Director Michael Haneke with French actress Juliette Binoche
Director Michael Haneke with French actress Isabelle Huppert
Director Michael Haneke with French actress Emmanuelle Riva and actor Jean-Louis Trintignant on the set of Amour
Director Michael Haneke with French actress Isabelle Huppert after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Amour
Michael Haneke: Unpredictability, Spectatorship & Minimalism. Hannah McHaffie, November 29, 2013
Michael Haneke is arguably the most discussed and debated contemporary European film maker. Having directed both television and theatre, and having worked briefly as a film critic, Haneke started directing cinema at a later point in his career. His films have divided audiences with their unpredictability and their often violent nature. Criticisms of the middle classes along with his negative feelings towards meaningless entertainment combine to form the underlying tensions and messages of Michael Haneke’s work. Haneke is not afraid to challenge his spectator.
Throughout his career he has used cinema to create uncomfortable atmospheres for the audience. Yet, there is a precision and simplicity that he applies to his aesthetic that combines with the stories he tells, making his body of work visual stunning, deeply moving and incredibly important within the contemporary landscape of world cinema. Haneke’s films relies heavily on ‘counter-cinema’. It takes the spectator’s reaction and involvement in his work to complete the piece. Some films rely more heavily on this than others. For example Funny Games attempted to make the spectator suffer, watching a film about a family being tortured in their own home.
Haneke wanted the audience to struggle with the topic as an attempt to respond to the mindless conventional horror films that American audiences consume. His early work, such as Benny’s Video, dealt with similar displays of raw violence and unpredictability but it was not until 2001 that he produced his first true masterpiece. The Piano Teacher, telling the story of a sadomasochistic pianist and her volatile affair with a younger student, combined an elegance and an ugliness that Haneke had not achieved before. The film incorporated immense stillness with sudden moments of grotesque bodily harm and mutilation. This play on the melodrama dealt with repression in a way that has since returned in his later work.
In 2009 Haneke won his first Palme d’Or for his suffocating drama The White Ribbon. (He remains one of only 6 directors to win more than one). A film that looks at suffering, repressed desire and unexplained and unsolved violence, The White Ribbon made great use of the static camera and long takes in order to capture the turmoil that was being experienced on screen. One scene depicts a young boy, Martin, having to admit to his manipulating father that he has been giving in to his sexual urges. Mortified and broken, Martin remains still, attempting to contain his emotions. This remains one of the most moving cinematic scenes to come out of European art house cinema in the last decade.
Haneke’s aesthetic combines the use of the interior space, a stationary camera and a slightly de-saturated colour palette to capture the bleakness of the stories he tells. His typical mise-en-scène appears to be influenced by his days as a stage director; the shots being more theatre like. This minimalistic approach to the aesthetic has been described by film scholar Catherine Wheatley as “clinical”. The individuality of his style has gone on to inspire many other European film makers who are currently working. Austrian film maker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, for example, was blatantly inspired by Haneke’s cinematic image.
With his heavy influence over other talented film makers and his consistent themes, styles and signatures, Haneke is undoubtedly a cinematic auteur. His films are always unpredictable, often ambiguous and, in the words of writer Ricardo Domizio, “never an ‘easy ride’.” (2011) Michael Haneke excites, punishes and moves his audience; continuing to prove that there is no story too sad, too violent or too ugly that can’t be told through the power of the cinematic image.
Central Europe Review - Film: Michael Haneke - Transitions Online Andrew J. Horton, October 26, 1998
When a director announces "I wish you a disturbing evening" before the showing of his latest film, you probably are not in for an easy ride. If he says it with cheerful abandon, you have all the more reason to take him seriously, or so discovered Londoners attending the recent retrospective of five films by the controversial existentialist director Michael Haneke, part of the Festival of Central European Culture.
Haneke, who studied philosophy at Vienna University, talks about his films using long barely translatable German words that make you wonder if discussing his work in English is at all possible: Entfremdung (alienation from oneself), emotionale Vergletscherung (emotional glaciation) and Entwirklichung (reality losing its sense of realness).
Behind these fearsome expressions, Haneke's films are very immediate and comprehensible, although by no means simplistic. He is concerned with a society that no longer knows how to love - or for that matter how to hate. His films are an attempt to resharpen our feelings and responses to the world around us, which have been blunted, especially by the media. Rejecting standard conventions of timing , build up of suspense and logical plotting, he is not worried about inducing boredom, irritation and frustration. Haneke repeatedly draws us into the cinematic medium, as any film seeks to do, but then breaks the illusion to show us how we have been seduced and tricked, and what willing accomplices to it we were.
Although he had been writing television scripts since 1974, Haneke first hit cinema screens in 1989 with part one of his trilogy on "emotional glaciation," Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989). This leisurely but intricate study, inspired by the real-life suicide of a middle-class Viennese family, immediately established Haneke as a unique director. The critic Alexander Howarth has suggested that the film should bear the subtitle "How strict thinking, writing and viewing found how to love each other." The trilogy, which followed with Benny's Video (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance, 1994), is permeated with a crushing absence of passion. Apologies are monotonously murmured unmeant, a man's "I love you" is addressed more to his beer than his wife and a father's reproaches to his son for murdering a girl are little different from those for staying up too late. This makes bleak viewing, but Haneke insists he is an optimist. "The people who make entertainment movies are the pessimists," he explains, "the optimist tries to shake people out of their apathy."
With several literary adaptations already behind him, and such excellent existentialist credentials, you would think Haneke would be the ideal man to interpret Kafka's Das Schloss (The Castle, 1995). Curiously, though, Haneke's screen adaptation is his weakest film to date. It feels rushed and hectic, a far cry from both his first film and the texture of Kafka's original novel. Ultimately, it adds little to our understanding of either Kafka or Haneke.
His latest film, Funny Games (1997), sees a return to form, and it will, if nothing else, do much to bolster Haneke's notoriety. Whilst Hollywood is spending millions of dollars on marauding aliens, city-sized dinosaurs and icebergs to convey fear and terror, Haneke has realised that the people from the house next door who drop in for some eggs can do the job far more effectively. Especially if they bet that by nine o'clock the following morning their hosts will all be dead. Such is the case when two charming lads, Peter and Paul, pop over to sadistically torture and psychologically terrorise a family for what could well prove to be their last twelve hours alive - unless they can escape. Why all the needless brutality? It turns out the well-mannered funsters have an altruistic urge to provide the cinema audience, who they address directly, with what they have come to see in the film - mindless violence.
As the duo try to entertain us by playing their games with the family, Haneke plays games with us in order to awaken us to the senselessness of the increasing lust audiences have for blood on the cinema screens. He builds up tension and then destroys it. He gives us what we want and then takes it away. He pulls us out of our comfortable cinema seats and forces us to recognise our role as protagonists in the film and de facto initiators of the bloodshed. The ultimate object is to restore to violence its real properties, as opposed to its cinematic ones, and to faithfully represent the very real suffering and distress that actual violence causes.
The focus is therefore far more on the after-effects than the actions themselves, which, with one deliberate exception, are not shown. Haneke skilfully lets us create the violence in our own minds, and stresses the agony, terror and humiliation through unimportant actions, a device he used so well in his trilogy. Doubtless many will disapprove of Haneke using violence to criticise violence (as censors in several countries have), but he sees no other way. In a post-screening discussion with a rather vocal audience, he expressed his reservations about the efficacy of Wim Wenders's The End of Violence, which just talked about the subject.
Funny Games is a genuinely shocking and discomforting film. In shattering preconceptions and by confronting you with your darker, more bloodthirsty nature as a cinema viewer, it goes much further than other films tackling the issue of violence, such as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This is not a film to be easily dismissed, particularly since it is currently making its way around Europe and could well be appearing at a cinema near you shortly. I, too, wish you a disturbing evening.
