I don’t know why, but we’re all rather incapable of dealing with one another.

Dialogue from Michael Haneke’s Lemmings

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, soon-to-be major British filmmakers like Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh were developing their craft far from the eyes of most international moviegoers and film-festival programmers — on television. The same appears to have been true in Austria, at least in the case of Caché director Michael Haneke, eight of whose TV films have been subtitled into English and are touring North America for the first time as part of the Boston University–curated retrospective “Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation,” which runs through the end of the month at the Silent Movie Theatre.

Haneke, whose debut theatrical film, The Seventh Continent, was released in 1989, spent the first 15 years of his movie career working exclusively for the small screen — not, he once told me, for lack of offers to make theatrical features, but by his own choice. “I wanted to find my own language,” he said. When I see the films now, it’s obvious that Haneke figured things out rather quickly. In fact, to say that Haneke merely “got his start” in television is about as inadequate as saying that Picasso got his start in landscape painting. Rather, he created an entire body of work there, exploring a series of key themes that have continued to surface in his better-known recent films. Enlarging Haneke’s filmography nearly twofold, these early works are powerful, startling movies about the human failure to communicate, and our astonishing capacity for physical and emotional violence.

Haneke’s TV filmography is itself composed of two distinct halves: those films drawn from novels and those based on original scripts authored or co-authored by Haneke. Of the former, it is perhaps more fitting to think of them as “translations” rather than “adaptations,” so committed is Haneke to the idea of directly transposing the source material from page to screen, complete with omniscient third-person narrators and long passages of literary voice-over. The earliest of these in this retrospective, 1976’s Three Paths to the Lake, feels somewhat hemmed in by that technique (and by its overly literal title metaphor) as it tells the story of a spinster photojournalist reflecting back on the disappointments of her life.

But The Rebellion (1993)— one of two telefilms made by Haneke after beginning his big-screen career — is a brilliantly realized version of the Joseph Roth novel about the series of humiliations that befall decorated WWI vet Andreas Pum (the excellent stage actor Brano Samarovski), until he is reduced to serving as a bathroom attendant and comes to question the mercy of God. Filmed in faded sepia tones punctuated by bursts of color that are as fleeting as Andreas Pum’s happiness, this harrowing portrait of human suffering is also the most direct tip of the hat Haneke has made to one of his own acknowledged filmmaking masters: Robert Bresson.

Among Haneke’s original TV films, Lemmings (1979) is pure cinema — and pure Haneke — right from the hypnotic opening tracking shot: a row of automobiles being thrashed by unseen vandals while Paul Anka’s “I’m Just a Lonely Boy” wails prophetically on the soundtrack. Told in two parts, it is set in Haneke’s own childhood town of Neustadt, beginning as a cruel story of youth and ending as an even crueler tale of middle-aged malaise as it follows a loose-knit circle of friends over 20 years of history and 200 minutes of screen time. It is a film with the span and depth of a great novel, but also the sensory thrall of great moviemaking — very bold in its use of long ?takes and punctuated by moments of almost unbearable emotional intensity. Moreover, it is a film of enormous humanity, if one takes humanity to mean the study of humankind at its most exemplary and deplorable — of wives who grow tired of their husbands, of parents who gaze upon their children with a terrifying mixture of love and scorn, and of ordinary men and women who may prefer suicide to the herculean task of trudging forth from one day to the next. Many of the same things can be said of Haneke’s later Variation (1983), in which it is the husband (a college professor) who grows tired of his wife, embarking on an affair with a bisexual journalist (Monica Belibreu, who also appears in Lemmings Part 2), who in turn abandons her own theater-diva lover.

Perhaps the most impressive of Haneke’s TV films is Fraulein (1986), in which a potential wartime weepie — the story of a movie projectionist reunited with her MIA husband 10 years after the close of World War II — becomes another throbbing, ingrown study of human frailty. Majestically shot in black and white (by Walter Kindler), the images exude strange, transfixing beauty — a marital bed transformed into a vast, unnavigable ocean; small-town Austria photographed as though it were the Monument Valley of John Ford. It is also the first (but hardly the last) of Haneke’s films to comment directly on our communal lust for cinematic illusion, as the main character longs for the romantic escapism of the movies (including the celebrated 1943 UFA Studios version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)she projects.

The rest you know, or most of it anyway. Haneke’s work from The Seventh Continent on was the subject of a recent LACMA retrospective and is presently available on DVD. Starting with The Piano Teacher (2001), he has enjoyed regular commercial releases of his films in North America, culminating in the $4 million domestic gross of Caché in 2005 (and the subsequent announcement that it was due for a Ron Howard makeover). Collectively, Haneke’s work is a compelling counterargument to the myriad Antonioni and Bergman obituaries that bemoaned the death of movies able to make audiences linger outside the theater, arguing into the night. Still, there are those who continue to dismiss Haneke as a low-rent shock artist, and even the umbrella title of this series pegs him as a provocateur. That’s not entirely without cause, as anyone who has witnessed Caché’s gasp-inducing throat slitting can attest. But the most disturbing and violent moments in Haneke’s films remain the quietest — those hesitant, unfulfilled gestures toward human connection, like distant sparks swallowed by darkness.

MICHAEL HANEKE: A CINEMA OF PROVOCATION | The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Saturdays, through Nov. 24 | www.silentmovie?theatre.com

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