There's no better filmmaker in the world than Michael Haneke—no one more rigorous, no one more provocative, and certainly no one more in command of an audience's emotions—yet for these very reasons, respect and gravitas haven't always been forthcoming. A prude among sensualists on the film-festival circuit, Haneke is an unsparing moralist who dares to criticize viewers while offering them a singularly unpleasant moviegoing experience. His recent hit Caché may be his most accessible work to date, perhaps because its mysteries are more conventionally inviting, but even it left behind a residue of shock and puzzlement. More common are films like The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video, 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance, and Funny Games, four disquieting early efforts about the atrocities that occur when people become detached from their own humanity.
New to DVD, the first three comprise Haneke's so-called "glaciation trilogy." Each one negotiates the fine line between civilization and barbarism, which is breached when society's rules break down. Inspired by a true story, Haneke's frighteningly assured 1989 film-feature debut The Seventh Continent deals with the deterioration of an average middle-class family by focusing obsessively on mundane life details. As images and actions start repeating themselves, it becomes clear to the family (and to us) that their lives are little more than a collection of routines, without joy or meaning. The conclusion they reach is better left as a surprise, but suffice to say, the third act shifts gears completely.
Haneke's schoolmarm tendencies come to the surface in 1992's Benny's Video, which implicates the media for desensitizing people to violence. The film opens with home video of a pig getting shot by a butcher's gun, perhaps the most cherished footage in the sizeable collection of teenager Arno Frisch. What follows when Frisch shows the tape to an unknown girl isn't terribly surprising, but the unexpected aftermath deepens what might have been a Joe Lieberman speech writ large. The trilogy's conclusion, 1994's 71 Fragments, doesn't quite fit the "glaciation" theme, but it does show Haneke's willingness to experiment with the form and challenge the way audiences receive information. Though basically a warm-up to 2000's superior Code Unknown, the film's radical deconstruction of various narrative strands questions the way such information is delivered and received.
Though not officially part of the trilogy, 1998's Funny Games could be its summation; it's a masterful home-invasion thriller that's designed to drive people out of the theater. Failing that, it punishes them for staying. Haneke's relentlessly sadistic story of a bourgeois family tormented by two young psychos goes to extreme lengths to take the sensationalism out of violence. It succeeds by being deeply unsatisfying.
Key features: In-depth 15-20 minute interviews with Haneke on each disc.