The Philosopher’s POV Presents: The Films of Michael Haneke

September 16, 2013 7 Comments

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Dr. Bruce Russell is a professor in philosophy at Wayne State University.  He is a past chairman of the department and has written extensively on a variety of philosophical issues which fortunately include philosophy and film.

The article he has written below provides an accessible introduction into the works of director Michael Haneke whose film “Amour” is the focus for the Reel Deal Mind Program on Sunday, September 22 at the Bloomfield Library.  Haneke’s films can be challenging in form and content.  Dr. Russell’s clear discussion will provide a useful scaffolding for a deeper exploration of the themes central to Haneke’s films which are woven throughout “Amour.”

Please join us for a riveting discussion!   (Jolyn Wagner

 

 

Michael Haneke

 

I begin this essay with quotes from interviews with Michael Haneke. They provide a window through which we can view his films. We see from them that his primary goal is to raise questions and not to answer them in order to make his audience think about those questions after they leave the theater. He says that two of the main questions that he addresses in his films are, “What is reality?” and “What is reality in a movie?” He expresses skepticism about the possibility of real explanations and knowledge, and about there being a single truth on any subject. In the course of discussing three of his films, I will criticize his views on explanation, knowledge, and truth.

 

I. Quotes from an interview with Michael Haneke with indieWIRE (2009)

 

It’s not that I hate mainstream cinema. It’s perfectly fine. There are a lot of people who need to escape, because they are in very difficult situations. But this has nothing to do with an art form. An art form is obliged to confront reality.

 

I want to make it clear: it’s not that I hate mainstream cinema. It’s perfectly fine. There are a lot of people who need to escape, because they are in very difficult situations, so they have the right to escape from the world. But this has nothing to do with an art form. An art form is obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little piece of the truth.

 

Because I use your fantasy. I think it’s one of the most important things for a filmmaker: to use the fantasy of the viewer. The audience has to make their own pictures, and whatever I show means diminishing the fantasy of the viewer.

 

The point is that there are no solutions. If there were, the world wouldn’t be quite what it is. Speaking about cinema, the mainstream cinema tries to feed you the idea that there are solutions, but that’s bullshit. You can make a lot of money with these lies. But if you take the viewer seriously as your partner, the only thing that you can do is to put the questions strongly. In this case, maybe he will find some answer. If you give the answer, you lie. Whatever kind of security you try to feed somebody is an illusion. It’s not only me; I think every art form today can put out only questions, not answers. It’s the fundamental condition.

 

So, again, the only thing that a novel or a movie can do is ask questions without giving answers. If it were otherwise, the world would not be the way it is. (BOMB magazine, 2002)

 

indieWIRE (iW): In your films, the truth is always something indefinite and amorphous.

 

Haneke: This is, I think, a general feeling today, that we don’t know what is the truth. (Holds up a glass.) Even to know what this kind of material this is, it’s a version of reality. These questions, “What is reality?” and “What is reality in a movie?” are a main part of my work.

 

iW: Yet this bothers some viewers. A friend of mine, after seeing one of your films for the first time, remarked that he enjoyed the film, except for the fact that no concrete explanation was given for the characters’ behavior.

 

Haneke: Every kind of explanation is just something that’s there to make you feel better, and at the same time it’s a lie. It’s a lie to calm you, because the real explanation would be so complex, it would be impossible to have in 90 minutes of film or 200 pages of a novel.

 

II. The White Ribbon

 

Opening dialogue in the film: I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I know only by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure, and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.

 

The above quotes from Michael Haneke can be summarized in the following way: he intends to make the viewer think about that nature of reality, both in the film and beyond, and he leaves many things open and unexplained as a way of stimulating the viewer to reflect on these questions. Many questions are left unanswered in The White Ribbon. A wire is stretched between two trees which causes the doctor’s horse to trip and fall and throw the doctor. The day after the doctor’s accident, the wife of a tenant farmer dies in a work-related accident. The steward had assigned her “lighter work” in the sawmill, rather than at harvest, and she injured her arm when a rotten floor gave way. Sigi, the young son of the Baron and Baroness, is hanged upside down and beaten on his buttocks; later the steward’s son steals his whistle and throws him in the water. A barn burns down on the Baron’s estate. The tenant farmer is found hanging in an out building.  Karli, the retarded son of the midwife, Mrs. Wagner, has his eyes poked out. The doctor and the midwife leave the area and no one knows where they went; Karli is not with her but also not in the house where everyone thought she had left him. Why did all these things happen and who caused them? Haneke does not give us an explanation “to make us feel better.”