Happy Haneke | The New Yorker Anthony Lane, October 5, 2009
A Bavarian Sunday in late summer: warm, wet, and thunderstruck. A small crowd gathered in the Promenadeplatz, at the heart of Munich, around a stone plinth to which cards and posters had been stuck: “Michael: I miss and love you so much.” “We will love you forever.” Close by was the entrance to the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the grandest hideaway in town, where the film director Michael Haneke was receiving visitors. How did the fans know he was here? And was it not bizarre that this most unyielding of creative intellects, the dean of unsmiling cinema, should be stalked in such a way? Haneke is admired, and even revered, but lapped in these waves of love?
As a frail warbling rose around the plinth, all became clear: Wrong Michael. These were Jackson fans, drawn to the hotel where their beloved, now deceased, had stayed for his last German appearance. Whether they would, at this juncture, be prepared to switch Michaels was open to question, Haneke not being the first man you go to in a bid to heal the world and make it a better place. On the other hand, what poise he radiates: the kind of calm, in bearing and garb, of which twitchy superstars can only dream. His long, serene features could have been borrowed from an icon of the Orthodox church. He has a white beard, rimless spectacles, and a full head of silvery hair, parted at the center and sweeping down to his collar at the back; his tall frame tends to be draped in a soft dark suit, often matched with a black shirt, as if to thicken the hint of the ecclesiastical. The real surprise, when you meet the man, is the rich, ripened bass of the voice, and the even deeper wealth of the laugh—a generous thrum, welling, you might suppose, from an instinctive wish to savor the pleasures of life, not merely to snort at the iniquities. Haneke, who has a wife, Susanne, and four children, is sixty-seven, but he could pass for a decade less. Strange to say, but the guy who made “Hidden” and “The Piano Teacher” looks ready to burst into song.
Just once, I saw him do so. Not for the Jacksonites, but downstairs, in one of the hotel restaurants, on the succeeding night. Underneath the arches of a cellar, we were ushered to a private room: a facsimile of a drinkers’ snug at the back of a hunting lodge, all rough-hewn wood and darkly panelled walls. Haneke took the whole thing in his stride, ducking through the threshold, singing, “Yo-de-laay-eee-oh!,” and settling down to feast. As someone who splits his time between Vienna and Paris, he likes to trim his dining to his location, so Nürnberger Schweinwürstl—the cigar-shaped sausage of the region—it had to be. Offered a clutch of six, eight, or ten, he took the last, cast mild aspersions on the hill of sauerkraut in which they sat, and washed them down with tall doses of the local Pils, diverting smoothly, as night wore on, to glasses of Chianti. He was a bon vivant at work, and therefore at play. Though an Austrian, Haneke was born here, in Munich, in 1942. In a sense, he was at home.
As I bade farewell, I couldn’t help remembering another meal: A full-on blowout, buoyed by champagne, the table stacked with cheeses, cured meats, and other bonnes bouches. The diners—a married couple and their young daughter—help themselves to one tidbit after another, as if this were their last meal on earth. And so it is. Fortified by foodstuffs, the family set about destroying their house, the father burying a hatchet in the furniture, the mother ripping up shirts and splitting LPs in half like crackers. A tropical fish flaps and gasps beside its smashed aquarium. The phone is muffled. The daughter looks on. Later, she is given a sleeping draught, and then a lethal injection. The mother is next to go, gulping down her overdose; the father is last, lying down beside his wife and child on the bed, amid the ruins of their home, lit only by the fizzy glow of the TV.
There endeth “The Seventh Continent,” a Michael Haneke film from 1989. Based on a real case of familial suicide, it was his first feature film, after seven works for television. It is also his first masterpiece; nobody could mistake it for entertainment, but the director could easily be mistaken for a tragedian of long standing, so expert is his pacing of the horrors. The question to be put, therefore, on viewing everything from “The Seventh Continent” to Haneke’s latest film, “The White Ribbon,” in which the expertise has risen to a tranquil mastery, is as follows: What is the tie that binds the man with the big guffaw to this compendium of terror and dismay? What’s a nice guy like him doing in films like this?
As a rough rule, cinema can be sundered into two halves: six-o’clock films and nine-o’clock films. Most movies are nine-o’clock affairs, and none the worse for it. You get home from work, grab something to eat, head to the theatre, and enjoy the show. And so to bed—alone or entwined, but, either way, with dreams whose sweetness will not be crumbled or soured by what you saw onscreen. A six-o’clock movie requires more organization: prebooked tickets, a restaurant table, the right friends. You’re going to need them, because if all runs according to plan you will spend the second half of the evening tossing the movie—the impact and the substance of it—back and forth. So “Persona” is a six-o’clock movie, though it won’t leave you with much of an appetite. As is “The Deer Hunter,” whereas “Platoon,” for all its sound and fury, works fine for nine o’clock. “The Reader” is a nine-o’clock movie that thinks it’s a six-o’clock. “Groundhog Day” is the opposite. And “The White Ribbon”? A six-o’clock movie, if ever I saw one.
Until now, it has breathed little but the rarefied air of festivals, among them Cannes (where it won the Palme d’Or), Moscow, Toronto, and the always popular Espoo. Here it will show on October 7th and 8th, as part of the New York Film Festival. Come December, it will go into general release, though the chances of its landing in your local multiplex are slim—no great loss, in the eyes of the director, for whom the modern movie theatre is a pullulating mosh pit. “I hate the smell of popcorn,” he told me, adding, “I rarely go to the cinema. I went to see the new Jonathan Demme film, ‘Rachel Getting Married,’ pas mal, and there was this couple behind us who talked the whole time. They got up. They snacked. The spectators seem to have lost respect for the film.”
But what if the movie is a blast? Don’t viewers have a right to respond in kind? “To see a comedy, it’s good to be in a community,” Haneke said. “But for anything else . . .” He shrugged. As for the togetherness of moviegoing, the glue that has held together a million Saturday nights, “Je m’en fous.” (Politely translated, “Screw that.”) Every cinéaste is also a nostalgist—however primed for the next big thing, you cannot help but compare it with the Arcadia of your early days beneath the projector’s beam, and to the mistier glories of cinema’s own youth—and Haneke is no exception. When he was growing up, he says, and seeking out the new Godard, people went to see “serious movies in a serious way.”
I guess you could try going into “The White Ribbon” with a bucket of popcorn, but after a few minutes you would leave it at your feet and let the movie lock you tight, a willing captive, inside its extraordinary world. The dimensions of that world are exact: A village in northern Germany, viewed over the course of the seasons from 1913 to 1914. The countryside is flat but fertile, with the villagers joined in celebration of the harvest, and the social geology retains—perhaps for the last time, given the looming war—the feudal strata laid down by the encrustations of time, with a haughty baron presiding over the district, and a subsidiary layer of educated professionals. It is these people, and their families, who really interest Haneke: the pastor, the schoolteacher, and the Chekhovian doctor, with his trim beard, his cowed housekeeper, and the amused, languid cynicism of one who has seen too much of life to be gratified by this backwater, or its meagre trickle of thrills.
