Michael Haneke: There's no easy way to say this…
Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning film Amour will strike some as brutal, as its elderly characters grapple with the indignities of ageing. The director proves a challenging subject to interview as he evades and obstructs – much like his films
Michael Haneke likes to say that his films are easier to make than to watch. Cast and crew have fun, but he expects his audience to be disturbed, affronted, even sickened. "On the set I make jokes," he said when we met in Paris to discuss Amour, which deservedly won him the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. "I can't get too involved, or it turns into sentimental soup. I try to keep it light."
Countries: Austria, France, Germany, Rest of the world
What he tried to alleviate while making Amour was a grim anatomy of elderly debility and dementia, complete with incontinence, forced feeding and the eventual stench of putrefaction. The film follows the decline of an octogenarian musician, who after a stroke is nursed at home by her adoring but increasingly angry and bewildered husband. The roles are played, as Haneke said, by "two great actors who go beyond acting. They both knew that this situation will concern them in their own lives in the very near future". Emmanuelle Riva is now 85, Jean-Louis Trintignant is 81; because films from the 1950s preserve their nubile youth – Riva in bed with her Japanese lover in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Trintignant worshipping the bosom of Bardot in And God Created Woman – it's alarming to see them now with stiff but fragile limbs and worn, sagging faces. Their anxiety is unfeigned, their injuries not acted. Riva had to strip naked for a scene in which a bossy nurse bathes her; she didn't believe, until the moment came, that Haneke was really going to oblige her to undress. Trintigant's arduous limp is the memento of a motorcycle accident, and to compound his afflictions he broke his hand during the filming.
Amour is stark and sometimes brutal, as you would expect from a director who specialises in emotional extremity. Haneke's The Seventh Continent is about the doggedly meticulous suicide of an entire family, Funny Games about the torture and slaughter of another household; The Piano Teacher studies the hang-ups of a heroine who slices her genitalia with a razor and begs to be whipped. But the new film has a grave compassion not seen before in his work. Its subject, as Haneke put it, is "How do I deal with the fact that someone I love is suffering?", and its private source is the agony of the aunt who brought Haneke up when his feckless parents, both actors, realised they had no talent for child-raising. At the age of 92, crippled by rheumatism, his aunt overdosed on sleeping pills. Haneke found her in time, and rushed her to the hospital. She had previously begged him to help her die; he pointed out that since he was her heir, he might have ended in prison. A year after her first attempt, she swallowed more pills and put herself out of her misery. Though the circumstances in Amour are different, Haneke passes on his personal dilemma to Trintignant, who copes in his own mad, heroic way.
Earlier Haneke films have dealt with a casual, motiveless murder in Benny's Video, and the indiscriminate shooting of a crowd in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. ButAmour examines dying, a process that is more protracted and much more upsetting to watch. There is less drama here, because the decay is predictable and wearily gradual. All the same, the climax of Amour is a scene that takes you by surprise and leaves you numb.
Probably, like me, you won't know whether to be outraged or moved to tears by what you see. Haneke mistrusts the idea of catharsis, and thinks that Hollywood films have prostituted it by supplying "false [because too quick] answers". That's why his own plots are unresolved: Hidden is a whodunnit which leaves us unsure who did what to whom, and his adaptation of Kafka's The Castle breaks off, like the unfinished novel, in the middle of a sentence. At the end of Amour, the daughter of Riva and Trintignant, played by Isabelle Huppert, returns to her parents' apartment to sit and silently ponder what has happened. She represents us; perhaps, Haneke said to me, she incarnates "our bad conscience", since we have paid to witness the pain of fictional characters. Is she experiencing catharsis, which is a kind of purgation? It depends on what you project on to her frozen face; all I know is that my own feelings about Amour, when I calmed down enough to sort them out, were composed in equal parts of the terror and pity that Aristotle thought were the aftermath of tragedy.
The man who devised these torments has a passing resemblance to El Greco's emaciated saints. Haneke dresses exclusively in black, offset by a waterfall of white hair. Although he refuses to appear in his own films – he casts his wife Susanne, an antique dealer, as an extra instead – he has said that he fancies playing a Capuchin monk, since they wear such stylish hoods. The remark catches his combination of asceticism and elegance: an American journalist once described him as "a haute-couture Gandalf", a wizard who is a little too fussy about his wardrobe.
Haneke made his name by berating the complacency and amnesia of his native Austria and deriding the glossy, spendthrift consumerism of American movies: he relished the scandal at Cannes in 1998 when audiences jeered as the family in The Seventh Continent, having smashed their household goods, flushed wads of money down the toilet. Yet the enemy of the bourgeoisie is impeccably bourgeois, and when I arrived for our meeting at a swanky hotel near the Arc de Triomphe, I found Haneke – just off a flight from Vienna, where he lives – tucking into a luxurious lunch in the restaurant. Unhappy about being glimpsed in a situation where he wasn't in control, he scuttled upstairs to his suite and then, after an interval, made an entrance in the room set aside for our interview.