 

Can we construct coherent explanations of these events? Let’s start with the wire that tripped the doctor’s horse. Who hated the doctor enough at that time to install the wire? Not the midwife who was in love with him, and the incident occurred before the doctor cruelly insulted her. How about his fourteen-year-old daughter, Anna? The midwife says that she saw the doctor finger her, and later in the film we see what appears to be a sexual encounter between the two when her brother, Rudi, opens the door to find his father “piercing her ears,” as Anna describes it in an attempt to deceive her brother about what is really going on. Besides, Anna seems to love her father and not to be angry with him for the “affection” he shows her. Rudi is only five; he is too young to attach the wire.  The most likely candidate is Martin, the Pastor’s adolescent son. He seems to like Anna. On seeing the midwife, he immediately asks her how “Anni” is, displaying bad manners by not first greeting the midwife. All of the pastor’s children then go to visit Anna after school and get in trouble for getting home late. The teacher (who narrates the film) sees Martin walking dangerously on the top railing of a bridge, as if it were a balance beam. When his teacher asks why he did it, he says he wanted to give God a chance to kill him. Martin then says, “He didn’t do it. So he’s pleased with me…He doesn’t want me to die.” When his teacher asks him why God would want him to die, he does not answer. A plausible explanation is that Martin was smitten with Anna and learned that her father, the doctor, was molesting her (though an equally plausible one is that he feels guilty for masturbating). To get back at him, he strung the wire that tripped the horse that caused the father’s fall.

 


I think the next three events are linked: (1) the death of the wife of a tenant farmer who was assigned to the sawmill by the estate’s steward; (2) the burning of a barn on the estate, and (3) the hanging death of the tenant farmer himself. The wife was assigned to the sawmill because she was not among the best harvesters, and she died because she fell through rotten boards at the sawmill, which caused her fatal injuries. I think the father burned down the barn because he held the steward and the estate responsible for his economic plight. The father committed suicide by hanging himself because once it was discovered that his son had cut off all the heads of the cabbages of the Baron as retaliation for his mother’s death, the farmer was no longer hired by the Baron and could not support his family. Because he could not feed his family, he felt inadequate and, in addition, saw no way out. That led him to commit suicide out of despair.

 

Who beat Sigi, the son of the Baron and Baroness, on the buttocks with a cane and why? At one point Eva, the teacher’s love, asks him, “Who does things like that…beating a child like that?” We know that the Pastor “does things like that” because we know that he canes his children to punish them. Perhaps Sigi was the boy whom his son Martin copied when he began masturbating, and he surely would think that whoever it was that Martin copied deserved punishment himself. Though at the end of the film the narrator/teacher suspects the children of harming Sigi and Karli, it would have been hard for them to string Sigi up by his heels.

 

Karli’s eyes were poked out. Who did that and why? Perhaps the doctor harmed him in retaliation for what the midwife said to him in a nasty verbal exchange. After he insults her by calling her ugly and flabby, and saying that she is disgusting, decrepit, and smells, the midwife responds,

 

Why do you despise me? For helping to raise the boy? For watching you finger your daughter and saying nothing? For helping you to deceive yourself? For listening to you claim how you loved Julie (his wife), when everyone knew you treated her as badly as me? For loving you, when I know you can’t stand being loved? …I’m tired, too. I’ve got two retarded kids: Karli and you. You’re the most troublesome one.

 

Finally, why do the doctor and the midwife disappear, along with their children? The midwife says that she knows who committed the crimes and is going to town to report it to the police. But she is never seen again. The doctor leaves a note on his door that his office is closed. But no one ever sees him or his two children again. Did he kidnap Karli because he was afraid the midwife did know that he had harmed him and did not want her to report it to the police? Did he make an agreement with the midwife to meet somewhere and give her back her son provided she would not report him? There is no evidence to support my speculations here.