“The White Ribbon” is Haneke’s most approachable film, though you approach it at your peril, as you would a sleeping animal, or a hot stove. It is also his longest, his most beautiful—the only one in black-and-white—and his best. His broadest, too, in the confidence with which it ranges up and down the social scale. Something pestilential is at large: a rash of misdemeanors, some trivial, others twisted and grave. An estate worker is found hanging in his shed, but the life of his master, too, seems weighed down, with his young son kidnapped and suspended upside down in a barn, and his wife, the graceful baroness, leaving him for less oppressive climes. Some of the transgressions remain unfathomable, as if the motives behind them were mysterious even to the perpetrators: a wire stretched between trees to snag a horse, or a pet bird laid on the minister’s desk, a pair of scissors plunged into its neck to create a makeshift cross. If these are symbols, they are not easy to read; if they are grievances, you wonder what triggered them; and if they have the calculated look of early performance art—a surreal notion, in this provincial setting—then who are the performers?
Nobody schooled in Haneke will be amazed to learn that the puzzle goes unsolved. If Hercule Poirot had happened to drop by the village, he would have fumed with uncertainty and left with a drooping mustache. Haneke is not setting problems for what Poirot used to call our little gray cells; he is more concerned with inserting the worm of unease into our guts, and asking how much we can trust our big red hearts. His 2005 hit, “Hidden,” was marketed as a thriller, and pulses duly throbbed at the tale of a Parisian couple, played by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, who receive videotapes of the outside of their house, and at the husband’s efforts to track down whoever is sending them—a path that winds back to his own treacherous past. But, though both he and the audience believe that he gets his man, is it the right man? No one confesses, and we are left with the famous final shot, showing the exterior of the school attended by the couple’s child: somebody—a person unknown and unapprehended—could be keeping the school under surveillance, and gearing up for the next level of threat. You find yourself searching every face among the pupils, like an anxious parent looking for your own lost child.
More than anything, this paying of attention—simple but scrupulous, onscreen and off—is what melds Haneke to his work. “It was like he was scanning me.” So says Juliette Binoche, who starred for Haneke not just in “Hidden” but in the exemplary “Code Unknown,” five years earlier. Speaking of their first collaboration, she told me, “He saw exactly where I was, and he could see inside.” Wasn’t that intrusive, or unnerving? “No, it feels funny, wonderful,” she replied, then added, “But it’s like there’s no escape.” Binoche’s praise of Haneke comes close to the nub of the complaint that has been voiced against him, by some critics and many outraged viewers: that, even as he shows human beings forcing themselves on one another, he is visiting the same cruelty, and the same slow squeezes of control, on performers and spectators alike. Binoche recalls the sequence in “Code Unknown” when she had to strike a child: “It was very hard to slap the little boy. Michael didn’t want to involve himself too closely. He told me, ‘It’s O.K.’ But I could see in the little boy’s eyes that it was a kind of humiliation. I asked him to slap me first, but he wouldn’t.”
Put like that, it is a damning account: perfect ammunition for Haneke’s detractors and foes. But Binoche is a good friend of his, and she understands the reserve that others read as froideur. “He needs that uncomfortable place,” she told me, adding, “He likes to provoke. Film for him is an active medium, not sedative. He wants to wake you up.” Something about the slapping scene, however, resounds with a deeper hurt. As Haneke said to me, “You can show all the shortcomings of a society through its children, because they are always on the bottom rung. So are animals. They are those who can’t defend themselves. They are predestined victims.” And then he told me a story: “Once, I bawled out a lady in a train. She was with her child, who was a bit stressed, and she took him out of the compartment to hit him, because she didn’t dare to do it inside. And even though I had no right to do so, I went and bawled her out, because that is something I just cannot stand.”
The odd thing is that he told the tale again, the next day. Haneke is fluent and diverse in conversation—we spoke in a mixed Euro-salad of French, English, and German—and this was the only anecdote to which he returned, as though unable to shake off a persistent ache. If he failed to interfere in the scene with Binoche and the boy, it was not because he didn’t care. On the contrary, it was precisely because, like a surgeon, he was delving so close to the source of the malady—to the worst habits of a wicked world—that he had no option other than to stay cool. Some of us meet our fears in dreams, others in therapy, or by shutting our eyes and praying that they won’t come true; whereas Haneke, in Binoche’s words, “is working with fear, like a brush.”
Few movies of recent years, for example, have been more violent—or have seemed more violent, for little overt brutality is shown—than the two versions of “Funny Games,” in which a pair of white devils in tennis gear invade and torment one well-to-do family after another, on the shores of a quiet lake. Yet these almost unwatchable works were made by a man who, as he admitted to me, is gripped by “a horror of all violence.” Even student unrest put Haneke in a funk. “In 1968, I was on the streets, and at the first sight of the police I was off like a shot,” he recalled. “There was this police phalanx, with shields and batons, and I ran like a madman.”
“Where was this?” I asked.
“Baden-Baden,” he replied. Oh, that hellhole.
Haneke then reached for a more distant incident from his youth. “There was a moment with my uncle, who was this huge man. I thought he was going to hit me, so I pushed him”—he mimed the action—“and he fell over.” Haneke mimed that, too; it looked like a tree being felled. I couldn’t decide whether he was mortified at the memory of the Goliath whom he slew or whether, decades on, he still felt the secret surge of that power, and I started, like a teacher, to take a roll call of all the kids in his work. I thought of the adolescents, ignored by their elders, in “Lemmings,” a two-part film for TV, made in 1979; of the doomed daughter in “The Seventh Continent”; of the title character in “Benny’s Video” (1992), who murders a fellow teen-ager and tapes the deed; of the young girl befriended by the pathetic hero of “The Rebellion” (1992), whose face he conjures up in his prison cell; of the illegal Romanian refugee in “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance” (1994), chewing on leftover food from Viennese garbage bins; of the boy whose demise, in “Funny Games” (1997) and its remake, “Funny Games U.S.” (2007), is no less unspeakable for being unseen; of the brother and sister shepherded through a twilit land by their mother in “Time of the Wolf” (2003); of the son whose school we see in “Hidden,” and who shoves his mother away when she attempts too close an embrace; and of the ominous troupe of youth in “The White Ribbon,” who become much more than victims. And then I thought of the young Michael Haneke, maturing in the wake of the Second World War, and wondered what he must have witnessed and endured.
“I grew up with three women: my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt. It was great.” Haneke gives his heartiest laugh to date, and you can’t blame him. He appears to have been born into a Fellini movie. “I had a very spoiled childhood. I didn’t have to fight with a man—it was super-agréable,” he says. “I was never beaten.” It was his grandmother who took him to his first film, Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet.” Haneke remembers, “I was crying so much after five minutes that I had to leave.” Sitting in the hotel, sixty years or so after the event, he drops into a droning, haunting ghost moan: a highly convincing impersonation of Hamlet’s dead father on the battlements.
Fritz Haneke, Michael’s father, was an actor and theatre director, and a Protestant. His mother, Beatrix von Degenschild, was an actress, and a Catholic. Only someone from a mixed-faith background, perhaps, can combine such a pointed interest in the lure of religion with such a sturdy refusal to commit to either side, although if I were Catholic I might take a furtive satisfaction in the way that “The White Ribbon” puts the moral sternness of the northern church through the wringer. (The film, Haneke says, “is not against religion, and yet the rigorousness in Protestantism is very much a part of how it can lead to radicalism.”) Fritz left when Michael was still young, and he was taken across the border and raised in his aunt’s home in Wiener Neustadt, a suburb of Vienna. His mother performed in the Burgtheater in the capital. “They were putting on ‘The Prodigal,’ and there was this fairy,” he told me. It was his mother. “She was brought down through the air, onto the stage, and I saw her, and I screamed out loud, ‘Das ist Mama!,’ and the whole theatre started to laugh.”
