INTERVIEW: Michael Haneke: The Bearded Prophet of "Code Inconnu" and "The Piano Teacher"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 12.04.01) — There’s a moment in Michael Haneke‘s 1997 film, “Funny Games,” when a distraught mother blasts a shotgun shell into one of the two sadistic intruders who have kept her family hostage over a long, torturous evening, and who have just killed her young son. After which the surviving intruder “rewinds” the action, bringing his deceased cohort back to life with an ordinary VCR remote. It’s a shocking narrative rupture, but one that seems particularly timely after the events of September 11, during which we found ourselves clambering for the rewind button, endlessly replaying those fateful moments of impact, mouths-agape, wishing we could make it all go away, pondering how much it was “just like a movie.” For Haneke, it’s a typical image; in his films, people are always watching.
Haneke is the cinema’s great contemporary poet of disaffection and, thereby, the filmmaker best equipped to comment on our absurd times. His characters are passive voyeurs, separated from real experience by a television screen. They are us, the desensitized viewers, the children of divorce, the slaves of consumerism. And his is a world of superficial sterility, of meticulously organized surfaces stifling human individuality. It is the world as fed to us by television, whose style Haneke satirizes by adopting it himself, giving us perfectly balanced compositions, an artificial stillness in the air and a pool of blood on the floor that is no more aberrant than some spilled milk on a countertop. It is, as Godard might say, not blood, but red.
Haneke’s 1989 feature, “The Seventh Continent,” is not only one of the cinema’s great debuts, but a film that, a decade later, reveals all the dulled edges of “American Beauty.” It is the true story of a family that commits group suicide, after destroying every possession in their Vienna apartment, and it is the first in a trilogy of films loosely concerning the media’s depiction of violence. (The other films are “Benny’s Video” and “71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance.”) These movies are graphic and intense, but Haneke doesn’t (as his detractors would claim) profit from their violence. Rather, he reclaims sensitivity to violence (and to human suffering) from the exploitative wastelands of Jerrys, Bruckheimer and Springer.
Haneke’s films have been little known or shown in the U.S., which underscores the difficulty of penetrating the U.S. market if you are an artist with something challenging to say. But greater recognition for Haneke may be in the wings. His two most recent films — “Code Inconnu” (which is currently playing in New York) and “The Piano Teacher” (which will be distributed next year by Kino International) — are significant departures, in that they are in French, feature marquee talent and evidence a variety of new themes.
“Code Inconnu” trades Haneke’s concerns with violence and media for an intricate study of the immigration dilemmas facing contemporary Europe. Staged almost exclusively in unbroken takes, some running as long as ten minutes, the film never quite congeals, never feels as fully in Haneke’s grasp as his earlier pictures. But it grows stronger, buoyed by Juliette Binoche‘s superb performance and the powerful scenes featuring her, and continuing Haneke’s study of the ways in which we are manipulated by images.
“The Piano Teacher,” adapted from Elfriede Jelinek‘s 1983 novel, is something greater. The story of a repressed piano instructor (Huppert) and the young pupil (Benoit Magimel) whose infatuation unleashes in her a torrent of pent-up, sadomasochistic impulses, it is Haneke’s greatest concentration on narrative and character to date, at once his most conventional and far-reaching picture. That this woman, who has been kept under her domineering mother’s watch for so long, would be drawn to this spirited, athletic youth, who seems to have such command of the world, but would be able to relate to him only in terms of domination and submission, is perhaps the most perceptive truth to be found in any movie this year — for which Haneke’s two stars were justly rewarded with prizes at Cannes in 2001.
Haneke recently spoke to indieWIRE while in Los Angeles for the U.S. premiere of “The Piano Teacher” and an accompanying 6-film retrospective at the American Cinematheque. (The series travels to the Museum of Modern Art in 2002.) In person, Haneke speaks a mixture of German, French and English and can seem somewhat guarded in discussing his work. But make no mistake: films this strong grow out of a deep, resonant passion.
indieWIRE: Since “The Piano Teacher” is only your second film adapted from a literary source, I wanted to ask you how did you come into contact with this piece of material and why did you decide to make it into a film?
