Caché Directed by: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Christian Berger
The film is over and the credits have begun to roll up past the last shot. There is no sound save for the unintelligible babble of a semi-distant crowd on the steps of a school. The only familiar characters have by now walked from the bottom left hand corner out of frame, but very few audience members have begun to leave. Some may of course be people who regularly stay for the credits, but cinephiles sans internet access are few and far between and the remaining crowd is not sparse. The problem is that no one knows what's going on. We are sticking around in hopes that something will happen to resolve this narrative. A sort of hidden track or special clue reserved for the particularly dedicated viewer; something that will end the movie and tell us who was behind the video tapes around which the action of the story revolved.
In short, we are waiting to find out who is at fault. The simplest answer, the one that would fit most easily into a neat linear narrative supported by received concepts of cause and effect would be this: Majid (Maurice Benichou), the son of Algerian immigrants is angry at Georges (Daniel Auteuil) for preventing his adoption after the death of his parents. It could be the quintessential revenge story. Childhood trauma and adult psychosis. Blackmail, not for money but for personal satisfaction; for the sake of terrorizing someone; a pathological fixation that accomplishes nothing outside of itself; an action with no rational reason that can nevertheless be explained away by the psychological expertise of popular narrative cinema. This is, it seems, what we expect as an audience.
This is also exactly how Georges imagines the situation. While we have to wait a while for him to relate this information, the reason for these tapes comes to him almost immediately. The image of a child spitting blood is edited into one of the surveillance videos early in the film. Later, we learn that this child was Majid. Bit by bit Georges reveals the whole story. After Majid's parents died, Georges' parents make plans to adopt the son of their recently killed servants. Jealous, he convinces his parents to have him sent away by cleverly framing him (an accusation he later launches at Majid). After several failed attempts to get him removed from the house by claiming that he has a communicable illness, the young Georges convinces him to chop off the head of a rooster by insisting his parents want it dead and then tells them that this was an attempt to frighten and intimidate him. The young Algerian orphan was then sent away.
Majid was clearly involved in this surveillance/harassment in some way. One of the tapes leads directly to the door of his apartment and ultimately allows Georges to confront him as an adult. But while his involvement is clear at this point his guilt surely is not. In fact, the only evidence for it is Georges' testimony, which is backed up by nothing more than a guilt-ridden nightmare. "Stop terrorizing me," he says despite Majid's denial of involvement. Why this "pathological hatred" of my family, he demands. And later, when confronted by Majid's son he refers to the obsession (idée fixe) inherited from his father. This rhetoric should be familiar to us, for we are daily reminded of the irrational nature of Arabs and the pathological hatred they harbor for the western world. French colonialism was marked by similar diagnoses.
On October 17th, 1961 an estimated 200 Algerian protesters were thrown into the Seine and drowned by Parisian police. Pathological? I would argue yes and I can think of very few things that are more opposed to both rationality and democratic values than dumping two hundred un-armed protesters into a river. This was the protest from which Majid's parents never returned. While the childhood relationship between Majid and Georges, and France's political actions are not interchangeable they are undeniably interconnected and the guilt felt by Georges is both of a political and a psychological nature.
Just as Georges' attitude toward Majid cannot be wholly explained outside of the context of French politics, the annihilation of innocent people cannot be entirely explained by rational political decisions. Not allowing the audience to understand the film in terms of popular, linear narrative is more than a pretentious, empty attempt to disorient the spectator or talk about narrative in film. In the context of French colonization and our current political situation, questions concerning who is holding the (surveillance) camera- who is controlling the story- not to mention a population's interpretation of visual documents and the psychology that motivates it, are crucial. What stories are we telling ourselves when we see footage of Iraqi militants? How are we filling in the blanks left by the media? Where is this extra information coming from? Undermining the assumption that what is seen on a screen provides an entire story by emphasizing how much information is assumed is an important project that extends beyond the fictional world of film. The confusion between what is surveillance footage and what is happening in the presumably unrecorded "reality" of the film, creates a space within which these issues can be seriously considered, and the story's lack of conclusion demands that we take advantage of it.