This is the second time in one afternoon that Haneke has referred to his mother in such terms. Earlier, he had said that, as a treasured visitor, she would descend on weekends, “like a fairy.” When I point out the coincidence, Haneke is much amused. “She was a very, very good-looking woman,” he says, a sublime explanation. It is almost as if he were summoning the memory of a picture book, or a scrap of folklore, instead of a true event. The vanished father, the winged mother appearing from on high to bestow her blessing, and then the curious aftermath, in which the infant grows to manhood and presents us with a bestiary of the monstrous and the icily indifferent: even the Brothers Grimm might have balked at such a plot.
Haneke’s mother remarried. Her son didn’t know what to do with himself. “I wanted to be a pianist. I wasn’t very good in school because I was practicing piano,” Haneke told me. “My stepfather was a composer and a conductor, and, thank God, he realized early on that I wasn’t talented enough. There is nothing more depressing than a mediocre musician.” Next came acting. He went for an audition in Vienna: “They didn’t take me, and I was furious.” The insult was all the worse because he had tried the piece out on his mother: “She found it fabulous, and I was so sure that everybody would find it fabulous that I couldn’t believe they didn’t take me.” At college, in Vienna, he studied theatre, but dropped it after a semester, on the ground of boredom, and switched to philosophy. There was a distinguished Hegelian on the faculty: “I thought he would explain the world to me, but I understood it’s not the case.” Anyway, Haneke had better things to do: like Truffaut, he was going to the movies three times a day. “All my stock of films is from this time,” he says.
Here, as recounted in the magazine Sight & Sound in 2002, are Haneke’s favorite movies: “Au Hasard, Balthazar” (Bresson), “Salò” (Pasolini), “The Gold Rush” (Chaplin), “Mirror” (Tarkovsky), “A Woman Under the Influence” (Cassavetes), “The Exterminating Angel” (Buñuel), “Germany, Year Zero” (Rossellini), “Lancelot du Lac” (Bresson), “L’Eclisse” (Antonioni), “Psycho” (Hitchcock). It’s quite a list, and hard to quarrel with: the best Tarkovsky, the best Buñuel, and Antonioni at his most uncompromising, with a climax that could be Haneke. I would prefer a more fair-weather Hitchcock, and would trade the second Bresson for another, probably “A Man Escaped,” but these rosters are designed for quibbling. (Haneke himself now says that he would swap the Antonioni for “The Mouth Agape,” Maurice Pialat’s fearsome film about a mother dying of cancer.) The Pasolini is less of a movie, more of a guide to the filthier circles of Hell, but that, presumably, is what attracted Haneke: “I was completely destroyed. I was sick, destabilized for two weeks.” That is not what most people want from the movies. It is, however, what most people get from their love affairs, or from the wrenching end of them, and the lesson learned from Haneke’s scarifying Top Ten—needless to say, the Chaplin he picks is the one with attempted cannibalism—is that a movie that leaves you unchallenged, or unbruised, is somehow neglecting its duty. “If ‘Funny Games’ leaves a viewer uncomfortable, that’s because I respect him,” he said.
For a while, it was the viewers of theatre, not cinema, to whom Haneke attended. He began directing plays in the early nineteen-seventies, working largely in Germany. (In recent years, he has returned to live drama, this time in the field of opera, staging “Don Giovanni” in Paris in 2006 and accepting an invitation to direct “Così Fan Tutte” in Madrid in 2012. The mind reels.) Meanwhile, he had reëstablished contact with his father. “I engaged him for a theatre play. I was directing and he was acting. It was very funny,” Haneke recalls, adding, “My father was very strong in classical parts, and he showed me two or three times how to play it, just to bring me pleasure.” There is something weirdly charmed, as in late Shakespeare, about this frictionless tale of filial restoration.
In 1973, Haneke was asked by Südwestrundfunk Television to direct his first film for television, initiating a small-screen career that would last until “The Castle,” of 1997. In 1979 came “Lemmings,” a study of the rifts that can open up between the generations, and a bone of contention for the Hanekes. “My father was really shocked when he saw this, and he said, ‘From where is coming this hate against parents?’ ” Haneke laughed, and went on: “I said, ‘There is no hate. I am regarding the world around me and I have a precise eye for pain.’ ” Hence the precision of the shocks that “Lemmings” delivered to the system—less to the political system than to the systematic assurance with which we construct a comfortable life for ourselves and expect it to hold. We think it’s a wall, but it’s a bubble, and Haneke pricks it within minutes of the story’s second part, when a policeman’s wife opens the front door in the morning and an aggressive stranger jams his stick into the apartment, wedging the door open. Just another day in Hanekeland.
That sense of irruption into the placid is nothing new—as Haneke, the admirer of “Psycho,” would be the first to admit. But he does not make thrillers, whatever the marketing for “Hidden” may have suggested; he makes movies that sport the trappings of the conventional thriller but proffer none of the usual satisfactions. Thus, a minivan crunches down a woodland track. Inside is a nuclear family: two adults, two kids, off to their place in the country. Inside the house, however, is an explosion ready to happen: two adults, two kids, and a shotgun. Before we have a chance to get our bearings, the movie—Haneke’s “Time of the Wolf”—is one man down, and what ensues is a free fall into primitivism, not the catharsis of revenge. To anyone who saw “Fatal Attraction,” for instance, where the menace from outside was acknowledged, met head on, and slain, allowing domestic peace to reign once more, this lack of payoff is not just a disappointment; it’s a cheat and a con, depriving us of our basic right to melodrama. Haneke is trying to keep the customers dissatisfied.
Likewise, for lovers of “Intermezzo,” in which Leslie Howard mooned and swooned over his daughter’s piano teacher against a handful of European settings (he is reminded of “the days when Vienna was a happy city”), Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, will come as a nasty surprise. Again, we get the interruption: a knock on the teacher’s door at the conservatory as she listens to a singer and accompanist rehearse Schubert’s “Winterreise.” A prospective student, Walter, puts his head around to inquire about admissions. She sends him away, but he will destroy her life as surely as he has broken the cycle of the songs. Listen to the words of the singer: “Wie hat der Sturm zerrissen / Des Himmels graues Kleid”—“How the storm has torn apart the gray mantle of the sky.”
That is pure Haneke: tempests of feeling are starting to brew. Decorum is preserved, though at a terrible cost. Desire will find resolution, but in the key of madness. And the face of the teacher, Professor Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), gives us everything because it gives away so little. (Later, as part of a judging panel, she listens to Walter play, and the camera lingers on her expression, porcelain-calm yet, far beneath the surface, swept away. “We shot it quite quickly, one of the quickest,” Huppert said of the scene. “It’s the moment when she realizes that the way he plays, he performs, is the way he’s going to love her: seductive. It’s the moment she falls in love.”) Haneke, Huppert told me, is “the best person to work with—so pragmatic, no sentimental bullshit. That’s a key word when he works: ‘Too sentimental,’ he’ll say. Not no emotions—no sentimentality.” He had offered her the lead in “Funny Games,” which she declined, saying it was “terribly harsh for the actress.” She bided her time, and along came “The Piano Teacher”—“more open, more romantic,” as Huppert described it. She added, “I stayed blind to the hardest part of the script, so as not to be discouraged. Finally I read it on the plane to Vienna, and I thought, Oh God.”
Many viewers had the same response. You find yourself dreading the next Haneke film as you would an examination (an internal examination, in some cases), and, looking back on it, you squirm. But you know you have not been taken for a ride, or palmed off with a moist wad of fantasy. You have been through something—ripped open like Schubert’s sky.
