'The pessimists are those who treat the audience as stupid'
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.