Michael Haneke: The book was published about 20 years ago. 15 years ago, I read it and was interested right away. I approached the author, Elfriede Jelinek, but she was not very interested, and she refused my offer to turn it into a screenplay. She wasn’t interested, because she herself was trying to turn it into a screenplay, and that screenplay was ultimately rejected. So, after another five years, which makes it 10 years ago now, a friend of mine, who is also a director, finally succeeded in convincing the author to let him have the rights. She agreed, and he asked me to write the script. This friend was trying to get the film financed for about 10 years, but did not succeed — it was always in turnaround and it just didn’t make it. Eventually the rights fell back to the producer, Veit Heiduschka, and then, realizing that with this other director he couldn’t pull it off, he asked me. I said yes I would do it, but only on the condition that Isabelle Huppert would play the lead role.
That’s the whole story.
iW: What’s your take on the adaptation process, because “The Piano Teacher,” like your earlier film of Kafka’s “The Castle,” is a distinctly personal interpretation that nevertheless remains quite faithful to the events of the source material.
Haneke: I would draw a definite line between “The Castle” and “The Piano Teacher,” because “The Castle” was made for television, and I’m very clear about the distinction between a TV version and a movie. Films for TV have to be much closer to the book, mainly because the objective with a TV movie that translates literature is to get the audience, after seeing this version, to pick up the book and read it themselves. My attitude is that TV can never really be any form of art, because it serves audience expectations. I would not have dared to turn “The Castle” into a movie for the big screen; on TV, it’s OK, because it has different objectives. But with “The Piano Teacher,” if you compare the structure of the novel to the structure of the film, it’s really quite different, and I feel I’ve been dealing very freely with the novel and the way it was written. I would say that my version of looking at the story is pretty distanced and cool, while the novel itself is almost angry and very emotional. The novel is much more subjective and the film is much more objective.
iW: In an interview you gave discussing “Code Inconnu,” you said that it is impossible to cast a movie star, like Juliette Binoche, in a non-genre film, unless she is cast as an actress or a movie star. Yet Isabelle Huppert is very much a movie star, even if I wouldn’t necessarily classify “The Piano
Teacher” as a genre film.
Haneke: It’s a parody of a melodrama. As a European filmmaker, you can not make a genre film seriously. You can only make a parody.
iW: Why is that?
Haneke: Because the genre film, by definition, is a lie. And a film is trying to be art, and therefore must try to deal with reality. It cannot do this by means of lies. If films are just business, then you can lie. You can sell the lie with a good conscience.
iW: Isabelle Huppert isn’t the first actress I would think of for this part. I wouldn’t have thought that someone so beautiful could be made to look so plain.
Haneke: I do not consider Isabelle to be a very glamorous person. To me, Julia Roberts is glamorous, but if you look at Isabelle’s films, there are really a lot of them that show her in a very delicate, simple way. My main attraction towards Isabelle was that, on the one hand she can be very vulnerable and on the other she can be very icy and intellectual. She’s the victim in the same moment that she is the perpetrator, and there are not many actresses that have that range.
iW: I’d like to switch gears for a moment and talk about some of your earlier work. Do you look at your earlier experiences as a sort of training ground, or do you consider your pre-“Seventh Continent” works to be as viable as your later, better-known films?
Haneke: I learned my business in the theater and in television, particularly working with the actors. You can learn much more in the theater than directing a movie, because then you have no time when you are shooting a movie to really work with the actors. You have to learn this craft somewhere else. Of course, those films I shot for television are quite recognizable as my films. But again, they’re TV films, and as I was saying earlier, TV films are very different from movies, because TV films have to serve a special purpose; they have to deal with a certain audience structure and what an audience expects. So, they can never really do what a theatrical movie can do.
Those 20 years shooting television films, etc., was not a matter of not
having the opportunity to make a real film. But rather, I wanted to find my
iW: That “language,” as you put it, consists of a dissociation of people and the objects they acquire, until the story seems to be told from the point-of-view of the objects; the people are almost incidental. You could say that the main characters of “The Seventh Continent” are an alarm clock, a fish tank and a package of frozen broccoli, and rarely have any of them seemed so sinister.
Haneke: Basically, there are too many films, and most of them only recycle whatever there already is. There’s no need in being another person who just recycles what is already there. The film tries to show that we are victims of the structures we have built, of our environment. And all those things are metaphors for those structures.