Although the characters in “The Piano Teacher” converse in French, the film is set in Vienna. It does not come across as a happy city, and we are left to wonder, despite the claims of Leslie Howard, whether it ever was. Haneke is not the only white-bearded, much honored citizen of the place to investigate, at length, “the hostility to civilization which is produced by the pressure that civilization exercises, the renunciations of instinct which it demands.” That is Sigmund Freud, in “The Future of an Illusion,” but it also encapsulates the plight of Professor Kohut, a prim and censorious figure in a head scarf who likes to inhale the used tissues at a pornographic peepshow (and does so in rapture, with eyes half shut, like Baudelaire sniffing the perfume on his mistress’s hair). The legacy of Freud, in Haneke’s work, comprises not just the levelheaded logic of his pessimism—we must be unhappy if we are to survive as a functioning society—but also the conception of childhood as a hothouse, wherein our beliefs bloom most vividly and our stuntings begin. Freud wrote a short paper titled “Two Lies Told by Children,” which concluded:
It would be a serious mistake to read into childish misdemeanours like these a prognosis of the development of a bad character. Nevertheless, they are intimately connected with the most powerful motive forces in children’s minds, and give notice of dispositions that will lead to later eventualities in their lives or to future neuroses.
The paper, first published with contributions from other authors under the heading of “Infantile Mental Life,” dates from the summer of 1913: the time, in other words, at which “The White Ribbon” begins. You want later eventualities? Try watching the two blond boys, the offspring of the oxlike steward on the baron’s estate, who sit with his pampered, non-swimming son beside a pond and push him in. Then do the math: come 1933, when Hitler becomes Chancellor, these boys will be little more than thirty, and we know—we cannot prove as much, and Haneke is too subtle to elbow us, but we know—the cause that they will join. By the end of “The White Ribbon,” there is almost no sin that we cannot, however hesitantly, lay at the door of the village juniors, and thus, by implication, at the door of their elders’ conduct. This out-of-the-way spot, with its fields of cabbages, is one of the thousand crucibles where history is being forged.
The director himself is at pains not to label his movie with too specific a tag. He told me, “It’s important for me that, even in America, I will not be happy if the film is seen as a film about a German problem, about the Nazi time. That is an example, but it means more than this. It’s a film about the roots of evil. It’s about a group of kids who are preached certain ideals,” he said, “and become the judges of others—of those who have pushed this ideology onto them. If you build an idea into an absolute, it becomes an ideology. And it helps those who have absolutely no possibility of defending themselves to follow this ideology in order to escape their misery. And that’s not a question of the fascism of the right. It also counts for left-wing fascism and for religious fascism. You could make the same film—in a completely different form, of course—about the Islamists of today. There is always someone in a wretched situation who seizes the opportunity, through ideology, to avenge himself, to emerge from his misery and to rectify his life. In the name of a beautiful idea you can become a murderer.”
Could he have become a murderer? It’s hard to picture this gentle spirit taking up arms against the weak. Haneke was perfectly clear on this point, more so than most of us would dare to be. “There is no crime I couldn’t have committed,” he said. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Oh no, I would never do that,’ but that’s dishonest. We are capable of everything.” He added, “It’s so easy to be ‘human’ when you come from a privileged background.” None of us can say how, under less favorable circumstances, we might have turned out. In Haneke’s case, he said, “The only reason that I couldn’t have been a Nazi is that I can’t stand crowds. I dread crowds—crowds aren’t people.” As for soccer matches, “I went once when I was eleven or twelve, and it was my first and last time in a stadium. I was so frightened, so terrorized by the howling crowds, that I ran out and I never went back.”
It is impossible to know what lies behind that fright, but it is tempting to ask: how does a sensitive child, born in 1942, begin to deal with what a German-speaking crowd had bayed for, and portended, in the recent past? It is common knowledge, and a source of some pride, that Germany made a concerted attempt, in the aftermath of the war, at the moral reëducation of its people, both to shame them into a sense of responsibility and to forestall any return of collective extremism. Yet the East German writer Stephan Hermlin recalled that when documentary films on the concentration camps were shown to postwar cinemagoers in Frankfurt, “in the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film and stayed that way until the film was over.”
If much of the German nation, as Hermlin argues, “was not interested in being shaken by events, in any ‘know thyself,’ ” the Austrian experience was, if anything, more occluding still. Haneke told me that when he was at school in Wiener Neustadt “the teaching of history ended with the First World War. There was not one word about the time afterwards.” Did he talk of that time with his stepfather? “He didn’t speak with me about this. Maybe he spoke with my mother about this time, but never with me.” In that respect, they were a family of typical Austrians: “I always say we are the world champions at sweeping things under the carpet.”
And there, you might say, Haneke’s job begins. He is, as Isabelle Huppert said to me, “very stubborn in his desires.” He wants the carpet to ride up; he wants us to be shaken; he wants us not to turn away from the screen but to gaze upon what it displays; he wants us not to forget. Such a wish, as he insists, does not mean that “The White Ribbon,” or any of his other works, should be construed as a parable of Nazism. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that without so drastic a template of savagery and amnesia his films would not be as ruthless as they are. When it comes to improvements in human understanding, as opposed to technological leaps, “we’re still in the Stone Age,” he said. “We’re still pigs in the way we bear ourselves.”
No wonder his films are so unpiggish and plain, with no lurching motions of the camera. At the Vienna Film Academy, where Haneke teaches directing for part of the year, he customarily runs a quartet of screenings—“Battleship Potemkin,” Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” Costa-Gavras’s “Z,” and “Air Force One,” with Harrison Ford—to show the students how films of different persuasions can impose themselves equally, through a bullying use of sound and editing, on the viewer’s consciousness. “I like the politics of ‘Z’ more, but the manner is all the same,” Haneke said. In his own manner, he tries to avoid any trace of the overbearing, and that includes a score. Plenty of music is played within a Haneke drama, most obviously in “The Piano Teacher,” but none is overlaid so as to whip the action forward. “If the story is good, if the construction is good, you don’t need it,” Haneke said to me. “I am a big fan of David Lynch, but the only thing I don’t like in his films is the score. Why? The film is so strong. The music is not fair, it’s not honest—it’s easy.” Meanwhile, all is arranged on storyboards before the shooting. “One tries to re-create the complexity of life, but in a completely orderly way. I don’t believe in chance during shooting. Chance is a gift of the moment, if that exists, but it’s an exception. You have to prepare a chance for an actor, for instance, and push him into a certain situation. But I don’t at all believe in the improvisational method.”
That is one reason for the aversion to Haneke’s work. It feels hard—not just tricky to elucidate but as clean and resistant as a kitchen counter, or a marble slab. He reminds me of Flaubert, another classicist in a sentimental age, who wrote to a friend on Christmas Day, 1876, “Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.” That is not what we have come to expect of Hollywood, say, which feeds on legends of excess—one way for the industry to flatter itself with the illusion that, rather than merely grinding out a product, it is gallantly allowing private demons to be summoned and exorcised. Haneke is less bent on self-expression. “My work is not personal in the sense that it comes from my own wounds,” he said, and then searched around, in various languages, for the right word: “Kränkung . . . la vie est une grande, une permanente . . . hurting. I have always felt that. It’s not a private disappointment. There are wounds in every kind of life. I have no reason to complain—I’m highly spoiled by success—but, if you ask me if I’m happy, that’s another matter. If you look at the suffering around you, you can’t be happy.”
He seemed contented enough, as we worked our way through the wurst, in the hunters’ retreat. He even vouchsafed that his next film would be about old age, with all its vexations. “This is the problem for everyone, all the time: how to live with another person, right to the end,” he said. I asked what had happened to his family in later life, and he answered, “My aunt killed herself at the age of ninety-three.” This was the aunt who had raised him, idyllically, outside Vienna. I offered condolences, but none were required. “I found her in time, and saved her. And the first time I saw her, when she woke up in the ward, she said to me, ‘Why did you do that?’ So she waited until I went abroad for a festival or something, and then she tried again, successfully.”
“How did you feel when you heard about it?” I asked him.
