Michael Haneke: ‘I hope all my films are obscene’
The film-maker abhors violence, but he can’t help putting it in his work
“I hope all my films are provocative and obscene,” Michael Haneke says. “And by ‘obscene’ I mean I hope the films contradict generally held opinions. Any drama that takes itself seriously sets out to contradict commonly held opinions.”
That’s you told.
Haneke is an obliging presence. He answers every question in patient, measured German. He laughs more often than you might suspect. But you still wouldn’t say that he warms up the room. On a blistering day at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Michael spreads an unseasonal chill through the Hotel Majestic. The effect is quite soothing.
The Austrian director, stringy, grey and bearded at 75, has an impressive record at this event. Both The White Ribbon, a fable about the birth of fascism, and Amour, a story of how we die, won the Palme d’Or.
That puts him in an elite club. Amour went on to win the Oscar for best foreign language film. As Happy End, his latest lunge for obscenity, has its premier, Haneke thus finds himself in an interesting place.
Shocking early films such as Funny Games (1997) and Benny’s Video (1992) established him as whatever the middle-aged equivalent of an enfant terrible might be. It is not so easy to break taboos when you’re part of the artistic establishment.
“Many of my films have been successful and then people wonder will the next one be as successful,” he sighs. “That’s somewhat of a burden. Success is something of a burden. You can’t expect to always get better – to always improve. Sometimes you manage to be more successful in representing a theme. Sometimes you can’t. If you can’t accept that then you can’t do this work.”
The response to Happy End has been mixed. Nobody is in any doubt that it looks like a Haneke film – austere, pessimistic, at home to cool, enigmatic images – but critics have had trouble locating the core of the story.
The action seems to begin (that word “seems” appears often in synopses of Haneke films) with a young girl poisoning her hamster and then her own mother. We move to squabbles between her bourgeois family in an upmarket area of Calais. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the tortured husband of a dying woman in Amour, plays the sinister pater familias. Isabelle Huppert is an efficient daughter.
“The real impetus was to work again with Jean-Louis Trintignant, who announced he would come out of retirement for Michael Haneke alone,” he says. “The overall theme is the situation that affects all of us: the ignorance we have to the world all around us. This is not the first time that I am handling that subject. There is a young girl who poisons her mother and writes about it on the internet. That was something I read about a few years ago and I wanted to use in a film for a very long time.”
That at least seems certain. We are sure the girl was trying to kill her mother? Are we? I trust nothing here.
“I do want it to be unclear,” he says firmly. “Ambiguity is something I always want to cultivate. I would give the ending of Hidden as an example. Here, we don’t know if the girl was setting up to kill her mother or just wanted to calm her down for a while. Those possible interpretations are all there.”
The ending of Hidden, his oblique 2005 thriller, does, indeed, offer the most intriguing example of Hanekian ambiguity. Many claim to have seen vital clues in the blank shot of inaudible discussions in front of a busy school. Others feel there aren’t even red herrings here. He has always stressed that the audience helps create the finished film in its own head. How far can this go? There must be limits to his tolerance. There must come a point when he thinks: no, that interpretation is beyond nonsense.
“Of course you have to deal with that,” he says. “It depends who’s watching the film. It depends how they react to it. By making a film like this you are opening yourself up to misunderstanding. That is justified since I am making films that the spectator completes in their own head. What I see as a dumb misunderstanding I have to accept. That’s the viewer’s truth. The only work of art that provokes a single opinion is propaganda.”
It took a long time for Haneke to release his first feature. Born in Munich, but raised in and around Vienna, he studied philosophy at that city’s university and went on to write film criticism. Most of the 1970s and 1980s were spent working in the theatre and on television. It was not until 1989 that he made this feature debut with the typically uncompromising The Seventh Continent. The films that came after – 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, The Piano Teacher – cemented his reputation as the bleakest class of humanist. He abhors violence, but he can’t help putting violence in his films (even if the camera self-consciously looks away at point of contact).
“Before I made my first theatrical feature I made a number of television films and I spent years working for the stage,” he says. “That allowed me the time to find my own language. If I’d started making theatrical features earlier then the influences from other directors might have been perceptible. It’s risky to look back and try to draw out a single line.”
Critics have sensed a softening in the aesthetic over the last decade. Amour, The White Ribbon and Happy End remain as grim as ever, but they are less violently confrontational than the early work.
“I hope I am changing,” he says. “At the same time I have heard the opposite opinion of the later films. People have told me that Amour was the film that most shocked them. I never think I am I making a film that will be more provocative or less provocative than the last. Different people respond differently. Each time I try to find the optimal form. I try to find the form that meets the theme I am dealing with.”
Yet the gloom prevails. The title of Happy End is, as every Cannes punter wryly predicted, archly ironic (though maybe not in the way you expect). Are we wrong to think of him as pessimistic?
“Who looks at the modern world with any degree of seriousness and sees much to be happy about. I am puzzled by that. I don’t consider myself to be a pessimist, but a realist. What I see about me scares me.”
As we speak, right-wing parties are rallying in Europe. In his own country, the Freedom Party is on the rise. The warnings of The White Ribbon are still relevant.
“It’s awful,” he agrees. “And I find Donald Trump just as awful. Yes, it is because when we are all afraid we lunge for what we call a strong leader.”
We need Haneke in such times. Tell me the title of Happy End does not also point towards his own retirement.
“Wait and see. Wait and see,” he says with something like a laugh.
What did you expect? An answer?
Five key Michael Haneke films
There are no real turkeys in Haneke’s peculiar career. Here are the most important films.
Funny Games (1997)
Haneke probably means the home-invasion drama to be as conflicting as it turned out. An argument against violence that is eerily at home to violence. He made a shot-for-shot remake in 2007 starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth.
The Piano Teacher (2001)
Isabelle Huppert plays a disturbed music teacher in Haneke’s version of Elfriede Jelinek’s transgressive novel. The director’s only adaptation.
Huppert and Daniel Auteuil play a harried couple in a tense, enigmatic thriller that touches on France’s colonial past.
The White Ribbon (2009)
Haneke won the first of his Palmes d’Or for this icily beautiful monochrome study of errant children in a German town during the inter-war years. Perhaps his best film.
Hanke won both an Oscar and a Palme d’Or for a dark – but sensitive – drama following an elderly woman as she succumbs to a stroke.
Happy End is released on December 1st