Joseph Barker is History editor at Sonder. Having graduated from the University of Manchester with a First Class Degree in History, he is currently studying a Double-Degree MSc/MA Masters in Media and Communication, with the first year at the London School of Economics and the second at the University of Southern California.
“Since Fanon, we have known that colonialism brings out the worst in everyone it touches. Caché offers precious little beyond that simple insight.”
(Gilroy, 2007: 235).
Although we’re barely months into 2017, Islamophobia has continued to increase exponentially throughout the West: from Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ to the rise of the alt-right in Europe, blatant religious intolerance has unequivocally sky-rocketed. It is therefore more crucial than ever to recognize the impact and significance of racial representation throughout European culture. In European cinema, Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) remains illustrative of the complexities of representing formerly colonized Islamic countries through film. Cultural scholar Paul Gilroy, for example, criticized Haneke’s depictions of French-Algerian post-colonial relations in this psychological thriller (Gilroy, 2007: 233), contending the film provides merely an unreflexive exhibition of the continued “cultural domination” of the West in the postcolonial era (Said, 1985: 25). In this article, however, I will argue that the narrative, semiotic and cinematic techniques utilized by Haneke actually provide a masterful critique of postcolonial reality through three factors: utilizing the aesthetics of uncertainty; reflections of colonial history; and whether Haneke’s subaltern can speak. Throughout, I shall demonstrate that although he insightfully analyses what is portrayed, Gilroy fails to recognize how “exposure to alterity” is “political through and through” (Saxton, 2010: 67), which enables Haneke to encourage audiences of Caché to be “critical and active” (Virtue, 2011: 292) when bearing witness to the representations of the legacies of European imperialism.
The Aesthetics of Uncertainty
This first section will argue against Gilroy’s contention that Haneke’s “casting the core narrative as a kind of detective story” was a “misplaced tactic” (Gilroy, 2007: 233) by analysing how Caché’s cinematography frames the film with an aesthetics of uncertainty, which accordingly provides a postcolonial critique of the legacy of French imperialism. Caché’s title sequence, an extended fixed medium-range shot of a French street which is revealed as the first of the tapes sent to Georges’ family (0:00-2:48), sets the precedent for the viewer to be constantly uncertain as to whether they are witnessing reality, or the “objectifying, mechanical yet voyeuristic stare of the surveillance camera” (228). This aesthetic of uncertainty is re-emphasized throughout Caché, as numerous scenes in which there is no camcorder present are “framed and shot to heighten our awareness that somebody may still be looking” (McGovern, np).
This cinematographic technique, however, serves a much greater purpose than simply embellishing the narrative of a thriller, as Gilroy suggests. Majid’s suicide (1:24:30-1:26:01), pictured above, is shot entirely from a singular, stationary frame. Similarly voyeuristic camera angles are used to emphasize the ambiguity of George’s memory of Majid being removed from his house as a 6-year old boy (1:45:58-1:49:12) and the final conversation between Pierrot and Majid’s son (1:49:12-1:53:05). These excessive shots exemplify how Haneke utilizes counter-cinema cinematography to “throw the spectator into confusion about what exactly it is they are seeing” (Wheatley, 2009: 160). Accordingly, as we are offered “two opposed and incompatible versions of the past” (Virtue, 2011: 285) by Georges and Majid, the audience is encouraged to question Georges self-portrayal as a victim and corresponding depiction of the threat of the Algerian Other. Further, the ironic emphasis upon techniques of surveillance, which were used by the French army as “instruments of power used to control and oppress others” during the Algerian War (Silverman, 2007: 247), reveal how Haneke’s reflects the wider ethical implications of the postcolonial “encounter between self and other” (Saxton 2010: 67) through Caché’s cinematography. Therefore, Gilroy’s critique of Cache’s detective plot is unconvincing, because this narrative enables Haneke to create an aesthetic of uncertainty through cinematography, which encourages viewers to actively question the ways in which “the European’s orientalist gaze” continues to be both “perpetuated and challenged” (Silverman, 2007: 247) in postcolonial France.
Reflections of Colonial History
This second section will refute Gilroy’s claim that Haneke ignores his moral responsibilities by using the colonial history of the Paris Massacre, during which 120 peacefully demonstrating Algerians were murdered on the 17th October, 1961, as “nothing more than a piece of tragic machinery” (Gilroy, 2007: 233), to argue that Caché provides an appropriate and nuanced critique of French-Algerian postcolonial encounters. Although, as Gilroy observes, only a “passing acknowledgment” (Gilroy, 2007: 234) is made to “October 17, 1961. Enough Said.” (55:48), this historical trauma is “allegorized in Caché by the personal wound that exists between Georges and Majid” (Virtue, 2011: 285). Throughout, Georges’ projections of Majid and his son reflect “a common set of beliefs about Algerians” (Silverman, 2007: 246) which is embedded in colonialist attitudes. Georges firstly uses racial difference to create a distinction between the Self and the Other, by describing Majid as Algerian, rather than French, throughout the film. Furthermore, Georges utilizes both colonial and postcolonial racial stereotypes in order to explain the unfolding mystery of the tapes he is sent. He is unable to escape the imperial logic that the colonized Other is childish, less intelligent and inherently criminal, demanding that Majid does not “play dumb” (46:45) with him when Georges first confronts him. Moreover, he repeatedly claims Majid has been “terrorizing” his family (47:43). This loaded term frames Majid as simultaneously embodying the terrorist stereotype, which has emerged through Islamophobic discourses since the turn of the 21st century, and as an historic emblem of the terrifying colonial Other.
