Caché - Hidden - Michael Haneke - Daniel Auteuil - Georges Laurent - television show - tv studio

2005, directed by Michael Haneke

Caché opens with a static three-minute shot of the Laurents’ house in Paris with little else to distract our attention. The view recurs a few times over the rest of the film, and it’s a good bet that we’re expected to notice something about that house, because we’re given every opportunity to examine it. We don’t need to look beyond the obvious:

  1. It’s a white house.
  2. Its most conspicuous feature is a gigantic bush in front. (The bush stands out enough in the daylight, but in the second videotape it’s positively spotlighted by streetlamps and passing cars.)
  3. The man who lives there is named Georges.

All of this would make an amusing coincidence if it weren’t so pertinent to the movie’s story of discord between the Arabic and Western worlds. George W. Bush was president of the United States in 2005 when Caché was made, and his tenure is best remembered for the September 11 terrorist attacks and his overreaching response to it, which put the clash between Islam and the West in the world’s headlines for most of the decade. Granted, Michael Haneke recycles the names Georges and Anne (or their German or English variants) in most of his films, often with the surname Laurent (which is uncannily close to the name of Bush’s wife Laura) – but that scarcely diminishes how fitting the name is, and Haneke probably recognized it.

Caché - Hidden - Michael Haneke - 49 rue Brillat-Savarin

Haneke has said that Caché was inspired by the Paris massacre of 1961 in which French police beat to death and drowned a large number of Algerian demonstrators. The massacre figures in the plot, having left Majid an orphan when Georges was six years old. The tragedy behind Caché, however, is greater than the sins of French colonialism or the current events that followed from 9/11. The movie is about an enduring wound that continues to split much of our world. The allusions to Bush are not meant just to point fingers at his administration, but to remind us that many of the same hatreds and misunderstandings that divide the French and Algerian peoples also extend across the globe and across the decades, shaping our present world.

The analogy to current events goes deeper than the allusions listed above. Much of the behavior and dialogue would have looked and sounded familiar to anyone who followed global events at the time. Anne and Georges each say twice that they’re being “terrorized” by the anonymous videotapes and cartoonish drawings sent to them, and Georges calls it a “campaign of terror”. Again echoing a common refrain from Western discourse in the early 2000s, Georges complains to Anne that she’s “reacting exactly as he [the anonymous sender] wants.” When the Laurents’ teenage son Pierrot disappears one evening, Georges leads police on a raid of Majid’s home on a suspicion of kidnapping that later proves false, much like George Bush’s invasion of Iraq on a false pretext. After Majid commits suicide, Georges isolates himself in his bedroom and closes the curtains, not unlike Bush hiding in an underground bunker on 9/11.

Caché - Hidden - Michael Haneke - drawing - cartoon - boy - blood - mouth

What the plot of Caché makes clear, and what the title refers to, is that Georges’ defensive and self-pitying posture masks a hidden guilt. Georges’ parents had been on the point of adopting Majid after the boy lost his parents, but Georges lied to keep Majid out of the family, thus depriving him of a good education and opportunities. The corresponding real-world guilt encompasses everything the West has done to exclude the Islamic world from its own world order – from the Crusades and the Reconquista to imperialism and other recent injustices – but the movie is not condemning the West for its distant past, any more than it condemns Georges for his childhood actions. The point is not that he’s fully responsible for what he did to Majid back then, but rather that by failing to acknowledge what he did – even to himself – he will end up compounding his wrongs from long ago. We see enough of Majid and Georges to understand that one of them would be open to a new beginning but the other would not. Georges may be a highly cultured member of the liberal intelligentsia, but his sense of guilt nevertheless predisposes him to assume bad faith in Majid and, apparently, in other persons of color.

