Hidden, they do so as pure victims, portrayed in an extremely patronizing way, thus putting Haneke in the same position as many far more conventional directors.

The mysterious nature of the tapes that haunt George (we never learn who made them) suggest that we are dealing with George’s conscience. There is no possibility of a comfortable, whodunit-style, ending. The camera is a powerful device for revealing the truth (as it is conscience itself), but it cannot change reality. George will keep being arrogant and stubborn, and his terrible past was nothing but a decision made by a child – something that a few hours of sleep, helped by two sleeping pills, will make him forget again.

Thus the general feeling of Hidden, as it comes to an end, is that of a simplistic approach – a bitter, resentful film that hides not only a dark pessimism but, worse, a Manichean point of view of the world. Haneke does not believe in the human race, let alone in cinema.