Haneke smiled—either in relief that her sufferings were over at last or in rueful envy, because ours never cease.
“I was very happy,” he said.
Kinoeye | Austrian film: Michael Haneke interviewed The World That Is Known, Christopher Sharrett interviews Haneke from Kinoeye, March 8, 2004
Haneke is, perhaps, the most controversial of contemporary European directors. His films, all of which are determinedly successful in making no concessions to the viewer, have both been alienated audiences (being booed at Cannes) and won them over (including a 33-week theatrical run in the US for his most recent title released there), and he has established a position as one of cinema's important provocateurs, a concept lost in an era where cultural/political subversion is often seen as passé, or conceived with jaundiced, anti-humanist cynicism. Equally importantly, he has presented demanding philosophical questions in a formal cinematic language that has a bold and uncomprising nature to match its content.
Born in 1942, Haneke entered film-making rather late in his career, after distinguished work in Austrian theater complemented by seriously engaged, ongoing study of philosophy and psychology. His first feature, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), is a staggering work based on a news story about a family opting for collective suicide rather than continuing in the present alienated world. Unable to accept the notion that the family took their own lives (could the terrors of daily life override the life instinct?), relatives insisted that authorities pursue the case as a murder, despite all the evidence militating against such a conclusion.
The film takes numerous deceptive turns as we expect the family, which goes through daily life in a set of rote behaviors relentlessly chronicled by Haneke's highly disciplined camera (using close-ups and slow intercutting forcing the viewer to consider the features of banal activities), to leave for the promised utopia of rural Australia, since a lush tourist ad for the country appears at regular intervals in the film.
The film introduces altogether unanticipated questions about the nature of utopia, suggesting that the quietude of death may constitute a satisfactory promised land in the mind of the suicide. With its many silences, its interest in the alienating features of contemporary urban life, its remarkable sense of architecture as signifier of entrapment, Der siebente Kontinent introduced Haneke's kinship with forebears such as Antonioni.
With each film—thus far Der siebente Kontinent, Benny's Video (1992), 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of a Chance, 1994), Funny Games (1997), Das Schloß (The Castle, 1997), Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown, 2000), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher (2001) and Le Temps du loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003)—Haneke affirms his presence as one of the key modernist directors at a time when modernist ambitions seem defunct. 71 Fragmente, Benny's Video and Funny Games are among the most unsettling of the cinema's many meditations on television and other media, in particular their role in the erasure of conscience and emotion. These films are by far the most contentious—and perhaps because so least discussed at this writing—observations on the media and their relationship to violence, alienation, and social catastrophe.
Funny Games in particular is the most disturbing remark on action cinema and those works pretending to comment on its social ramifications. Containing elements of Sam Peckinpah and other directors, this tale of a young family besieged by two yuppie psychopaths becomes Brechtian, suddenly "rewinding" scenes, implicating the viewer, who is asked to choose an ending (the film opts for the bloodiest and least consoling). Unlike any number of self-reflexive films engaged with the study of media culture and the role of violence therein, Funny Games never becomes a strained position paper, nor does it participate, for all its relentlessness, in the excesses it criticizes.
Revisiting Kafka's Das Schloß may seem an odd gesture at this date, but Haneke's inflections of Kafka affirm his commitments to reexamination of some of the basic notions of modernity. Haneke's version is the least involved in narrativizing Kafka, and is concerned more with a sense of disruption and dislocation, the structure of the film featuring literal breaks that foreground the novel's artifice.
Code inconnu's exploration of the collapse of language picks up concerns of Bergman, Resnais and Antonioni, suggesting to us that the questions posed by such artists have been ignored as if they have been fully answered, even as the media age has only further complicated them. Using as its linchpin a discarded paper bag cruelly tossed into the lap of a beggar by an insolent, dissolute boy, whose off-hand action affects all the major characters of the narrative in a manner suggesting not the "six degrees of separation" connecting humanity but rather the ever-widening abyss absorbing it, Code inconnu displays Haneke's remarkable "applied theory," his use of semiotics and language theory in a deeply-felt, harrowing exploration of the end of communication, and that failure's relationship to racism and economic and social injustice.
His La Pianiste contains a complex commentary on classical Western cultures's legacy, in particular its relationship to the idea of the family and gender politics, while in Le Temps du loup, his latest feature, he employs catastrophe to strip his characters of the foundations of contemporary bourgeois living—family unity, running water, electricity—to further explore how civilizational values that may seem rigidly universal to those who subscribe to them bear up when applied to situations for which they were not intended.
In all these films Haneke establishes firmly his sensibility. He rigorously eschews the snide humor, affectlessness, preoccupation with pop culture, film allusions and moral blankness of postmodern art. Yet nothing about Haneke's work seems anachronistic, precisely because he recognizes that the crises that affected 20th-century humanity, in particular alienation and repression, continue in the new millennium even if they are simply embraced as features of contemporary life in much postmodern artistic expression. His harrowing explorations of psychological and societal breakdown and the oppression of technological civilization evoke a yawn only from those who accept the terms of this civilization.
Haneke is currently in the pre-production phase of a new film Caché (Hidden). This interview was conducted by conference telephone call in November, 2002, and April, 2003, before the release of Le Temps du loup. I am most grateful to my colleague Jurgen Heinrichs, without whose skills as a translator the interview would have been impossible.
Your work seems an ongoing critique of current western civilization.
I think you can take that interpretation, but as I'm sure you know it is difficult for an author to give an interpretation of his or her own work. I don't mind that view at all, but I have no interest in self-interpretation. It is the purpose of my films to pose certain questions, and it would be counter-productive if I were to answer all these questions myself.
I'm interested in your sense of the modern landscape, in particular your images of architecture and technology. In a film like Der siebente Kontinent the cityscape comes across as both alluring and deadly, somewhat in the manner of Antonioni.
I think that this landscape operates in both of the modalities you mention. It isn't my interest to denounce technology, but to describe a situation in a highly industrialized society, so in that sense my films are very much concerned with a predicament specific to this society, European society, rather than, say, the Third World. My films are aimed, therefore, more to an audience that is part of the conditions of Western society. I can only deal with the world that I know, to be a little more precise. As for Antonioni, I very much admire his films, no question.
There seems to be some degree of competition in your films between classical culture and popular culture. I'm thinking in particular of the opening of Funny Games, where the music of Mascagni, Handel and Mozart suddenly changes to John Zorn's thrash-punk music.
This question has been asked a great deal. I think there is a certain amount of misunderstanding here, at least in regard to Funny Games. That film is in part a parody of the thriller genre, and my use of John Zorn was also intended as parodical. Zorn isn't a heavy metal artist. I have nothing against popular music and wouldn't think of playing popular against classical forms. I'm very skeptical of the false conflict that already exists between so-called "serious" music and music categorized strictly as entertainment.
These are totally absurd distinctions, especially if one insists that an artist such as John Zorn must be seen as either classical or experimental or pop, since his work cuts across all categories. I see in John Zorn a kind of über-heavy metal, an extreme and ironic accentuation of that form just as the film is an extreme inflection of the thriller. I think Zorn's style tends to alienate the listener in a sense that heightens awareness, which was effective to the points I wanted to address.
In that film it seems the first "funny game" is the guessing game that the bourgeois couple plays with their CD player, guessing the classical compositions. Is there some association here of the bourgeoisie possessing classical culture?
That wasn't my first concern. Of course, there is a certain irony here in the way that the bourgeoisie has insinuated itself in cultural history. But I didn't intend for the Zorn music to be seen solely as the music of the killers, so to speak, with the classical music strictly as the theme of the bourgeoisie. This is too simplistic. But, of course, with the guessing game at the beginning of the film there is an irony in the way their music suggests their deliberate isolation from the exterior world, and in the end they are trapped in a sense by their bourgeois notions and accoutrements, not just by the killers alone.
