While the provincial Austrian town of Neustadt sleeps through another colorless night at the end of the '50s, a faceless vandal smashes the windows and mirrors of a line of parked cars and rips off the hood ornaments. The wordless opening sequence of Michael Haneke's powerhouse made-for-TV Lemmings (1979), like the suburban lawn teeming with rapacious insects at the beginning of Blue Velvet, signals that all is not well beneath the manicured bourgeois veneer. In fact, what lies ahead is a stark Fassbinderian melodrama of adultery, sadism, suicide, and divorce. At this stage of Haneke's career, his scabrous view of human nature later expressed so excruciatingly in Funny Games (both versions) and The Piano Teacher still includes a whiff of empathy. Lemmings, which comprises two feature-length films and indeed features a character jumping to his death, is not just the highlight of Bitter Pills: Michael Haneke Made-for-Television, but a revelation. Like Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, whose uncompromising dramas for British television also presaged important careers in the cinema, Haneke displayed an early acuity at eliciting raw, vulnerable performances that devastatingly illustrate the soul-crushing hypocrisy that is the by-product of stifling social convention. Haneke's gift for turning middle-class entropy into a spectator sport has to be seen to be appreciated.
Lemmings screens today at 4 and 7:30 p.m.
Thu., June 12; June 14-15; Thu., June 19, 2008