I expected him to be detached, even haughty. Huppert, from whom Haneke extracted such a lacerating performance in The Piano Teacher, once called him "a curious combination of Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock". Bresson in films like Pickpocketor A Man Escaped watches souls striving for redemption; Hitchcock in Psycho orVertigo explores the incurably neurotic mind. Haneke mixes the contemplativeness of the one with the mischief and malice of the other. Like a god, he studies the world from a distance, unable to intervene, perhaps amused by the small, insignificant disasters he observes. Hence his fondness for placing the camera far away from its subjects: Hiddencoolly watches as a child's small world falls apart, his cries muffled by the intervening space; and Code Unknown concludes by showing how life, likened by Haneke to a flea circus, indifferently unravels on a Paris boulevard.
In person he is affable enough, but he prefers to have his contact with reality mediated by a camera. On this occasion his buffer was a translator; although Haneke's English is serviceable, he insisted on a go-between. He listened impassively as I told him how the climax of Amour had astounded me. He didn't require a translation, but responded by asking, in a syrupy Viennese accent, "Was ist die Frage?" (What is the question?) He then sat back to enjoy his power and my flustered impotence. I began to understand the discomfort of his actors, who are obliged to play by his rules. Huppert had a tantrum when he refused to allow her to decide on the motives of her character in his apocalyptic fable The Time of the Wolf. Naomi Watts, whom he directed in the American remake ofFunny Games, broke down in tears and protested that she was not a marionette as he bossily choreographed a scene in which she bustled about the kitchen. Haneke's ideal interpreter was the late Susanne Lothar, who played Watts's role as the excruciated wife in the original Austrian version of Funny Games. "She must have been masochistic," said Haneke approvingly, remembering that Lothar spent half an hour sobbing in her dressing room to prepare for one scene of abuse.
Haneke has a sly, sceptical awareness of the way the cinema manipulates us, passing off propaganda or advertising as reality. He is also, however, an arch manipulator. Given notice that this was to be an inquisition not a conversation, I rephrased my compliments and asked him a question about the startling climax of Amour. On principle he refused to answer. "Ah," he said, smirking as I tumbled into the trap, "you are asking me to interpret, and I will not. Every meaning is fine, all interpretations are OK. I do not choose between them, because I dislike explanations. It happened so with Juliette Binoche in Hidden. She asked me if the woman she played was having an affair with her colleague at work. There were two scenes together with this man: I told her to play one as if they were involved, the other as if they were not. I doubt that she found this to be helpful advice.
"We must allow,' he said, "for complexities and contradictions. When I am asked this kind of thing, I usually say I don't know the answer because I don't have such a good relationship with the author." He is of course himself the author, or auteur, since he writes all his films as well as directing them, so he was pleading lack of self-knowledge. He watched me fume for a moment, then giggled – a recurrent mannerism, perhaps an apology for his unco-operativeness, perhaps a signal of his temporary triumph.
There is a theory behind this game of hide and seek. His films argue against "the disempowerment of the spectator", which is why Amour begins at a piano recital where we survey the audience in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées but don't ever see the pianist. "I give the spectator the possibility of participating," Haneke said. "The audience completes the film by thinking about it; those who watch must not be just consumers ingesting spoon-fed images." I was reminded of a scene in Amour when Trintignant spoon-feeds Riva, which might be another of Haneke's little parables: she spits the liquid back in his face, and he slaps her. "A film cannot stop at the screen," said Haneke, repeating one of his mantras. "Cinema is a dialogue." But it's not a dialogue in which he wants to take part: while empowering spectators, he chooses to baffle or obfuscate interviewers. Another fusillade of giggles filled the silence as I started again.
I quoted a comment Trintignant makes in the film, when Huppert arrives to find she has been locked out of Riva's sickroom. Trintignant summarises the ghastly scene inside, and says "None of this deserves to be shown." If it can't be shown to the patient's daughter, how did Haneke justify exposing it to a crowd of strangers in a cinema? "A film can show everything," he said, retreating to an untested generalisation. "It is different if someone from within the family says this. You have only not to betray your idea of what is human behaviour, and not add misery to what is actually there." That didn't seem to me to be an answer, since Trintignant is not talking about a bedside visit but about the propriety of making a spectacle out of decay and death. More giggles covered Haneke's reluctance to continue.
I began to understand the reasons for his shiftiness. Amour extends Hitchcock's infringements of taboo in Psycho, which Haneke much admires. Hence Riva's ordeal in the bathroom, and another almost unwatchable moment that corresponds to the revelation of Mrs Bates rotting in the fruit cellar. (At least Riva was still able to act, which gave her a way of defending herself; by contrast Haneke cast Annie Girardot as a doddering matriarch in Hidden at a time when Alzheimer's disease had left her unsure of who she was.) Haneke makes us witness things from which we would usually avert our eyes. Is he doing so to cater to our prurience, as when Huppert visits the peep show inThe Piano Teacher and sniffs a semen-caked tissue she picks from a bin while watching a gross, grunting video of copulation? Or is he punishing us by compelling us to confront mortality, as the young boy in The White Ribbon does when he studies a corpse?
