'The pessimists are those who treat the audience as stupid'
It’s well known that Michael Haneke refuses to answer interpretative questions on his work, and in person the director proves as puzzling as his films
Living life as Michael Haneke must be a difficult business. People expect so much. And people expect such odd things. The Austrian director, now 70, did not direct his first feature until he was in his late 40s. Over the following decade, he developed a reputation as a sort of high-brow cultural terrorist. The nippily titled 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance revolved around a mass killing. Benny’s Video began with pig being slaughtered. Funny Games took in more mindless slaying.
Haneke received many strong reviews, but he also attracted great degrees of suspicion.
It would be wrong to suggest that his films have softened over the past few years. He does, however, seem to have become a deal less aggressively provocative. Consider the extraordinary Amour. Detailing the slow decline of an elderly woman in an elegant French apartment, the picture offers the viewer a gruelling experience, but it is also humane, touching and heart-breakingly tender. The jury at Cannes were, earlier this year, sufficiently impressed to award Amour the Palme d’Or. It followed Haneke’s success with The White Ribbon in 2009, making him one of only seven film-makers to have taken the top prize on two occasions.
He has gone beyond mere respectability. He is now as admired in his own time as Ingmar Bergman was in his. Such adulation brings pressure.
“Success is always a pressure,” he agrees. “People are always waiting for your next film to be better than the one you have just made. And I put pressure on myself. But it would be very hypocritical to say I am sorry about success. There are worse things to live with.”
And he laughs. No, really.
Such is the austere, pessimistic nature of Haneke’s films – we’ll get to his rejection of those adjectives later – that one could be forgiven for expecting an interview with the great man to play out like a chat with the lord of the flies. It’s not quite like that. He rarely (thank heavens) comes across like Robin Williams; comedy Scotsmen are not in evidence. But, buried beneath the angular Austrian demeanour, there lurks a playful mischievousness. He seems to enjoy making you toil.
Let’s have a crack at Amour. The picture stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, two giants of French cinema, as Georges and Anne, an elderly couple living in an upmarket area of Paris. In painful, rigorous detail, Haneke takes us through Anne’s experiences after suffering a stroke. Her husband oscillates between despair, anger and pity. We know from the beginning that she will not live long.
“It began with a personal experience,” he says slightly cryptically. “I was interested in the effect the suffering of a loved one can have upon a person. Everything actually grew out of working on the subject. It could just as well have been about a young mother with a sick child. But that would have been a special case. The idea here was to have a more general case – something that we can all expect to experience.”
Why set almost the whole film in one (admittedly quite large) apartment? It feels like a challenge to the audience: can you bear the claustrophobia? “There are two points,” he says. “There is the banal reason: when you are ill you are constricted to your own four walls. The second point is that, when dealing with a subject, you need a structure suitable to the material. And here it was the classical unities of time, space and action.”
That all seems clear. Speaking through an excellent interpreter (who he doesn’t really seem to need), Haneke delivers his answers in the calm, dispassionate manner of a railway official listing all stops on the train from Vienna to Hamburg.
Let’s push him a bit further. He famously refuses to accept or refute any interpretations of his sometimes puzzling films. But there does appear to be something like a political “message” lurking within Amour. Inevitably, as Anne declines, the question of assisted dying arises. The film does seem to offer tacit support for those gravely ill people who elect to take that path.
“On principle I don’t answer interpretive questions because the interpretation must be open to the audience. If I were to answer it would be unhelpful,” he says with terrifying finality.
Okay. We’ll approach this from another angle. Setting the film aside, would he be prepared to make some general comments regarding his opinions on assisted dying? “My personal opinion isn’t the question here.” Well, actually it was. But never mind.
In his acceptance speech at Cannes, he suggested that the film emerged from an agreement he had made with his wife concerning the circumstances of their deaths. That sounded like some sort of definitive statement.
“That was something of a misunderstanding, to put it mildly,” he says. “When I gave the ‘thank you’ speech at Cannes I did say it was the realisation of a promise I had made to my wife. But that was just to do with us not being delivered to hospital. It had nothing to do with us killing one another.”
What exactly does that mean? “There are other possibilities,” he says. “People die at home. Women don’t necessarily have to be killed. In earlier times it was perfectly normal that sickness and death were part of everyday life. Since the second World War or so that has changed. We are shut off from that now.”
Slaps in the face
Haneke was born in Munich as the son of two actors. Raised in Vienna, he studied philosophy and drama at university before manoeuvring his way into German television. “My parents didn’t in any sense prescribe my life for me,” he ponders. “Yes, my parents were both actors. My stepfather was a composer. So there were a lot of different possibilities. I wanted to be an actor or maybe a musician. I ended up in a job where I could do all of those things.”
After two decades as an editor, dramaturge and director for the small screen, he eventually made his feature debut with The Seventh Continent in 1989. Beginning as he intended to go on, Haneke conceived a film about an Austrian family that killed themselves.
I assume he will look puzzled if I suggest that his films tend towards the pessimistic.
“I don’t look at myself from above. It is the job of the cultural journalist to make those decisions. But, no, I don’t find myself pessimistic at all. For me, the pessimists are those in the mainstream who treat the audiences as more stupid than they actually are.”
What about the notion that – in the first decade of his film-making career, at least – he deliberately set out to unnerve and shock his audience? In The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert mutilates her own genitals. In Funny Games, two culturally undernourished young men massacre an innocent family. And so forth.
“Funny Games was certainly a slap in the face,” he says. “I was angry and I wanted to pass that slap on to others. Benny’s Video was not done deliberately in order to shock anybody. But it dealt with shocking, difficult things. Shocking for the sake of shocking is a pubescent thing to do. I don’t see any of this. It is always other people who make these comments.”
At any rate, it now seems like a long time since Michael Haneke was seen as being even faintly disreputable. Indeed, the universal critical acclaim directed towards The White Ribbon and Amour has enhanced the reputation of the earlier work. Troubling films such as Funny Games and Hidden now look like frantic attempts to find a route through contemporary moral disarray.
Those pictures were not so nihilistic as they appeared on the surface. Just because the characters had given up on humanity that did not mean the director was similarly awash with despair.
“Of course, that’s true,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous position. In most films you will have lots of characters with different positions. Yes, you have thought or heard these opinions in life. But the fact that you’re playing Richard III doesn’t mean you’re a murderer.”
Sure enough, Amour may play like the work of a man who is prepared to look deeply into life’s darkest corners. But it is also powered by an empathy for human beings and an interest in what keeps them driving forward. That title is not in any way ironic. The film really engages with the risks we take when we chose to love.
Still, there is no escaping the grim terminus towards which Emmanuelle Riva’s character is headed.
Though thin and bony, Michael Haneke seems alert for a man entering his eighth decade. He must, however, have found his thoughts turning to his own mortality while shooting Amour.
“I think about my own mortality all the time,” he says with a genuine chortle. “But not specifically for this film. I consider that often.” Hang on. Isn’t he playing directly into the caricature of Haneke as an unstoppable pessimist? “No. I think about my mortality all the time. But that doesn’t make me a pessimist.”
As I say, talking to Michael Haneke is not like talking to Robin Williams.