The two yuppie psychopaths seem to be intellectuals, especially in their chatter when they dispose of the wife. They are rather unusual serial killers, at least when we look at the genre.
I think this may be true only of one of them, not Dickie, the fat, slow one. They really don't have names—they are called Peter and Paul, Beavis and Butthead. In a way they aren't characters at all. They come out of the media. The tall one, who is the main "plotter" so to speak, might be seen as an intellectual with a deviousness that could be associated with this type of destructive fascist intellect. I have no problem with that interpretation. The fat one is the opposite; there is nothing there on the order of intellect.
Funny Games seems to be a contribution to the self-reflexive films about media and violence along the lines of Natural Born Killers (1994) or C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992).
My goal there was a kind of counter-program to Natural Born Killers. In my view, Oliver Stone's film, and I use it only as example, is the attempt to use a fascist aesthetic to achieve an anti-fascist goal, and this doesn't work. What is accomplished is something the opposite, since what is produced is something like a cult film where the montage style complements the violence represented and presents it largely in a positive light. It might be argued that Natural Born Killers makes the violent image alluring while allowing no space for the viewer. I feel this would be very difficult to argue about Funny Games. Benny's Video and Funny Games are different kinds of obscenity, in the sense that I intended a slap in the face and a provocation.
If we can return to music, it seems in La Pianiste that classical music, while embodying the best sensibility of Erika, is also implicated in her pathology.
Yes, you can see the music functioning in that way, but you need first to understand that in that film we are seeing a very Austrian situation. Vienna is the capital of classical music and is, therefore, the center of something very extraordinary. The music is very beautiful, but like the surroundings can become an instrument of repression, because this culture takes on a social function that ensures repression, especially as classical music becomes an object for consumption. Of course, you must recognize that these issues are not just subjects of the film's screenplay, but are concerns of the Elfriede Jelinek novel, wherein the female has a chance, a small one, to emancipate herself only as an artist. This doesn't work out, of course, since her artistry turns against her in a sense.
Schubert's Winterreisse seems central to La Pianiste. Some have argued that there is a connection between Erika and Schubert's traveler in that song cycle. This goes back to the broader question as to whether music represents the healthy side of Erika's psyche or simply assists her repression.
Of course, the 17th song holds a central place in the film, and could be viewed as the motto of Erika and the film itself. The whole cycle establishes the idea of following a path not taken by others, which gives an ironic effect to the film, I think. It is difficult to say if there is a correlation between the neurosis of Erika Kohut and what could be called the psychogram of a great composer like Schubert. But of course there is a great sense of mourning in Schubert that is very much part of the milieu of the film. Someone with the tremendous problems borne by Erika may well project them onto an artist of Schubert's very complex sensibility. I can't give a further interpretation.
Great music transcends suffering beyond specific causes. Die Winterreisse transcends misery even in the detailed description of misery. All important artworks, especially those concerned with the darker side of experience, despite whatever despair conveyed, transcend the discomfort of the content in the realization of their form.
Walter Klemmer seems to be the hero of the film, but then becomes a monster.
You need to speak to Jelinek [laughs]. All kidding aside, this character is actually portrayed much more negatively in the novel than in the film. The novel is written in a very cynical mode. The novel turns him from a rather childish idiot into a fascist asshole. The film tries to make him more interesting and attractive. In the film, the "love affair," which is not so central to the novel, is more implicated in the mother-daughter relationship. Walter only triggers the catastrophe. In the book, Walter is a rather secondary character that I thought needed development to the point that he could be a more plausible locus of the catastrophe.
One comes away feeling that sexual relationships are impossible under the assumptions of the current society.
We are all damaged, but not every relationship is played out in the extreme scenario of Erika and Walter. Not everyone is as neurotic as Erika. It's a common truth that we are not a society of happy people, and this is a reality I describe, but I would not say that sexual health is impossible.
Images of television recur numerous times in your films. Could you address your uses of TV, and your understanding of media in the current world?
Obviously, in Benny's Video and Funny Games I attempt to explore the phenomenon of television. My concern for the topic isn't quite so much in Der siebente Kontinent, Code Unknown, and La Pianiste, although the place of television in society influences these films as well. I am most concerned with television as the key symbol primarily of the media representation of violence, and more generally of a greater crisis, which I see as our collective loss of reality and social disorientation. Alienation is a very complex problem, but television is certainly implicated in it.
We don't, of course, anymore perceive reality, but instead the representation of reality in television. Our experiential horizon is very limited. What we know of the world is little more than the mediated world, the image. We have no reality, but a derivative of reality, which is extremely dangerous, most certainly from a political standpoint but in a larger sense to our ability to have a palpable sense of the truth of everyday experience.
In Der siebente Kontinent there is a privileged use of both TV and pop music in the moment just before the murder/suicide. The family watches a rock video of "The Power of Love" on their TV as they sit in the demolished apartment. There is a sense both of the song as a genuine plea as well as the inadequacy of pop culture.
There I asked the producer to supply me with certain types of songs. The issue of copyright was a problem, of course. I chose a song, actually a series of songs which appealed to me, not so much because of the text, but because of a certain sentiment. As you suggest, the moment generates a certain ironic counterpoint to the story.
There is another very interesting piece of music in Der siebente Kontinent, where you use the Alban Berg violin concerto, suddenly interrupted, as the young girl watches a ship go by while her father sells the family car in the junk yard. She seems to possess a vision of utopia that her family can't realize.
You can certainly interpret it that way, or simply as the girl spotting a boat, a very banal moment. Of course, the Berg piece is not accidental. There is also a citation of the Bach chorale which could be a motto of the entire film.
In the same film, the series of shots showing the couples' destruction of the apartment recalled to me somewhat the end of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970). The shots of the destruction of the household goods are beautiful, but there is real anguish and horror as well. The color scheme, here and elsewhere in the film, is extraordinary.
I'm a little surprised that you found beauty in this sequence. You could look at the phenomenon of the destruction of one's own environment in terms of a German notion, which in translation is "destroy what destroys you." It can be seen as a liberation.
But the way it is represented is rather the opposite. They carry out the destruction with the same constricted narrowness with which they lived their lives, with the same meticulousness as life was lived, so I see this as the opposite of the vision of total destruction in Zabriskie Point. The sequence is portrayed as work. I have tried to portray it as something unbearable. As the wife says, "my hands really hurt from all that arbeit," so all this hard work of destruction merely precedes the self-destruction.
As for the color, I have always tried for cool, neutral colors. I couldn't say that I tried for a rigid color schematic in Der siebente Kontinent. In this film, however, my aesthetic centered mainly on the close-up, the emphasis on enlarged faces and objects. From an aesthetic standpoint, much of the film could be said to resemble television advertising. I have many reservations about television, but saw a use for its style here. Of course, if Der siebente Kontinent had been made for television it would have failed totally in my view. But in the cinematic setting, a close-up of shoes or a doorknob takes on a far different sense than a similar shot in TV, where that style is the norm. This was a very conscious choice, since I wanted to convey not just images of objects but the objectification of life.
You seem very interested in the long take. There are a number of static shots in your films, like the final image of La Pianiste. I'm also thinking of shots like that of the blank bathroom wall just before Walter rushes in for Erika, the many shots of Erika's face, the long take of the bloody living room in Funny Games, or the numerous still lifes in Der siebente Kontinent.
Perhaps I can connect this to the issue of television. Television accelerates our habits of seeing. Look, for example, at advertising in that medium. The faster something is shown, the less able you are to perceive it as an object occupying a space in physical reality, and the more it becomes something seductive. And the less real the image seems to be, the quicker you buy the commodity it seems to depict.
