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Uncompromising and shocking from the start

The early works of Michael Haneke, at LACMA, are precise, economical and, at times, hard to watch.

September 07, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" (2001), in which Isabelle Huppert plays a sexually repressed middle-aged woman, and "Caché" (2005), a psychological suspense thriller involving surveillance and wide-ranging political implications, are two of the most rigorous, unsettling and stunningly original films of recent years. Since 1989, the German-born Haneke, who established himself in Austria before moving on to France, has made 10 feature films.

Spotlighting one of the most remarkable careers in contemporary world cinema, LACMA screens "Hardcore Existentialism: The Early Films of Michael Haneke" this weekend. It is an opportunity to see the formative work of a filmmaker who has been uncompromising, distinctive and powerful from the start.

His first three films -- "The Seventh Continent" (1989), "Benny's Video" (1992) and "71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance" (1994) -- form a trilogy in which Haneke laments the withering of emotions in a world of television, video games and camcorders that tend to inure individuals to the suffering of others. Haneke is a filmmaker of the utmost clarity, precision and economy, ever striving to evoke ambiguity. He poses tough questions, but lets viewers figure out answers for themselves. The people in his trilogy live in coldly impersonal urban settings that could be in any Western European or North American metropolis; lurking in the background are such catastrophic events as wars in Bosnia, Somalia and the Mideast, glimpsed -- but largely ignored -- on TV screens in tasteful middle-class living rooms.

"The Seventh Continent" (Friday, 7:30 p.m.) depicts a professional couple (Birgit Doll and Dieter Berner) with a little daughter (Leni Tanzer) for whom they lack crucial empathy, so caught up are they in the obligatory routines of daily existence. When a much-anticipated promotion for the husband, an engineer, doesn't come through, it looks as though the family will strike out for a new life in Australia, but their dream turns into a nightmare because they have been so betrayed by the deadening illusion of security and material comforts. What ensues is Haneke's first display of his mastery of the truly shocking.

"The Seventh Continent" will be followed by "Benny's Video" (9:20 p.m.), in which an affluent 14-year-old (Arno Frisch) is so steeped in electronics and video equipment that he has lost all human empathy and cannot really distinguish between faked and real violence. The shock comes early in this film; what follows is riveting.

Saturday brings Haneke's most controversial film, the 1997 "Funny Games" (7:30 p.m.), in which two youths (Frisch and Frank Giering) invade the elegant but dangerously isolated country home of a wealthy couple (Susanne Lothar and the late Ulrich Mühe) and their little son. What ensues is an unrelenting depiction of sadism and brutality in which there is no escape for the victims. Haneke understands that for many it will be unbearable to watch; he argues that by having his thrill killers address the audience from time to time, he makes those viewers who stay in the distance become accomplices to the tormentors. Haneke means to offer serious criticism of mainstream movies that make violence enjoyable, but don't be surprised should you find it unwatchable. Intriguingly, the filmmaker recently completed an English-language remake of "Funny Games" starring Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt and Tim Roth, to be released in October by Warner Independent Pictures.

The sweeping conclusion to the trilogy, "71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance" (9:20 p.m.), is a demanding but captivating flow of vignettes depicting contemporary life through which gradually emerge several figures: an adolescent Romanian illegal immigrant surviving on the streets of Vienna, an elderly man coping with an unfeeling daughter and a couple desperate to adopt. The entire film builds to a bank holdup of the kind generally met with incomprehension, but Haneke makes the reasons for it perfectly clear.

"Hardcore Existentialism: The Early Films of Michael Haneke," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Leo S. Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-6010.

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