Michael Haneke’s film won the best director prize at Cannes in 2005. The plot is simple. Georges, a successful public intellectual with his own television program, and his wife Anne receive an hours-long video tape which shows only the front of their home from across the street. The sole purpose of the tape seems to be to make them aware that they are being watched. Disturbing drawings follow. There then follows a video shot from a car. A visible street name allows them to trace the location as a run-down apartment block.

This leads Georges to the flat of Majid, an Algerian man who turns out to be someone from his past. That this visit is also being secretly recorded becomes apparent when it becomes the content of a later tape. In what appear to be flashbacks, we learn that when he was six years old, Georges’ parents were on the point of adopting Majid, the same age as Georges and the son of their Algerian farmhands. Majid’s parents had disappeared after what was called the Seine river massacre. This was an incident in 1961 during the Algerian War for Independence when demonstrators in favour of independence were shot or drowned in the Seine by the French police. The Seine river massacre was not officially acknowledged until 1998.

Georges’ parents prepare to adopt him, but disturbed by the six year old’s story that Majid killed a cockerel in order to scare him, the boy is sent to an orphanage. The disturbing drawings are connected to this incident.

The tapes are intruding past events into the comfortable present, destabilizing Georges’ composure, his marriage, perhaps his relationship with his son. His reticence regarding his past creates a growing distance between Georges and his family. Georges’ mother does not believe him and his wife Anne realizes she cannot trust him. Their son Pierrot disappears overnight without leaving any word. Georges thinks he may have been kidnapped and takes the police to Majid’s apartment where Majid and his own son are arrested. They are released the following morning in the absence of any evidence and subsequently Pierrot turns up after staying overnight with a friend.

Georges again confronts Majid in his apartment. However this time, Majid makes Georges the witness to his self-destruction, slitting his own throat in his own room.

The final shot, over which the end-credits play, is a similar long take of the school entrance and students coming and going and milling about. Many viewers, as I did, miss two of the characters, Georges’ son and Majid’s son, meeting.


The story is one about guilt and denial and their consequences. Majid’s parents did not return from the demonstration. Majid’s son tells Georges that when he was sent to the orphanage his father was deprived of an education and all the other advantages that Georges had. He tells Georges that the orphanage teaches hatred not politeness and that ‘my father raised me well’.

The plot at one level follows the conventions of detective cinema but the filming subverts the mechanism. What appears to be an establishing shot lasts about 5 minutes. The opening titles are spelt out line after line so that the all appear in the single shot. It then turns out that this isn’t an establishing shot at all but a video recording that has been sent to the owners of the house. They speak over the recording and we see the effect of rewinding and fast forwarding. The entire tape lasts several hours and was delivered to the couple unseen. It isn’t clear where it was shot from. We watch George as he looks down the street towards the place the camera must have been but we cannot see what he sees, or fails to see, because the angle is wrong and we are now looking along the street where he lives, not across it.

Some critics have tried to solve the puzzle. Roger Ebert in one post suggested that there is a crucial scene that provides a clue. The recording of the first confrontation in Majid’s flat is disconcerting. The meeting has been filmed from behind Georges, something we discover later when the tape is sent to him. But for this to happen Majid has to sit down on a chair placed by the door, an odd position to sit in your own flat. He denies any knowledge of the earlier tapes or the drawings but if he wasn’t aware of the surveillance videos why sit there?

In fact we never do learn who is doing the filming or how it was done. The film doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. Its central concern is not to discover who and why or how the events are being constructed.


But the question about a film’s meaning is probably best answered by reflecting on which film you actually saw. For me, the first part of this feels like a very cleverly made detective film with high production values and a much stronger cast than appears to be needed; the kind of film or television program where the plot is driven by a the criminal investigation but the principal interest is character and place and social, political and cultural context.

The significance of the original childhood event is that it is in its way not significant. Attempts to apply judgements fail because it is contextual. The past resurfaces in Georges’ life and destabilizes it but you feel a six year old can’t carry this kind of guilt. In a different film it might perhaps be a psychological study, a story about the impact of a personal failure that was never rectified.

In this instance what has been a private drama makes contact with a particular public event and its aftermath. Through the incident of the massacre of the Seine, the story of the suppression of past actions is repeated, this time in the way the events of the Algerian War of Independence were not officially acknowledged for around 40 years.

There is no need I think to over interpret this: repetition, in this case repetition on different scales, is the one of the basic techniques for building a work of art. As a consequence of this broadening out of the focus, we become less interested in solving the puzzle. It is never made clear who made the video tapes or how. I think it is right to make the film this way and there is no reason to suppose it isn’t intentional. Any resolution of the puzzle following the conventions of detective cinema risks changing the meaning of the film.

The events of 1961 have not been resolved and the films failure to dissipate the opaqueness of the events it covers is a proxy for this. Many commentaries, such as this one in Film Quarterly (*) in my view impose the political on the private. However, this and similar commentaries demonstrate that this openness to different perspectives avoids the premature closure and the imposition of an interpretation that a resolution would have brought.