The pejorative effect of a generation’s actions, if left unresolved can prevail over the next until their demon is ousted through confession. Michael Haneke tells the story of the disunion of two children that spreads deep into adulthood and into the consciousness of their children.
Georges, at the age of six, tells tales to his parents that oblige them to dispatch the soon-to-be adopted, Majid: an orphan of their recently deceased farmhands. Majid is carted away to an orphanage where his resentment towards Georges lingers and augments until, decades later, the sight of Georges presenting a sophisticated television book club fractures his quiet discontent. The action Majid takes is never released explicitly to the viewer, but either he or his son commences a campaign of torment; sending surveillance footage of Georges’ family home, showing the comings and goings of Georges, his wife Anne and their son Pierrot.
As petrifying as this is for the family, the affliction does not come directly from Majid or his son but from Georges. As the anonymous phone calls, videotapes and notes begin to permeate their lives, it is Georges’ defiance that causes the misery. On numerous occasions he keeps information about these events a secret from his wife, their friends and his work colleagues. He imprisons himself as both victim and his own torturer, and victimises his wife as a result.
After a visit to the police station, Haneke delivers a scene where Georges enters an altercation with a black youth on the streets of Paris. They are both at blame, the youth cycles the wrong way along a one way street, while George strolls into the road without a glimpse at the traffic. But Georges will not back down. He confronts the youth without a morsel of responsibility for his error. It hints at the film’s entrenched racial tension and Georges’ stubborn resolve. Earlier, he does not trust his wife that a paper bag that contained a videotape contained no other artefact – he must look for himself.
There is a hint from the very first scene that Georges knows the identity of the man that terrorises his family. He proclaims that ‘How come I didn’t see him? It’ll remain a mystery” or if not then, we are certainly privy to his knowledge when a flash of the young Majid appears on screen to only Georges and us, while Georges and his wife watch another videotape. After this image, Georges hesitates to watch any more footage – we know that he knows but is unwilling to accept responsibility, because it is his past that is breaking up the family.
Haneke’s films often require psychoanalyses of its characters in order to fully grasp the trials. Hidden is no exception. However, at times shallow enough to be emerging through the surface is a political horror that is the inspiration for the film.
In October 1961, Paris was beset by a peaceful Algerian demonstration over President Charles de Gaulle’s u-turn in honouring a pledge to grant Algeria independence from French rule. Tension had been building because of attacks by the Algerian FLN (Front de Libération Nationale; or the National Liberation Front) against French police. What happened next has shaped much of Algerian animosity towards France today. Parisian police attacked the Algerian demonstrators. Many were beaten unconscious and hurled into the Seine and to their deaths, and in the days after, bodies were seen floating along the river. The exact number who met this grisly fate is unknown, although, 37 years later, the French government admitted responsibility for the intentional killing of 40 Algerians. However it is believed that up to 200 were killed in this way.
When Majid’s son aks what it’s like to have a life on his conscience he is not just appealing to Georges; Haneke has him look almost directly into the camera as if he is appealing to the face of the French public.
Georges is accused by Majid’s son of denying his father an education and a more fortunate life but Georges shirks this burden. He is too proud and too cowardly to accept this reality. Instead, he attempts to repress the guilt, prohibiting those closest to him from relieving it. Publicly, he is a stern and selfish character that causes more suffering than he has ever endured, but in his hidden world he has a burden on his conscience and is still that six year old struggling to come to terms with his actions. At various points, Anne appears as the illuminator of his dark battle but he rejects these offerings and coldly lives out the consequences alone. And when guilt is fortified it magnifies in its suppression.
Hidden worlds are everywhere in the film. Anne is almost certainly having an affair with Pierre, a family friend. Pierrot’s knowledge of this deceit is a strong suggestion that Majid’s son has been following Anne’s movements and witnessed her duplicity, and then fed Pierrot this knowledge. The film’s final scene only supports this claim. The finale, as static as the film’s beginning, is no end at all. It only reports that through a lifetime of rebuttal and mendacity the next generation will inherit an enduring legacy.