 

In fact, there is not much evidence to support any of the hypotheses I’ve offered to explain the various events we observe in the film. As the narrator says at the beginning of the film,

 

 I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I know only by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure, and many questions remain unanswered. (My italics)

 

But his suggestion that the mysterious events that took place in the village “might clarify some things that happened in this country” is a vain hope. Because their causes are unknown, some people are tempted to explain the mystery associated with the specific events in the film with some overarching explanation that also explains what happened in the country, in particular, the death of Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I. The narrator says, “Despite the strange events that had unsettled the village, we thought of ourselves as united in the belief that life in our community was God’s will, and worth living.” But the causes of the events in the village, starting with the doctor’s fall, had nothing to do with God. They were the result of the actions of particular people in the community, whether adults or children. Near the end of the film the Baroness tells her husband that she is leaving  because she does not want her children to “grow up in surroundings that are dominated by malice, envy, apathy, and brutality.” These all too human traits residing in particular individuals are part of the best explanation of the “mysterious events” that took place in the village, not God’s guiding hand nor some disembodied, metaphysical evil force. Their ignorance of the particular causes of the events in the village should not lead the villagers to posit some even more mysterious common cause that explains those events and what happened in the country. Ignorance does not warrant a move from mystery to metaphysics, even though it is a move that is commonly made. Shame on The White Ribbon if it encourages people to make it.

 

III. Cache

 

In the interview on the DVD of Cache, Michael Haneke says, “The movie is a tale of morality, so to speak, dealing with how one lives with guilt…That’s basically the theme of the movie.” This agrees with the reviewer who says, “…the movie is fundamentally about guilt and the way it makes people behave.” But it is not actual guilt, but the feeling of guilt, that is at issue, for, as Haneke notes, a child is not guilty for his selfishness even though an adult would be. However, he can be guilty as an adult for how he behaves in light of his memory of doing something that destroyed another person’s life, and the film is partly about that actual guilt.  Majid is the son of the caretakers at the home where Georges grew up, and his parents nearly adopted him as their own child when Majid’s parents were killed. Haneke thinks it is unclear what the events were that got Majid sent away to an orphanage, but the scene at 20:39 (called “the smoking gun” by Roger Ebert) of a young Majid bleeding from the mouth and holding a pill (or is it his tooth?) in his hands suggests that Georges gave him something that made him bleed internally. According to what Georges tells his wife Anne, they did call the doctor to look at Majid, but he was such an old fool that he didn’t think anything was really wrong. So Majid was not sent off to the hospital. But then it seems that Georges might have got Majid to chop off the head of a rooster by telling him that his father wanted him to do that, and then telling his parents that Majid tried to hit him with the axe. The two flashbacks or dreams of those scenes give us reason to think that Georges did something to get Majid out of the house so he could maintain his privileged position. The evidence presented at least allows us to construct a plausible story of why Georges feels guilty about his treatment of Majid when they were children.

 

In an interview in 2009 on indieWIRE, Haneke says, “These questions, ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What is reality in a movie?’ are a main part of my work.” So I think the question of what reality is in the film world of Cache is also an important focus of the film. Video tapes are made of the front of Georges and Anne’s home and the street in front of it, of the front of the home in which Georges grew up, and of an apartment building where Majid lives. The tapes are left on Georges’ doorstep wrapped in what appear to be a child’s drawing of a person bleeding from the mouth or neck and of a chicken bleeding from the neck. While neither the viewer, nor the characters in the film, know who made the tapes, surely someone in the fictional reality, the world of the film, did somehow make them. There must be some truth about who made the tapes and why. That’s why Haneke seems unjustified in saying in the DVD interview that, “We never ever know what is truth. There are 1,000 truths. It’s a matter of perspective.” There are not 1,000 truths on a given question, whether in the world of the film, or in reality, even if there are a 1,000 beliefs about what the truth is. There is just one truth even if no one knows what it is. Further, it is an unwarranted leap to conclude that “we never ever know what is truth” just because sometimes we do not know what it is. We are not justified in reaching that skeptical conclusion in either the film world, or in reality, on the basis of sometimes being ignorant of what the truth is.

