Much has been written about the stark comparisons between the cinema of Michael Haneke and the culture theories of the Frankfurt School of philosophy. In the 2010 book, A Companion To Michael Haneke, Roy Grundmann devotes a whole essay in the volume to Theodor Adorno and the “aesthetic fragmentation” of several of Haneke’s films whilst various articles and essays spend time drawing comparisons to Haneke’s early work in particular alongside the writing of Adorno and Walter Benjamin. This isn’t surprising, especially considering the occasional mention of Adorno within the diegesis, most famously in The Piano Teacher (2001) as well as Haneke’s views on the portrayal of Concentration Camps being remarkably similar to Adorno’s famous quote about barbarism and writing poetry after Auschwitz.
However, with all of these potential connections, there’s one scene that stands out in the entirety of Haneke’s canon that expresses such a hopeless sense of modern isolation that it encapsulates many of Adorno’s cultural industry arguments and the deep alienation present within modern society. The scene in question is one of the 71 fragments from Haneke’s 1994 film, 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance. The film takes a scattering of, at first, seemingly disconnected fragments of different lives, all of which gradually build to a cataclysmic happening effecting everyone; a seemingly motiveless shooting in a bank on Christmas Eve.
The film and scene in question are revolving around a young student called Max (Lukas Miko) who seems to be successful and involved in some technological education course. The emphasis on Max is not at first apparent though the film opens by telling the audience of the massacre that the film finishes on so his disconnected behaviour should already be alerting the viewer. The film has various Adornian ties as stated and argued in other works but never is this more obvious and powerful in the fragment of Max’s life where he is playing table-tennis against a machine.
The scene is one take, framing Max as he is constantly fired table-tennis balls, with him trying desperately and failing to keep up with hitting them. There is of course no music and the sounds of the machine and his gradual exhaustion build up a hypnotic motion where the character and viewer should begin to feel weary of the act. His movements become so repetitive in trying to keep hitting his target that his arm still moves even when the machine falsely reloads; his efforts become mechanized and his perception completely mediated by this mechanized system.
It is perhaps the most powerful scene in cinema for an age but is rarely talked about because its applications are at first seemingly abrupt and unclear. Adornian readings, however, can shine a light on what Haneke is showing within this scene; he is providing the personal mentality that the character is forced to adhere to and the trait that ultimately leads to his total social malfunction when he eventually pulls the gun in the bank. The repetition is the most important factor in this thesis with Adorno famously suggesting the following:
“The element of truth in the concept of genius is to be sought in the object, in what is open, not confined by repetition.” – Aesthetic Theory (1970, p.171).
In this quote, Adorno is making the relationship between repetition and truth clear; that one hinders the other and that so much of repetitive modern culture in particular is driven by this material and form for the standardized gain. Haneke’s character is driven to the absolute by the repetition of everyday life, to the point where information and connectivity is so mediated that Haneke feels the only way to break away from this mass norm is to literally fragment the narrative, removing the usual linearity with which such events are treated by the media. It is even more telling that, when Adorno assessed repetition in popular music in particular, he described it as “psychotic.” in Negative Dialectics (1973).
The repetition within the table-tennis scene acts as a symbol for Max’s life, trying tirelessly to keep up with the industrialized notion that, underneath its veil of happy-go-lucky commercialism and pop music, there lies hidden in plain sight the fact that the same Enlightenment initiation is the oft starting cause of multiple holocausts. Even his own university work cannot hide the truth once presented; that the modern rhythms of everyday life are entirely for the purpose of societal hubris. When trying to escape this notion, the only route left open for the character is to break down and remove himself violently from the system.
Consider also Adorno’s thoughts in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception where he suggests that:
“Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.” (1947).
As Max tries and fails to keep up with the machine (notice also that it is a machine and not a person playing him; even the human element of the sport is now removed within modern society), the game is failing in allowing him to forget. The idea of distraction and fun is no longer a potential in the world of Max, where he knows that even through the mediated news surrounding the Bosnian, Somalian and Kurdish Wars that constantly fragment throughout the film, that our beginning point from the Enlightenment will mean history will repeat; the repetition of which will grow into greater and more personal catastrophes until the population burns out just as he does. The machine, however, will play on even when its opponent is no longer able.