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LANG/HANEKE – THE POWERFUL OFFSCREEN ACTION

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Fritz Lang/Michael Haneke. Two names that – except for their country of origin (Austria) – seem to have little in common. Only in appearance, however. While the former immediately experimented with new paths and new forms of film language, it is also true that the latter benefited so much from these experiments that he made them his own, thus creating a totally personal and recognisable style.

It all began in Düsseldorf…

Fritz Lang/Michael Haneke. Two names which, apparently – except for their country of origin (Austria) – seem to have very little in common. Only apparently, however. While, in fact, the former – who has divided his career between Germany and the United States – since his first films made in Germany has experimented with new paths and new forms of film language (including, for example, the almost always efficacious offscreen technique), it is also true that the latter – who has been working in France for several years now – has benefited so much from these “experiments” that he has made them completely his own, thus creating a completely personal and recognisable style. In order to better understand this, however, it is necessary to go back in time.

We are in 1924. Western Electric had just invented a way of synchronising sound with images. At this point, there was nothing left to do but to carry out experiment after experiment in order to finally make a completely sound film. This happened for the first time in 1927 (with Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer), although the technique was still very rudimentary. And yet, science goes on, as does cinema itself. And although practically all films in the United States in 1929 – except, of course, for a few directors who were still using the silent language – were now sound films, it is also true that Europe adopted this innovation much later. And yet, in spite of this, decisively significant experiments were made here. Many of them were made by Lang himself.

Leaving aside, therefore, the first works of the Viennese director, in 1931 a (not so) small cinematographic miracle took place. In that year, Lang shot what would become one of the milestones in the history of world cinema: M, a film of fundamental importance not only for having best expressed Lang’s theories on the ambivalence of the human being and his ability to be both perpetrator and victim at the same time, but also for having used sound in a way that is still used today in a large number of films. And to think that this feature film is in fact only the second sound film after The Blue Angel (1930) by Joseph von Sternberg (also Austrian).

Perfectly mastered, then, of this new “toy” that came directly from the United States, Fritz Lang made sound become one of the main actors of M, in which even the tune whistled by the murderer (an incomparable Peter Lorre) proves to be immediately essential.

The moment where Lang seems to have had the most fun playing with sound, however, is at the very opening of the film. It is here that, before we see any images on the screen, we are given the opportunity to hear a disturbing nursery rhyme sung by a group of children, referring to a murderer in town (this scene, of children dancing in circles while humming a nursery rhyme, is recalled over and over again in later works, by the way). A few seconds pass and we are finally in Mrs Beckmann’s flat, worried about her daughter Elsie, who is late coming home from school. The cuckoo clock chimes from time to time to tell the time. Elsie’s mother looks out from her landing into the stairwell and calls out to her daughter. Silence. On the screen, only the stairwell from above and Mrs Beckmann’s offscreen voice. Yes, offscreen. The spectator hears the woman’s desperate voice while, in the meantime, the camera frames, mercilessly, the hallway of the building, the courtyard and the cellar with clothes hanging there. Absolutely no human beings are present. And the anxiety grows, thanks also to sounds that, chilling in their regular cadence, further emphasise the absence of the child. Then, suddenly, the image of the little girl jumping and playing with her ball in the street, on her way home. On a pillar on which the poster about the mysterious child murderer is affixed appears the shadow of the notorious Peter Lorre with his offscreen voice, complimenting Elsie on her ball. Here too, a voice-over is an omen of impending doom.

The rest comes by itself. For this opening sequence alone, however, M has become a true directing manual. Beyond, however, the undisputed quality of the film, beyond the fact that it has rightfully been classified as one of the greatest masterpieces of Expressionism, a few questions arise: how powerful can off-screen sound be for the spectator? How strong is the disquiet that is conveyed in the certainty that something terrible is happening, even though we are not allowed to watch it? Undoubtedly, such a technique impacts on the audience’s auditory and psychological suggestions, more than on the visual ones. And this can be quite successful.

Like many other directors in the film history of course, Michael Haneke is well aware of this and has made the offscreen technique almost his trademark.

Particularly familiar with staging the thousand facets of the human being (and, above all, the most disturbing ones) through extremely complex stories, the director has made this technique pioneered by Lang his own to such an extent that it deeply impresses anyone who has the opportunity to watch any of his works. Let’s start, at this point, with an easy example: Funny Games (obviously, both its versions, the one shot in Austria in 1997 and the US remake of 2007). We find ourselves in an isolated villa in the open countryside. A happy family is about to spend a few days’ holiday. Such emphatic tranquillity inevitably presages something terrible. And, in fact, not much time passes until two mysterious young men dressed in white (recalling A Clockwork Orange) knock on the door. Their mannerisms seem somewhat forced and unnatural. Then, suddenly, the inevitable. It makes the blood run cold the moment when a fixed camera frames the living room of the house, while, off-screen, we hear the screams of its inhabitants, at the moment when they are killed by their tormentors.

This image is as emotionally jarring as the scene in The White Ribbon (Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival), in which we (don’t) see the baron’s little son being taken into a room and then severely punished and beaten, with terrifying off-screen noises and screams. The over-exposed white of the closed door in front of a static camera also does its job.

Then, when a voice or, better still, a text tells us step by step what is happening, things can become even more effective. This, for example, is the case of the recent Happy End (2017) – considered almost a summa of the filmography of Haneke – which begins with the screen of a mobile phone framing a woman, from behind, who is taking sleeping pills in the bathroom. The woman is filmed in the distance, the spectator can only get a sense of her face and body. At the same time, on the phone screen, chat messages clearly explain what is happening: the woman is about to unknowingly take poison from her daughter Eve (the same one, by the way, who is filming her with her mobile phone). Yet, throughout this first scene, we cannot see the child’s face, just as – unlike in previous works – we do not even hear her voice. Haneke’s style, adapted, even in his staging, to the new technologies and the controversial world of smartphones and, while apparently changing form, in fact keeps the same approach.

A true leitmotif, therefore, is the offscreen principle for the Austrian director. His works, by the way, similarly to M, appeal to the audience’s emotions by staging atrocities that happen in normal everyday life and within ordinary families or communities. Contrary to most Expressionist feature films, supernatural characters or unrealistic situations aren’t portrayed, but in Expressionism they embody the dual nature of the human being. The monster that frightens us so much is right there, close to us. We can feel it but (not always) we can see it. Or, better still, although we know it very well, we can almost never recognise it in time. Every man for himself.

Info: the page of Fritz Lang on iMDb; the page of Michael Haneke on iMDb