Austrian director Michael Haneke, who turned 65 this year and who began his career with mid-'70s Euro TV, has had quite an autumn-years run—between 2000 and 2005, he gave us Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf, and Caché, four magisterial and disarmingly anxious masterpieces that have still not received their international due. (All right, Caché hit like a slot machine at Cannes, and was, stunningly, something of an art-house hit here, but still, cinephiles swoon over Assayas, Hou, and the Dardennes in ways you never catch them talking up Haneke.) The Bush II–era works represent a substantial maturation and sophistication for Haneke, as well as a willingness to delve into chaotic emotional maelstroms (rather than numb, unaffected "glaciation," the term he adopted to describe his first features). Still, he's always been a sly, crafty, and gravely serious artist, and the first films—scantly released here—are all executed with an inquisitive, and sometimes devastating, intelligence.

But something held Haneke back: a tendency toward preachifying, coupled with an abiding fascination with homicidal violence. Benny's Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997) represent this darkling side of Haneke's sensibility, both of them exploring sociopathic disaffection in ways that attempt to implicate us, the audience, in the stories' bloodshed. Issues of spectatorship—of recording and watching violence—have always obsessed Haneke, but, in these two films at least, the accusations he hurls at the viewer feel cheap and unjust. Is Haneke supposing we're all as alienated from the costs and guilt of interpersonal mayhem as his protagonists? Is watching them the same as being complicit? Funny Games in particular is directly, smugly confrontational about what it presumes to be our enjoyment of torture and murder, when in fact the real-life relationship at work is even simpler: Haneke created the narrative material, and we are just bystanders. Would he rather we not watch?

Funny Games (which, strangely enough, Haneke is remaking in Hollywood, with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) wouldn't be as wrongheaded if Haneke weren't so ambitious about the morality of violence, and his other early films preserve this ethical horror without the blamestorming. His first feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), is a concise, methodical, uncomfortable portrait of the inexplicable autodestruction of a nuclear family. Based in some detail upon a real incident, the movie observes dispassionately as a father, mother, and young daughter, living in a middle-upper-class Vienna flat, systematically empty out their lives and prepare for a self-involved date with the grave. That no explanation is offered is both Haneke's point and a method for being true to the characters' reality, but even realizing where the film's narrative has begun to skid does not help us overcome the gritty horror of property decimation, filicide, and bitter poisoning. (The cumulative effect of seeing every material aspect of our modern lives calmly decimated and destroyed, from fish tanks to appliances to furniture, is so bizarrely disquieting it's hard to imagine that Haneke could have foreseen it when he started the film.) It may come off as blithely grim and even sophomoric in outline, but the experience is unique, and never exploitative.

If the Haneke we've embraced recently displays a breadth and vision that reaches far beyond the quotidian (psychology, self-reflexivity, and political resonance are areas he used to avoid), the first-phase Haneke was clearly inspired by the unanswerable existential questions rising like fumes from the most dreadful of ordinary newspaper stories. Such was the genesis as well for 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), a weave-narrative foreshadowing of Code Unknown that states flat out that it will culminate with an impromptu public massacre. But the movie's structure is not coyly serendipitous, but mercilessly, and unironically, matter-of-fact—we glimpse, in simple setups bookended by blackouts, a couple attempting a disastrous adoption, an old pensioner resigning himself to an empty life, a refugee boy surviving on the street, sallow parents coping with a sick infant, a student buying a stolen gun. (As with Benny's Video and, most fruitfully, Caché, the world's televised news haunts the background.) The film's Endsville, when we reach it, is almost an anticlimax, thanks to the masterfully orchestrated ensemble acting and the countless dramatic miniexplosions that are unleashed along the way.