 

IV. The Piano Teacher

 

Erika Kohut is a piano teacher in her forties who lives with her mother and sleeps in a bed right beside her. She is a very stern, cold, and demanding piano teacher who tightly controls her students and her own life, including her sexuality. However, she is sexually attracted to one of her brilliant, talented, handsome, and admiring students, Walter Kemmler. In their first sexual encounter, she demands that he stand facing her without moving or touching her while she strokes his penis, though not to orgasm. She likes control! But then before their next sexual encounter with the door blockaded in her own bedroom in her mother’s house, she makes her student read a long letter she wrote telling him how she wants him to bind her, gag her, beat her about her face if she disobeys and, in general, to “make her realize just how powerless she is.” Like many people into bondage and domination, she is a person who also wants to give up the control she so relentlessly exerts in her everyday life. The idea disgusts Walter, and he leaves. But later he returns, beats her about the face causing blood to flow from her nose, and then has sex with her as she lies beneath him, motionless, like a corpse. Despite her fantasies, she does not enjoy being beaten; it does not arouse her. In ritualized sadomasochism there is always a “safe” word but not here.

 

She is scheduled to replace her student in a recital as a pianist accompanying a singer who is also her student. The student needs a replacement because Erika put broken glass in the pocket of the student’s coat, and her hand was badly injured when she put it in her pocket. However, instead of entering the concert hall she takes a knife out of her purse and sticks it in the upper part of her breast, which causes pain and blood to flow through her blouse. Then she exits the concert hall and walks quickly away along the street in front of the hall. That’s where the film ends.

 

This film, like the others, contains mysteries. We wonder why the piano teacher has the strange sexual desires that she has, though we get a hint that it somehow has to do with her twisted relation with her overbearing  mother who wants to control every aspect of her life and, in particular, to make sure that she has no romantic or sexual relations. (In an interview in BOMB magazine in 2002, Haneke says he intentionally left out flashbacks described in the book in order to avoid offering explanations of Erika’s behavior, and created her mother as a second character to “suggest something about Erika’s youth without being an explanation.”). We wonder why she did not enjoy the beating she received from her student given the masochistic and submissive desires she expressed in her letter, though here the best explanation seems to be that the reality did not measure up to the fantasy. Getting your nose broken isn’t so sexy! But most of all we wonder why she stabbed herself with the knife and then ran away. Was it because she needed a rush, which pain and the sight of her own blood usually gave her, in order to free herself from her old life which was dominated by music and her mother, who was attending the recital?

 

Perhaps, but as is the rule with Haneke, we are not given enough evidence to form a justified belief about her motives or where she intends to go. In all these films Haneke seems to employ a formula for creating mystery: show events or actions that cry out for explanation and then do not provide the viewer with enough evidence to be justified in accepting any explanation of them.

 

To its credit, Amour does not employ this formula. Moral questions are raised, but they are not questions that we could answer if only we had more empirical evidence, unlike in the other films where, in principle, the questions raised could be answered with more empirical evidence. Contrary to what Haneke says in the indieWIRE interview, a real explanation can be given in a 90 minute film, and at least enough evidence can be presented to enable the viewer to construct such an explanation on reflection. Such an explanation need not be there simply to make the viewer feel better, nor need it be a lie. Perhaps Haneke says what he does because he has an unrealistically high standard for real explanation, one that requires that every event leading up to what is to be explained be itself explained. Haneke seems to have too high a standard for explanation and knowledge and too low a standard of truth.

 

bruce.russell@wayne.edu

View from the Couch
7 Comments to “The Philosopher’s POV Presents: The Films of Michael Haneke”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    I wrote the following comment on Amour when it was the Must See Movie of the Week back in March. I still think it’s apt. I hope you’ll agree.

    There’s a famous example by Frank Jackson, a contemporary Australian philosopher, about a woman he calls Mary. Mary cannot see colors, but she knows everything about vision and light and can identify red and green and blue things, and all sorts of colors, with her color meter. Then one day she gains color vision. For the first time she knows what it’s like to experience red.