Of course, this type of aesthetic has gained the upper hand in commercial cinema. Television accelerates experience, but one needs time to understand what one sees, which the current media disallows. Not just understand on an intellectual level, but emotionally. The cinema can offer very little that is new; everything that is said has been said a thousand times, but cinema still has the capacity, I think, to let us experience the world anew.
The long take is an aesthetic means to accomplish this by its particular emphasis. This has long been understood. Code Unknown consists very much of static sequences, with each shot from only one perspective, precisely because I don't want to patronize or manipulate the viewer, or at least to the smallest degree possible. Of course, film is always manipulation, but if each scene is only one shot, then, I think, there is at least less of a sense of time being manipulated when one tries to stay close to a "real time" framework. The reduction of montage to a minimum also tends to shift responsibility back to the viewer in that more contemplation is required, in my view.
Beyond this, my approach is very intuitive, without anything very programmatic. The final image of La Pianiste is simply a reassertion of the conservatory, the classical symmetry of that beautiful building in the darkness. The viewer is asked to reconsider it.
Would you speak to your conception of the family as it is portrayed La Pianiste?
I wanted first of all to describe the bourgeois setting, and to establish the family as the germinating cell for all conflicts. I always want to describe the world that I know, and for me the family is the locus of the miniature war, the first site of all warfare. The larger political-economic site is what one usually associates with warfare, but the everyday site of war in the family is as murderous in its own way, whether between parents and children or wife and husband.
If you start exploring the concept of family in Western society you can't avoid realizing that the family is the origin of all conflicts. I wanted to describe this in as detailed a way as I can, leaving to the viewer to draw conclusions. The cinema has tended to offer closure on such topics and to send people home rather comforted and pacified. My objective is to unsettle the viewer and to take away any consolation or self-satisfaction.
Porno and erotica play a role in La Pianiste that caused much controversy in America. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not porno has a liberating function.
I would like to be recognized for making in La Pianiste an obscenity, but not a pornographic film. In my definition, anything that could be termed obscene departs from the bourgeois norm. Whether concerned with sexuality or violence or another taboo issue, anything that breaks with the norm is obscene. Insofar as truth is always obscene, I hope that all of my films have at least an element of obscenity.
By contrast, pornography is the opposite, in that it makes into a commodity that which is obscene, makes the unusual consumable, which is the truly scandalous aspect of porno rather than the traditional arguments posed by institutions of society. It isn't the sexual aspect but the commercial aspect of porno that makes it repulsive. I think that any contemporary art practice is pornographic if it attempts to bandage the wound, so to speak, which is to say our social and psychological wound. Pornography, it seems to me, is no different from war films or propaganda films in that it tries to make the visceral, horrific, or transgressive elements of life consumable. Propaganda is far more pornographic than a home video of two people fucking.
I notice that the porno shop Erika visits is in a shopping mall, which is a little unusual to an American viewer.
That was shot on location, the original setting. That is the way porno is sold in Vienna. Maybe we are a tiny less puritanical than the Americans [laughs].
Just before she goes to the mall and the porno shop we see Erika practicing Schubert's Piano Trio in E Flat with her colleagues. The music stays on the soundtrack right up to the moment that she puts coins in the video booth to start the porno video, at which point the music stops, as if Schubert finally can't compete with this image.
I have no problem with that interpretation at all, but again, I don't want to impose my own views beyond what I have already committed to film.
One of your concerns seems to be, at least as expressed in Code Unknown, that all communication, the linguistic code, has failed. The scene of the deaf children drumming toward the end of the film seems to emphasize this failure.
Of course, the film is about such failure, but the scene of the children drumming is concerned with communication with the body, so the deaf children have hope after all, although the drumming takes on a different function at the conclusion when it provides a specific background. Yes, the failure of communication is on all levels: interpersonal, familial, sociological, political. The film also questions whether the image transmits meaning. Everyone assumes it does. The film also questions the purpose of communication, and also what is being avoided and prevented in communication processes. The film tries to present these questions in a broad spectrum.
The world your films describe seems catastrophic. There is the family suicide of Der siebente Kontinent, the violence of Funny Games, the image of the media in Benny's Video, the collapse of meaning in Code Unknown, the tragedy of La Pianiste.
I'm trying as best I can to describe a situation as I see it without bullshitting or disingenuousness, but by so doing I subscribe to the notion that communication is still possible, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this. I cannot make comedies about these subjects, so it is true the films are bleak. On the subject of violence, there are an increasing number of modalities with which one can present violence, so much so that we need to reconceptualize the whole concept of violence and its origins.
The new technologies, of both media representation and the political world, allow greater damage with ever-increasing speed. The media contribute to a confused consciousness through this illusion that we know all things at all times, and always with this great sense of immediacy. We live in this environment where we think we know more things faster, when in fact we know nothing at all. This propels us into terrible internal conflicts, which then creates angst, which in turn causes aggression, and this creates violence. This is a vicious cycle.
There seems to be some confusion about the title of your last film, which is actually La Pianiste although marketed in America as The Piano Teacher.
I was adapting the title of Jelinek's book, which in the original is Die Klavierspielerin, or The Piano Player, which is a deliberately awkward title and an uncommon term in German. This is to point to Erika's degraded situation. Pianisitin is the German word for the female pianist, so the title of the novel in German is a put-down suggesting Erika's crisis. The English translation of the novel is The Piano Teacher, which isn't correct at all, and is of course a little nonsensical and even more devaluing of the protagonist. I left the German title of the book not quite as it is, to give her more dignity, which is simply my approach to the material.
La Pianiste is the most popular and recognized of your films thus far. Do you feel that it best represents your sensibility and development as a film-maker?
I wouldn't say this, since the idea isn't mine but based on a novel, whereas my other films come from my own ideas. I recognize myself a bit more in those films rather than in works based on other texts. Of course, I chose the topic of La Pianiste because I was very much drawn to it, and what I could bring to this work. But in some ways it is a bit distant from me. For example, I couldn't have written a novel on the subject of female sexuality. The topic of the novel interested me, but my choice of other source material for a film will probably continue to be the exception.
I notice that your recent films are in French, although the setting remains Austrian.
This is to accommodate the producers and actors. My principal source of support has come from France, and my casts have been largely French. Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot... they are wonderful. Austria's film industry is a bit more limited in resources. The French production industry has been very helpful to me, and I am very comfortable with the language.
Could you speak a bit about your new projects?
I am making Hidden, which is about the French occupation of Algeria on a broad level, but more personally a story of guilt and the denial of guilt. The main character is a Frenchman, with another character an Arab, but it would be incorrect to see it strictly as a story of the past but rather a political story that deals with personal guilt. So it might be seen as more philosophical than political. The second film I'm preparing is Le Temp du loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) [which has now released]. This is about how people treat each other when electricity no longer comes out of the outlet and water no longer comes out of the faucet. I'm a bit concerned that after the events of September 11th this film will be read very specifically, but it takes place in neither America nor Europe, and focuses on very primal anxieties.
Could I ask you for your views on the current international situation, the war on Iraq, the "war on terrorism" and the like?
I think that at least 80 per cent of the people of Europe, and perhaps the United States, did not want war. The war is horrible. War is always the dumbest way of solving problems, as history clearly shows. My impression is that the American government made up its mind a long time ago, so I'm rather pessimistic about the outcome. The war is insanity. The US government doesn't see it this way, because it represents powerful interests. But the people don't want it. Some may be nervous merely because of the economic consequences, and some seem to follow blindly, but my impression is that the people are very much against war.