Without necessarily being typical of Westerners, Georges represents the West, which as a whole continues to be unwelcoming to Muslims and Arabs. While Georges and Anne discuss Pierrot’s absence, the scene is framed with their television set in the center, broadcasting images of chaos and violence in Iraq and the Gaza Strip with the oddly generic chyron “Mideast” underneath. The West is directly responsible for much suffering in the Islamic world, but for most Westerners the turmoil there is mere background noise, like the news reports that the Laurents ignore, or like Georges’ suppressed memory of his boyhood sins.

Caché - Hidden - Michael Haneke - Maurice Bénichou - Majid

When Georges enters Majid’s apartment and begins to make vague threats, Majid fills in the blank: “Or you’ll kick my ass? That shouldn’t be hard. You’re a lot bigger than the last time.” There’s nothing particularly surprising about his words – Georges is indeed larger than Majid now – but later, in Georges’ office, when Majid’s son says “You’re probably stronger than me,” it sounds strangely incongruous because Majid’s son is larger and apparently much fitter than Georges. Unless we read in his words a sarcasm that his acting doesn’t show, the best explanation is that he’s speaking here not as a character but as a member of the Arab world, which since the late Middle Ages has been at an economic, military, and political disadvantage to the West.

The film’s most memorable moment, possibly apart from the videocassettes and drawings, is Majid’s suicide. It happens so quickly and unexpectedly that one wonders whether it’s even possible, and the splash of blood on his wall is so shocking that it’s become an emblem for the film. In the context of current events his act is an uncomfortable echo of numerous high profile suicide attacks, including those of 9/11. There is no suggestion of excusing those acts of terror, but we can still recognize that the real blame for them usually lies with cynical and powerful persons who do not share the long-term pain that makes it so easy to recruit suicide attackers. We do not have to approve of terrorism to admit that systematic injustices in the Arab world drive people there to respond with suicidal desperation. If Caché is more critical of the West, it’s not because the Islamic world is blameless but rather because of the asymmetry between the two sides. Whoever has the advantage also has greater responsibility. It’s not a good look when rich countries wage asymmetric warfare against desperately poor peoples.

Caché - Hidden - Michael Haneke - Daniel Auteuil - Juliette Binoche - Georges Laurent - Anne Laurent - sofa

The mystery of the videotapes is never answered, at least not in the way a casual viewer might wish – but when the doorbell rings during a dinner party, Georges steps outside to find nobody there, and on his way back inside he trips over a new videocassette that he could hardly have missed before. This clue should tell us what we should figure out anyway, i.e. that the tapes are not real. They’re a projection of Georges’ guilt rising to his consciousness.

By translating geopolitics into a personal story, Caché puts a human face on realities that often come to us as abstract or distant. Its value depends on how well the story corresponds to reality, and of course it won’t correspond in every respect, but it ought to be close enough to help viewers see their world more accurately. Its chief insight is expressed right after Majid’s suicide when Georges goes to a cinema, evidently to decompress from the stress of what he witnessed. On his way out he walks right under the poster for a movie called Deux frères (Two Brothers). If we’ve watched intently, Caché should help us to feel the tragedy in Georges’ lost opportunity – not only that he and Majid could have been brothers, but that he’s squandering his second chance to embrace Majid as a brother. If we can believe the movie’s argument, the same thing is happening between Western and Islamic countries.

Caché - Hidden - Michael Haneke - Daniel Auteuil - Walid Afkir - Georges Laurent - Majid's son - elevator

The ending of Caché leaves the story open. During a four-minute shot of the steps at Pierrot’s school, Majid’s son approaches Pierrot for a brief conversation. We cannot hear their words, but the interaction looks cordial. The movie cannot make any promises or predictions, but it can leave us with a hope that like these two youths, the next generation will put an end to the long-standing clash between two great cultures.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Story about the effects of suppressed guilt; guilty man leads a pair of police officers to apprehend his imagined source of evil

Black Girl – Allegory for relations between France and its African colonies; white guilt and fear of the “other”

Lost Highway – A married couple receives mysterious surveillance videotapes of their home

Kingdom of Heaven – 2005 film that puts the conflict between Islam and the West in historical perspective as a response to the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”