    We can THINK about what it’s like to die, what it’s like to have a stroke and lose your ability to move some of your limbs, what it’s like to then lose the ability to speak, to control your bowels and bladder, to be unable to recognize your loved ones, to moan and talk gibberish and call out “hurts.” And we can THINK what it would be like to care for a person we love as she slips away, and then has another stroke and slips further, till there’s nothing left of her except her flesh and bones and the memories you’ve shared. We can THINK how it would be a mercy just to put her out of her misery. Sure, that’s got to be the answer. We’d just let her starve to death or go in and put a pillow over her face. That would be the caring and rational thing to do, don’t you think? It would be just like turning off a light switch. Nothing to it.

    This film is not about THINKING about dying and declining, nor THINKING about caring for a loved one who is. It’s about what it is to EXPERIENCE those things. It’s not about Mary seeing black and white and being able to correctly identify colored things. It’s about Mary experiencing color for the first time.

    The experience of dying can be awful, as it is for Anne, the wife. The experience of caring for your beloved as she is dying can be worse, and sometimes much better, as it is for Georges, the husband. You can KNOW that what’s best for your beloved is for her to die. So just kill her! It’s not so easy. You might tell her she must eat and drink or she’ll die; you might slap her face when she spits out the water. Doesn’t she understand all you are doing for her to keep her alive? How ungrateful! Shame on her! Or you might remember when you were a kid with diptheria, away at summer camp, isolated from you mother, feeling so alone that you wanted to die. And then in a moment of compassion smother your wife to death. Kill her! Some might say murder her! No loving person could do that; only a monster could smother his wife to death! If he was going to kill her, he should have planned a more humane way to bring about her death! She loved you for most of her life. How could you do that to her? “You are not a loving husband”…some might say.

    But if you want to know what it’s like to love someone, and to die, and to love someone who is dying an awful death, you need to see this film. Up till now, you’ve been seeing things in black and white, but when you see Amour you will know what it’s like to see red.

  2. Jolyn Wagner says:

    What a beautiful statement about the heart of this amazing film.
    I hope it inspires those who have avoided seeing Amour because it is “too depressing” to reconsider what they are missing.

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    Over the years, Tom Wartenberg and I have argued in a friendly way about how much philosophy fiction films can do insofar as they do not include explicit philosophical arguments in the dialogue. Tom, and other opponents, find at least implicit philosophical arguments in some films. I, on the other hand, find material in these films that a philosopher might use to construct an argument based on the film. But for me, the film is not doing philosophy. It is merely serving as an inspiration, or occasion, for a philosopher to do philosophy, in virtue of the material contained in the film.

    In any case, I constructed the following argument based on the film and what Tom said about the film in his lecture on Sunday.

    1. You should treat people (and surely your beloved) with dignity.

    2. To treat Anne with dignity, Georges must either do something to keep Anne alive or do something that brings about her death.

    3. If he acts to keep her alive, he must either provide respectful care-giving himself or hire someone who will.

    4. He cannot by himself provide that sort of treatment of Anne.

    5. He cannot find others to provide that sort of treatment (aides that come to the house do not provide it and it would not respect Anne’s wishes to put her in assisted living).

    6. If he acts in a way to bring about Anne’s death, it must either be by starvation or dehydration or giving her an overdose of some drug or by smothering her with a pillow.

    7. Smothering her with a pillow does not respect her dignity (it’s somewhat like killing her by smashing her skull with a rock).

    8. Therefore, Georges should either withhold food or water (or both) or give Anne an overdose of some drug to bring about her death.

    Once the argument is made explicit, we can see which are the questionable premises. Maybe (5) is false. Maybe he could have found respectful caregivers if he had tried harder. He seems to have ignored some of the options listed in (6). The film did not even consider the option of giving her an overdose.

    While it might have been wrong of Georges to kill his wife the way he did, I think he was blameless in doing what he did. His mental state (being exhausted from caring for Anne and being moved by her suffering by the thought of his suffering when a child with diptheria) provides a legitimate excuse for his action, even if it was wrong.

