Hidden (2005) And The Mysteries of VHS Aesthetics – Michael Haneke

It hasn’t taken long for the medium of VHS to enter the realm of retrograde chic.  During the 2010 Liverpool Biennal Contemporary Arts festival, one of the main pieces that stood out was actually an independent sculpture made entirely for VHS cassettes; spools of tape spilling out onto the floor while Videodrome-like screens played fuzzy images of recorded images.  The medium now occupies that same area as vinyl records do and appears to be in the midst of a cultural renaissance for untapped potential.  In Michael Haneke’s 2005 film, Caché (Hidden), he perhaps draws out the last breath of the medium in its original form before it became the object of post-modernist flunk.  Hidden also continues the trend that Haneke had himself been explicitly part of; tying in the accessibility of media with dark and unnerving consequences.  Ever since Benny’s Video (1992), he has been deliberately showing the distancing effect of repeated, personal exposure to violent media, much like the aforementioned Videodrome (1983), only with less emphasis on body horror and more on cold, isolated drama.  The film follows an upper-middle class man and his family as he is repeatedly stalked by an unknown person.  The man has an overtly middle-class house in Paris, covered in bookshelves, and is the presenter of a typically academic/high-brow book review program on television.

Haneke often tries to involve his viewers in the horror of what he is showing, almost implicating their presence with the horrific scenarios of the films.  Hidden does this repeatedly, more than often through the use of a very typical VHS aesthetic.  Whereas Benny’s Video made it very obvious which scenes were meant to be VHS viewed within the film (the sickening shot of the pig being killed with a bolt gun is the main segment and is repeated more than once in its pale, grainy form) Hidden plays a trick on the viewer in order to make them the voyeur of the film.

Image result for hidden 2005

So many writers often talk of viewer-induced voyeurism; like a trump card to play when the ideas eventually run out in a film essay.  Hidden is one the few examples that actually justifies this reading with its surprise revelations that the full shot of what the viewer can see turns out to be the videos recorded by the stalker.  The opening shot is the most effective in this as there’s no clue as to what is going to happen, so when the image rewinds with the VHS strips appearing on screen, the viewer is instantly catapulted into the role of voyeur.  It’s something Haneke has done before in Funny Games (1997), where the violence has an interactive element and a number of fourth wall breakages occur.

As the film progresses, the black tapes become an increasingly ominous symbol.  Yet the visuals that are present on the tapes are deliberately high quality in order to allow the surprise shots previously mentioned.  The cameras in fact often act like the fluid cameras of television and only become more obviously home video footage when the stalker shakily films the old house where Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) grew up while driving past it.  The fact that the footage is often similar to the footage shot by Haneke is interesting.  The VHS aesthetics only become obvious when the images are rewound.  It is doubtful that Haneke is implying that the filmmaker himself is the voyeuristic stalker but it is a complex and interesting methodology to work from.

Another shot that seems odd and backs up the argument that the film’s techniques are temporally fluctuating comes from when Laurent is on his television show.  The viewer is shown exactly what is filmed through the television camera, which is the final ending shot of his show before the music comes down.  Laurent and the guests continue to talk in hushed tones like the typical television talk show.  After the credit sequence has had enough time to finish, Laurent’s assistant comes to tell him that he has a phone call.  He then gets up and walks away from the group to take the call.  What’s odd is that the camera has not cut away from its television recording.  This is not Haneke filming so to speak, but the cameraman on the television show who is watching Laurent have the phone conversation.

It could be read that this further implements Haneke in the role of voyeur but again it simply doesn’t fit with his style.  His anger at such enjoyment of (violent) image is often squarely directed against the viewer and so to implicate himself would go against most of the internal logic he has built since his Glaciation Trilogy of films.  So what exactly is the reason for not cutting?  Is the stalker of the film, actually a worker for the television program and Laurent has simply failed to notice?  Or is Haneke providing more raw material to imply that the viewer is the main cause of Laurent’s troubles?  It is very debatable who the antagonist is in the end.  Some viewers are certain whereas others are undecided.  The final scene adds to this ambiguity as it is unclear as to when it is shot in the film’s timeline and whether it is the stalker or Haneke behind the camera.  The VHS aesthetics are ironically hidden within the film; only present when in rewind and when needed to jolt the viewer’s awareness of something uncomfortable and disturbingly persistent.

Adam Scovell

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