Haneke expects films to cause nightmares. When first taken to the cinema at the age of six to see Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, he began screaming in terror and had to be ushered out. After seeing Pasolini's Sadean epic Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, he remembers feeling nauseated for a month: that was the highest compliment he could pay the film's anthology of perverse and repellent sexual tableaux. In the past, he has had no compunction about admitting his sadistic motives. "I've been accused of 'raping' the audience," he said in 2006, "and I admit to that freely. All movies assault the viewer in one way or another." He added, rather snakily: "I'm trying to rape the viewer into independence."
When Haneke directed Don Giovanni at the Paris Opéra in 2007, he turned Mozart's blithe seducer into a psychopathic rapist who ripped the clothes from one of his victims and violated her onstage. Haneke explained away the act metaphorically: his Don Giovanni was a pumped-up financier in an office tower, so we were watching Wall Street fuck the little people of the world. But I can't help speculating about his fascination with the ruthless libertine, especially since the cast of Amour includes an operatic baritone who was once a notable Don Giovanni: William Shimell plays Huppert's husband, a philandering musician. "We met after I saw him as Don Alfonso in Cosí Fan Tutte," said Haneke. "The part in the film is small, I thought it would be amusing. Why not? And he will sing Alfonso when I direct Cosí in Madrid next year." That too is telling, since Alfonso in Mozart's opera is a manipulator, an unmoved mover who dares two young male friends to seduce each other's fiancees. Instead of questioning Haneke about his self-identification with this elderly cynic, I asked why Riva, early in her illness, shudders with disgust at what she calls Shimell's "British sense of humour". It's easy to imagine her son-in-law jollying her along, boosting her morale by teasing her. Would that be so very wrong? "I cannot say," replied Haneke with a disdainful sniff. "I am not British." His giggle this time was entirely humourless.
Foiled in my efforts to find out about his handling of people, I mentioned his lethal history with livestock. Trintignant traps a pigeon in Amour, and after appearing to smother it he chooses, in a beautiful rush of emotional release, to fondle and caress the bird. Haneke, I suspect, would have preferred to wring its neck, since like a method actor the pigeon ignored his direction. "Ah, that was awful! There were little seeds to guide it, but it went its own way through the apartment, always differently." It survived, however, unlike its fellow creatures in previous Haneke films. The family dog is the first victim in Funny Games, several horses have their throats slit in The Time of the Wolf, and Benny's Video begins with the butchery of a squealing pig – Haneke's perfectionism required the sacrifice of three porkers. Of course he had a theory ready to account for this carnage. "It is a hierarchy of power," he said. "Men on top, then women, then children, then animals at the lowest end. They are the ones that have to bear it."
But how much did these involuntary performers actually have to bear? I prodded Haneke about the aquarium in The Seventh Continent, overturned when the family wrecks its house as a prelude to suicide: the tropical fish flap and flounder in a sea of shattered glass. "We did our best to protect the fish," he said, which is not quite the same as the "no animals were harmed" declaration that the RSPCA requires. "To be honest, we did that scene many times. The whole studio was flooded, and the crew tried to grab the fish and put them in buckets of water every time I called 'cut'. By the end one or two were floating with their stomachs up. I believe they died of shock." This time he had the decency to not titter.
Blocking my efforts to implicate him in his films, he resumed his theorising. "You can use your means in a good and bad way. In German-speaking art, we had such a bad experience with the Third Reich, when stories and images were used to tell lies. After the war, literature was careful not to do the same, which is why writers began to reflect on the stories they told and to make readers part of their texts. I do the same." A film, according to this logic, exists only in the eye or mind of the beholder; Haneke, preserving his own moral superiority, takes no responsibility if someone sees Funny Games as a snuff movie or The Piano Teacher as pornography, and he remains blameless if we viewAmour as a chilly experiment that vivisects its elderly actors.
Haneke is the most incisive analyst of the kind of evasion he practises in interviews: it amounts, in his judgment, to a national psychosis. The Viennese parents in Benny's Video cover up the evidence of the murder their son has committed at home, and the German pastor in The White Ribbon indignantly refuses to recognise the horrors – including the crucifixion of a pet bird – that abound in his household. Haneke is dealing, as he has often said, with Austria's suppressed guilt, its refusal to acknowledge its shamingly recent past. Born in 1942, he grew up with this collective denial, which has become second nature to him; he has no war crimes to live down, but he must sometimes be alarmed by the darker, more transgressive impulses of his imagination. I didn't ask him about this, because he had already given me his all-purpose obstructive answer: he has only a nodding acquaintance with the author, so the dubious motives I attribute to him must be my own.
His slipperiness left me feeling frustrated, and I heard the echo of his pesky giggle, an aural version of the Cheshire cat's smile, in the Paris street when I left. Then I remembered the impact Amour had on me – a tribute to the beatific grace of its actors and to their physical and moral courage, yet also to Haneke's unsparing quest for the truth about the way we live and die. A film director has the right to remain invisible; hauled out of hiding by the marketers, he is entitled to conceal or to profess ignorance of the urges that underlie his work. But it's easier to watch Haneke's films, harrowing as they are, than to meet the man who made them.