    I think Carol is right in saying that Georges was at the end of his rope and that being in that state WAS PART OF the reason why he smothered Anne to death. But a full interpretation of the film must make sense of his killing Anne right after recalling the story of him as a child behind a glass wall, suffering from diptheria and unable to have contact with his mother. Anne is now in a similar position with respect to Georges, and his memory of what it was like to be isolated from his mother is another part of his motivation for killing Anne.

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    Over the years, Tom Wartenberg and I have argued in a friendly way about how much philosophy fiction films can do insofar as they do not include explicit philosophical arguments in the dialogue. Tom, and other opponents, find at least implicit philosophical arguments in some films. I, on the other hand, find material in these films that a philosopher might use to construct an argument based on the film. But for me, the film is not doing philosophy. It is merely serving as an inspiration, or occasion, for a philosopher to do philosophy, in virtue of the material contained in the film.

    In any case, I constructed the following argument based on the film and what Tom said about the film in his lecture on Sunday.

    1. You should treat people (and surely your beloved) with dignity.

    2. To treat Anne with dignity, Georges must either do something to keep Anne alive or do something that brings about her death.

    3. If he acts to keep her alive, he must either provide respectful care-giving himself or hire someone who will.

    4. He cannot by himself provide that sort of treatment of Anne.

    5. He cannot find others to provide that sort of treatment (aides that come to the house do not provide it and it would not respect Anne’s wishes to put her in assisted living).

    6. If he acts in a way to bring about Anne’s death, it must either be by starvation or dehydration or giving her an overdose of some drug or by smothering her with a pillow.

    7. Smothering her with a pillow does not respect her dignity (it’s somewhat like killing her by smashing her skull with a rock).

    8. Therefore, Georges should either withhold food or water (or both) or give Anne an overdose of some drug to bring about her death.

    Once the argument is made explicit, we can see which are the questionable premises. Maybe (5) is false. Maybe he could have found respectful caregivers if he had tried harder. He seems to have ignored some of the options listed in (6). The film did not even consider the option of giving her an overdose.

    While it might have been wrong of Georges to kill his wife the way he did, I think he was blameless in doing what he did. His mental state (being exhausted from caring for Anne and being moved by her suffering by the thought of his suffering when a child with diptheria) provides a legitimate excuse for his action, even if it was wrong.

    I think Carol is right in saying that Georges was at the end of his rope and that being in that state WAS PART OF the reason why he smothered Anne to death. But a full interpretation of the film must make sense of his killing Anne right after recalling the story of him as a child behind a glass wall, suffering from diptheria and unable to have contact with his mother. Anne is now in a similar position with respect to Georges, and his memory of what it was like to be isolated from his mother is another part of his motivation for killing Anne.

    I add this final sentence only because the site thinks I have already submitted this comment!

  5. Tom Wartenberg says:

    Two quick comments on Bruce’s post, one focused on a premise in his argument and one on his general approach.

    1. Premise 7: I take issue with Bruce’s comparison of Georges smothering Anne with his smashing her skull with a rock. He makes the comparison to bolster his claim that smothering her does not treat her with dignity and that he could have opted for a manner of killing her that did treat her in a more dignified manner. What this draws our attention to is what exactly is involved in treating someone with dignity. The film shows us some ways in which you can violate a person’s dignity: not taking their stated claims to be meaningful or treating them as if they were an infant, both as a result of infirmity. And it does show us some ways in which Georges strives to treat Anne with dignity. But I remain unconvinced that his smothering her is not treating her with dignity.

    2. There is no doubt that Georges’ manner of killing Anne is shocking to us. In fact, Haneke emphasizes this is ways that were not necessary, for example, by having her legs jerk for longer than they might actually. (I have to knowledge of what a person’s body would do when they were being smothered.) Unlike Bruce, at this point I tend to think about what the filmmaker intended and thus to move away from a strictly philosophical discussion of the ethics of Georges’ action. I see Haneke here making a decision about how he wants his audience to view the action, which results in what we see on the screen. So that’s a difference in our two approaches to film, or one difference. This does not entail that it’s not useful to discuss the ethics of Georges’ action, but only to say that, in thinking about the film, I find it useful to adopt a different approach at times.

