“We are what we pretend to be. So we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Our society has reached a point where we can only function through uninhibited acts of voyeurism. We watch people as we have never done before. Perversion has become commonplace. We capture versions of ourselves for others to pore over, and yet secrets remain. We feel we can continue in boredom and solitude, or else in filtered comfort, if only we are certain of our own well-being. But it is a terrifying thing to know your own life can become so strange, so alien, merely through the act of being watched; not through the one-way shine of a computer screen (for this has become ritual), but from the siding of a street in broad daylight. And when we begin to consider the frailty, paper-thin, of our civilised safety; this is the road to some form of madness.
And so a family life is disrupted, even ruptured, by the arrival of strange video tapes. The husband is a TV personality. He is watched by millions, but this form of watching scares him. We get the feeling that he knows more than his wife. They have a son. They are busy, and do not spend time with each other. He visits his mother. Bed-bound, she encapsulates this strange vision of living in full view, yet utterly forsaken. She wonders if her son feels less lonely in the eye of the public. The answer, of course, is no. He is alone, and full of anger. He follows his suspicions. He confronts an Algerian named Majid, a figure from his childhood, and from the childhood of the European nations. There is a terrible spasm of violence. He returns to his life, but we cannot know if anything has changed.
Earlier in the film, the husband is almost run down by a cyclist. The man is black. They shout at each other in the street. His wife tries to intervene. It is the most unsubtle moment in the film. But it establishes Haneke’s singular intent: to represent the legacy of nationhood in microcosm. We are, even if we don’t know it, wallowing in our prosperities. And these are constructed upon our nation’s involvement in historical horrors. The idea that a childhood slight, however seemingly insignificant, can return in darkness to ruin the course of a life; this is terrifying. Here is a vision of how individual guilt, the culpability of a single man and woman for a tragedy, is reflected in our collective national shame. Many have pointed to the night of October 17, 1961, and the murder of Algerian demonstrators in the Paris streets. We are reminded that everything, however frivolous, is fuel for the voyeur these days, but atrocities remain hidden or forgotten.
There is a scene in Hidden that is crucial, yet incredibly easy to miss. It occurs beneath the scrolling of the end credits, amidst a dense mise en scène outside a school. Two characters, who should not know each other (and share no screen time), come together for a conversation. This could be an explanation of the film’s great mystery. I hope not. I’m inclined to think that it is some kind of hopeful representation of the future. The sins of the fathers are to be wiped away, and the victimised nations come to an understanding, or at least peaceful accord, with their victimisers. And we watch, but we do not see, in the way of all people who are bombarded by an unending tirade of things that do not matter.