Therefore, despite the historic Paris Massacre only being explicitly referred to briefly, Haneke implicitly provides a damning critique of the continued racialized othering of Algerians in the postcolonial era, which is most powerfully articulated through Georges’ failure to recognize that Majid’s suicide provides “the mirror image of his own (and his nation’s) racialized projection” (Silverman, 2007: 246).
Additionally, Gilroy claims Majid’s suicide reflects the current postcolonial fantasy that “the colonial native” can be made to disappear “in an instant through the auto-combustive agency of their own violence” (Gilroy, 2007: 234), which draws on today’s pervasive Islamophobia in the context of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’. Gilroy firstly fails to acknowledge that following Majid’s suicide, the spectator is forced to “stare the consequences of violence in the face” (Wheatley, 2009: 159) for an extended fixed shot (1:24:30-1:26:01). Moreover, Haneke also embeds ongoing colonial violence in Caché’s mise-en-scene: when Georges and Anne realize Pierrot is missing, the television screen showing news footage of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East remains in the centre of the shot. This prevents the audience from “tuning its images out” and further links the Paris Massacre of 1961 to contemporary postcolonial violence (Saxton, 2010: 73). Therefore, contrary to Gilroy’s critique, Haneke’s depictions of the ongoing trauma of French imperialism powerfully encourages “critical and active viewership” (Virtue, 2011: 292), demanding that his audience do not repeat Georges’ catastrophic attempt to erase his memories of colonial history.
Can Haneke’s Subaltern Speak?
This final section will argue against Gilroy’s opinion that Haneke’s depiction of “the pressure of unresolved colonial violence” is flawed because they “contribute to the framework through which we are invited to consider their articulation” (Gilroy, 2007: 234), by analysing how Caché’s depiction of the inability of Majid and his son to speak and be heard further criticizes the legacies of French imperialism.
During the encounters between Georges and Majid, Haneke reflects Spivak’s contentious theorization that French philosophers failed to recognize how the economic, cultural and textual systems were integral to entrapping “the colonial Other” (Spivak, 1988: 281) into a specifically limited set of discourses in the postcolonial era. Despite Majid’s repeated denial of sending the tapes or wanting anything, “Nothing. Nothing. What could I want from you?” (48:54), Georges ignores his voice, openly declaring “Yes, I am threatening you.” (51:06) to Majid. Georges’ refusal to listen to the voice of a colonial other is further emphasized through his domination of the past: it is only through George’s memories that we learn of the Paris Massacre or witness a young Majid’s supposedly threatening George (36:24-37:07) before being wrenched from his adopted family as a 6-year old (1:45:58-1:49:12).
Furthermore, despite Majid’s suicide resulting from Georges’ inability to allow the colonial Other to speak in the contemporary postcolonial era, he once again refuses to hear the voice of Majid’s son, who confronts him following his father’s suicide. As Wheatley poignantly observes, “he re-enacts the same scene of denial, accusation and threat that took place with Majid” (Wheatley, 2009: 165): Haneke uses an almost identical narrative and cutting sequence to emphasize how once more, Majid’s son explains “I had nothing to do with the tapes” (1:39:07), once more, the Algerian emphasizes Georges’ strength over them, “You’re probably stronger than me. Go ahead, hit me!” (1:40:31), and once again Georges’ only response is to threaten, “If you ever try to hurt me or my family, you’ll regret it.” (1:40:56).
Therefore, Gilroy’s critique of how the racialized domination of speech is depicted clearly misreads the reflexive intentions of Caché: for Haneke, exhibiting how “the subaltern cannot speak” (Spivak, 1988: 308) even in today’s postcolonial society encourages his audience to actively work against this ongoing legacy of colonialism.
This article has argued that Gilroy’s critique that Caché provides an uncritical reflection of France’s colonial past is largely flawed, because he only analyses the surface level of Haneke’s narrative. Through an cinematographic aesthetic of uncertainty, recurring references to colonial history and the exhibition of the subaltern’s inability to speak, Haneke in fact provides a masterful critique of contemporary postcolonial reality. This portrait of ongoing racism, colonial stereotyping and the denial of history therefore encourages Caché’s Western audience to feel uncomfortable, conscious, and responsible: in turn, this fosters an active spectatorship which encourages spectators to take action against the ongoing tragedies of today’s postcolonial reality.
Caché, (2005), Paris: France 3.
Beugnet, M. (2007), ‘Blind Spot’, Screen, vol. 48, pp. 227-231.
Gilroy, P. (2007), ‘Shooting Crabs in a Barrel’, Screen, vol. 48, pp. 233-235.
McGovern, J. (2005), ‘Caché’, Slant Magazine, np.
Said, E. (1985), Orientalism, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Saxton, L. (2010), ‘Ethics, Spectatorship and the Spectacle of Suffering’ in L. Downing L. and Saxton, L. (eds.) Film And Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters, London; New York: Routledge, pp. 62-75.
Silverman, M. (2007), ‘The Empire Looks Back’, Screen, vol. 48, pp. 245-249.
Spivak, G. (1988) ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ In L. Grossberg and C. Nelson (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana-Champaign IL: University of Illinois Press. 271-313.
Virtue, N. (2011), ‘Memory, Trauma and the French-Algerian War: Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005)’, Modern and Contemporary France, vol. 19, pp. 281-296.
Wheatley, V. (2009), Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, Oxford: Berghahn Books.