  6. Bruce Russell says:

    There are lots of ways to approach a film. Someone may be interested in the director’s use of lighting, why he uses a stationary camera rather than a hand-held one, why he keeps the camera trained on one person for a long time with little happening in the scene, etc. I’ll call these “filmic” issues or questions. And, of course, we might consider what philosophical questions a film raises, whether the director intended them or not. To say that we have different approaches to a film just means that we address different questions, say, filmic rather than philosophical ones. I’m not sure what Tom means when he says that he sometimes finds it useful to adopt a different approach. All of them seem legitimate to me though, of course, addressing different questions will throw different light on the film.

    From a philosophical standpoint, I think the question Amour raises is whether it was wrong of Georges to kill Anne, and to kill her in the way he did. If the answer to that question is “yes,” there is the further question of whether Georges was morally blameworthy for his action or blameless because he had a legitimate excuse due the stress he was under and the fact that he was exhausted from caring for Anne.

    It’s true that I compared Georges’ killing Anne by smothering her to his killing her by smashing her head with a rock. At the other end of the spectrum would be giving her a lethal injection. In between are withholding food and withholding water (a hospice doctor told me today it takes about a week for a person who is not given water to die). I thought that smothering a person to death is more like smashing her head with a rock because smothering must induce panic and cause frantic resistance, as we observe in the film. That is not a pleasant way to die; that is not an “easy death.” Refusing water has none of those bad effects, nor does giving a lethal injection. There were various more humane options for killing his wife that Georges did not consider, but, of course, I think we should excuse him for failing to consider them given his mental state.

  7. Bruce Russell says:

    Here’s a comment I left at another place on the blog, but I’m not sure people will go there to read about Amour. It looks like I’m falling into a pattern: post the same comment twice!! See above!

    Da Mayor in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” is supposed to be a wise person. At one point he calls Mookie (Spike Lee) over and tells him in all seriousness how he should live his life. His advice? Always do the right thing! That’s funny, not because it is false but because it gives a person who is wondering what to do no guidance. He wants to do the right thing, but what is the right thing? Should he throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria, thereby sacrificing Sal’s business, or not, thereby sacrificing Sal to the angry mob? Da Mayor’s advice won’t help.

    Kant is somewhat like Da Mayor when he tells us to treat everyone with dignity. Uh, what exactly does that require and forbid? Is killing your wife by smothering her treating her with dignity? How about withholding food or water until she dies? Giving her a lethal injection? How about just letting her decline and die through natural causes, while continuing to provide nutrition and water?

    Kant also tells us to always treat everyone as an end in themselves, never as a mere means. If you give someone an overdose of morphine foreseeing that they will die as a result but you only intend to end their suffering, is that treating them as a mere means? The Catholic Church, based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas, invokes the Doctrine of the Double Effect (DDE) according to which this is not treating someone as a mere means. It’s not clear what “treating someone as a mere means” amounts to. And isn’t it sometimes permissible to treat someone as a mere means? Suppose you are an egoist and care only for yourself. The child of a wealthy couple is drowning in the surf. You are the only one around who can save her (the parents can’t swim; you are an excellent swimmer; no one else is around). You save her only because they promise to give you a big reward if you do; otherwise, you’d walk away. You treat the child as a mere means to further your self-interest, but your act isn’t wrong. Morally, it’s just what you should do.

    In many ways, Kant is the father of Da Mayor. His moral theory sounds good; we can’t see how it’s false (uh, leaving aside the example of the drowning child!). But what specific advice does it give? Watching a film like Amour can give us a better understanding of what the concept of “treating people with dignity” amounts to. In that way, it can supplement Kant’s theory. Then we will be able to tell whether his theory is really a good one; we’ll then be able to test it against examples.

    Already one worry: does it apply to our treatment of animals? Another one: does the rightness or wrongness of an action depend on whether you treat someone with dignity, or as a mere means, or is that only relevant to the morality of your motives or character? We’d condemn the egoist’s motives and character but not his action of saving the child.

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