What really interested me was not that there was a family that committed suicide because, sad as it is, there are a lot of those. What I thought was fascinating was that there was a family that goes out and commits suicide, but before they do so, they destroy everything they possess. I thought that was a good metaphor for our situation.
iW: It seems a particularly good metaphor in light of the events of September 11, following which there has been so much discussion about how people are now spending more time with their families and less time worrying about career advancement and personal wealth. It’s exactly the sort of release the family in “The Seventh Continent” seems to be seeking, even though that film was made over a decade ago.
Haneke: That’s why I grew a beard. Because I wanted to be a prophet.
iW: Your films, up to and including “The Piano Teacher,” seem constructed out of the moments that most movies tend to leave out — the awkward pauses, the moments leading up to and following an event rather than the event itself. There’s a profound lack of sensationalism, even though you frequently choose sensationalistic subjects.
Haneke: It’s actually out of respect for the importance of what happens there. It’s, of course, very tempting, if you don’t have that kind of respect, to just sit on that spectacular event, and that’s what a lot of Hollywood films do. For example, if you take “Schindler’s List” and you have that shower scene, I think it’s absolutely disgusting to show that. One must not show such things.
iW: The fact that you don’t show these things is key to what makes your films so unnerving. For example, your films have often been criticized for their violence, even though most of that violence occurs off-screen.
Haneke: Because I use your fantasy. I think it’s one of the most important things for a filmmaker: to use the fantasy of the viewer. The audience has to make their own pictures, and whatever I show means diminishing the fantasy of the viewer.
iW: And the people who have criticized the violence in your films are, I think, only looking at the surfaces of the works, because what strikes me about your films is their profound humanism. Above all, you seem to be arguing for a healing between people.
Haneke: The point is that there are no solutions. If there were, the world wouldn’t be quite what it is. Speaking about cinema, the mainstream cinema tries to feed you the idea that there are solutions, but that’s bullshit. You can make a lot of money with these lies. But if you take the viewer seriously as your partner, the only thing that you can do is to put the questions strongly. In this case, maybe he will find some answer. If you give the answer, you lie. Whatever kind of security you try to feed somebody is an illusion. It’s not only me; I think every art form today can put out only questions, not answers. It’s the fundamental condition.
iW: That’s one of the reasons I find it curious that the notion of “escaping from reality” is so frequently invoked to describe our reasons for going to the movies. If anything, your films offer us an escape into reality.
Haneke: I want to make it clear: it’s not that I hate mainstream cinema. It’s perfectly fine. There are a lot of people who need to escape, because they are in very difficult situations, so they have the right to escape from the world. But this has nothing to do with an art form. An art form is obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little piece of the truth.
iW: In your films, the truth is always something indefinite and amorphous.
Haneke: This is, I think, a general feeling today, that we don’t know what is the truth. (Holds up a glass.) Even to know what this kind of material this is, it’s a version of reality. These questions, “What is reality?” and “What is reality in a movie?” are a main part of my work. The next film is exactly about this question, and “Funny Games” was also about this question.
iW: Yet this bothers some viewers. A friend of mine, after seeing one of your films for the first time, remarked that he enjoyed the film, except for the fact that no concrete explanation was given for the characters’ behavior.
Haneke: Every kind of explanation is just something that’s there to make you feel better, and at the same time it’s a lie. It’s a lie to calm you, because the real explanation would be so complex, it would be impossible to have in 90 minutes of film or 200 pages of a novel.
iW: Of course, getting your message to audiences, at least in North America, has been a difficult situation. Your films have generally been very hard to see in the U.S.. There was a time when the films of Godard, Bergman and Antonioni received regular theatrical exposure, but your films, and those of many of your contemporaries, are largely limited to film festival showings.
Haneke: Because there was not television. Television has had a huge effect on audiences, and really took away a lot of possibilities for those directors. Television really changed the way of seeing things; you can tell this with reviews. I can read a review and I can tell how old the critic probably is, meaning whether he grew up being very affected by TV and being trained by TV images, or is somebody, usually an older person, who has not been as exposed to TV. You can really tell the difference in the way they write about films.
iW: And television isn’t just a different way of looking at images, it’s a different way of thinking and feeling about them too.
Haneke: There’s a pun in German that I’m not sure works in English: “Television is there to switch off,” meaning not only switching off the machine itself, but switching off your own mind.