If you’re feeling like Charlie Brown this season, the skull-drizzle movies of Michael Haneke can serve as effective holiday depression therapy, far more than artificially “happy” films we all know to be poisonous lies anyway. Sure, Haneke’s international reputation rests on an icy, objective perspective on cataclysmic human suffering and claustrophobic social menace. But however much Haneke’s corpus may look like an express train to Suicidistan, it is in fact a song of hope. You don’t want soft-pedaled, recycled Capra homilies, but empathy, corroboration, insight, and perhaps most of all relativity – the raw knowledge that there are people worse off than you, many of them apparently living in Austria. (Haneke is not among them, it seems – watch him in interviews, he’s very chipper.)
Here, using a cinematic DSM-IV, are a few prescribed Hanekes in response to particular brain-cloud maladies this season. We hope it helps. If you don’t suffer from any of these, then just watch the films anyway for a scaldingly good time.
For rational depression: The Seventh Continent (1989). So you think you have perfectly sensible, logic-based reasons for thinking your life and the world make up two halves of a shit sandwich. But so did this Viennese family of three (some details of which Haneke culled from a true incident) who decide to systematically empty out their lives, erase themselves from society’s gaze, and then just privately die. No explanation is given, no doubt is indulged. Auto-destruction, it turns out, is no party; but the cumulative effect of seeing a middle-class home’s material staples decimated wholesale, from fish tanks to appliances to furniture, is so bizarrely disquieting it’ll give you a newfound appreciation for your most mundane possessions. Your chipped Ellis Island coffee mug will now be imbued with nostalgia and meaning.
For seasonal affective disorder: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994). All of Haneke’s films seem set during an interminable late winter dripping with cold rain, but this interweaving multi-narrative goes all out. An impromptu public massacre is coming; the film cuts between the down-trodden Austrians living out their doomed scenarios on their way to their preordained date with a maniac with a stolen gun (another narrative derived from an Austrian newspaper story; no Von Trapp singalongs this time). Even if you’re stuck in a snowbound waste, you can be thankful you don’t live in Haneke’s Vienna, which feels very far indeed from our reflexive notions of lovely Mitteleuropan tourist heaven. Northern Minnesota, you’re doing just fine.
For paranoid personality disorder: The Castle (1997). The leanest and best version of the classic Kafka tale, a labyrinth of dusty, bureaucratic bad-dream-ness, Byzantine but unwritten social rules, and arbitrary governmental cruelty. Did Kafka prophesize Eastern European totalitarianism? Haneke sees it this way, which if anything can place a healthy dose of paranoia in context, but because it’s Kafka it’s also a comedy. Win, win!
For dysthymic depression: Funny Games (1997). Far more distressing than Haneke’s own Hollywood remake, this home-invasion thriller-turned-viewer-complicity iron maiden will make your chronic low-boil doldrums seem like the onset of epic joyfulness. Not only will you be happy you haven’t suffered smiling sociopaths in tennis shorts murdering your family, but you’ll also be delighted to realize you’re not living in a Michael Haneke film. Which these poor bastards are. Forever.
For unipolar disorder: Benny’s Video (1992). Hardly as shocking as it seemed in pre-Columbine 1992, this catatonic-homicidal juvenile seether could push you so far in the direction of I-forgot-what-happiness-is that you may come out the other side. Think of it like a Joseph Campbell-style Hero’s Journey, except you’re the hero.
For paraphrenia: Code Unknown (2000). If your distress and brooding disassociation derive from social isolation and/or immigrant status, then this multi-narrative masterwork of modern urban anxiety will speak to your mojo. In fact, it’ll make you feel right at home.
For atypical depression: The Piano Teacher (2001). For those with melancholia triggered by interpersonal rejection, this is your anthem movie. Isabelle Huppert is the psychosexually knotted instructor of the title, falling for young rogue Benoit Magimel but with agendas he never sees coming. It’s the magic of the film that Haneke makes her masochistic plight both scarifyingly chilly and, finally, exhilaratingly defiant. Here is the Joan of Arc of the psychotherapeutic tribe. Huppert’s huntress is never weak or victimized, and in the end there’s a suggestion that she may be simply another strand of humanity, demanding her rights and sovereignty.
For schizoaffective disorder: Cache (2005). What could feel better than to have your haunted, twisted sense of otherness and secret orders and did-I-see-that-or-did-it-see-me disassociation confirmed by the unsettling plastic experience Haneke serves up here? A seemingly normal, affluent Parisian couple gets invasively videotaped by an invisible force that may be none other than history itself; your role as a viewer is subtly shifted to that of the act of surveillance. What at first appears to be a domestic shitstorm gets substantiated by political guilt and the Algerian War. It’s like thinking your world’s gone to absolute craven hell and then realizing it really is, and it’s all George W. Bush’s fault! (Which is to say, just like life.)
For postpartum depression: The White Ribbon (2009). Anxious parents, maybe the vexing voice inside your head is right: it’s all downhill from here. The kids, like Haneke’s beady-eyed little tribe here, will grow up to be blank-faced little Nazis. Best to dump them at the church, shed the Protestant cowls, and head south, to France. Find fun, for God’s sake!
Michael Atkinson is a film critic and author of two critic and author of The Hemingway Mysteries: Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.