Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Viewer, Feel Not Reassured: Translations and Mistranslations

With Oscar Sunday looming and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon among the nominees for Foreign Language Film, it's a good enough moment to note how Haneke is a filmmaker after our hearts -- charred and impaled:

Haneke: "Funny Games" is a special case. The film was intended as a slap in the face.

SPIEGEL: Why should we go to the movies, just to be slapped in the face?

Haneke: It was a provocation! A slap means that the viewer is shocked, and that he may even see things differently all of a sudden. Or he insists on his expectations being fulfilled. Then he'll be disappointed and will walk out. If you like to go home feeling reassured, you have to watch mainstream films.

SPIEGEL: We would like to go home feeling reassured.

Haneke: I believe that the purpose of drama is not to let you go home feeling reassured. That was never its purpose, even as far back as the Greek tragedies. Every film is manipulative, raping the viewer. So the question is: Why do I rape the viewer? I try to rape him into being reflective, and into being intellectually independent and seeing his role in the game of manipulation. I believe in his intelligence. At its best, film should be like a ski jump. It should give the viewer the option of taking flight, while the act of jumping is left up to him.
This r-word riddled colloquy was brought to my attention by The Film Talk's discussion of The White Ribbon, and was the occasion for Jett's and Gareth's hopeful protestations that Mr. Haneke had been crudely mistranslated.

Granted, Haneke is fluent in French, and the original Der Spiegel interview might have been conducted en francais, badly translated into German, and thereon to English, but that seems far-fetched. My mastery of German is not what it once was -- by which I mean it's very slightly better than when I first became aware that Germans speak a distinct language, probably around age four* -- but the German edition of that last passage includes what google translate consistently informs me is the German word for rape, vergewaltigt:
Haneke: Ich glaube, das Drama ist nicht dazu da, dass Sie beruhigt nach Hause gehen. War es noch nie. Schon seit der griechischen Tragödie nicht. Jeder Film ist manipulativ, vergewaltigt den Zuschauer. Die Frage ist also: Wozu vergewaltige ich ihn? Ich versuche ihn zur Reflexion, zur geistigen Selbständigkeit zu vergewaltigen, zum Durchschauen seiner Rolle im Manipulationsspiel. Ich glaube an seine Intelligenz. Film sollte im besten Fall sein wie die Sprungschanze beim Skispringen. Sie bietet ihm die Möglichkeit abzuheben, aber springen muss er allein.
Anyone who has seen either version of Funny Games, The Seventh Continent, or, well, just about anything else he has made will not hesitate to agree with this harsh assessment (with or without taking it to throwing out the word rape).

For all that I admire the approach, and find it necessary. I would not want every film and filmmaker to assault the audience so roughly, but it has its place. His films provoke to such an extent as to force very basic questions on the viewer: should I be watching this? Should human beings be paying money to watch this? Should such resources and creative energies have gone into making it? Is this entertainment, and if not, what is it? And don't these same questions apply with equal force to other films that manage to finesse, mystify, obscure, euphemize, and otherwise mistranslate these same harsh realities that Haneke dares to present directly?

I look forward to seeing The White Ribbon even as I fear it a little. This is to the good.

* Then again, I did live in Oklahoma as a child, and I'm not sure that the existence of a distinct German language is, even now, common knowledge there.**

** Is it me, or am I using a lot of footnotes lately?


John Carter Wood said...

Yes, the verb vergewaltigen does indeed mean 'to rape'. In more figurative uses, it could also be translated as 'to violate' (just as in English, the terms overlap).

In either case, that's pretty extreme wording. But as you point out, his films are fairly uncomfortable, so it fits.

We haven't seen Das Weiße Band yet, though we did recently watch Time of the Wolf, which is excellent.

And disturbing.

Possibly even violating.

Dale said...

JCW, thanks for the German language confirmation.

Time of the Wolf is a good one, as is The Piano Teacher, Benny's Video, and so on -- "good" in the Haneke way.