Tribeca Review: Anti-Biodoc Delves into the Austere World of Michael Haneke: “true beauty is accuracy” (TRAILER)

Tribeca Review: Anti-Biodoc Delves into the Austere World of Michael Haneke: "true beauty is accuracy" (TRAILER)

You’ll get only small fragments of Michael Haneke’s biography in “Michael H., Profession Director.” Yet you will see how Haneke works. And you’ll get a strong dose of how actors feel about the man who forces them to force audiences to confront terrifying emotions. (Trailer after the jump.)

It’s not about having fun, says Jean-Louis Trintignant. 

Yves Montmayeur’s feature-length profile, among the very best in the Tribeca program, is not the standard bio-doc, but a portrait of the artist in his own words – interviews with Haneke, plus clips and thoughts from his actors. 

If this isn’t an official story – and it seems like one, given Montmayeur’s access to Haneke and his collaborators – it is a story from one point of view, punctuated, on the somber side, with Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 90 D899 Number 1

“In all my films I have made an attempt to approach the truth,” the director of the Oscar-winning “Amour” says, looking straight into the camera. “Whether I have succeeded is another matter. And I have always tried to take my viewers seriously. If you take someone seriously, you can tell them unpleasant things that upset all of us.” 

It’s no coincidence that Haneke hides his face behind a white beard. With a deliberate stage whisper, the professor of performing arts in Vienna describes himself as a craftsman, and he says coyly that the benefit of his stardom – or notoriety – is that the butcher recognizes him, hence he tends to get a better piece of meat than in earlier days. He and the butcher – the Handwerker (craftsman), as he calls himself, and the Fleischhauer, (butcher, or meatworker in German) – are both skilled craftsmen.  Right, except that we didn’t see the butcher on the Croisette.

Methinks he downplayeth too much in this authorized portrait. Access to Haneke at work was not a problem. Most of the footage comes from the sets of his films and clips are allowed to run, in the style of Scorsese’s movie docs, longer than the usual cable TV nano-second. He’s as quotable as Scorsese, but in clipped sentences rather than stories.

Access to Haneke the person is another thing. The man who talks at length about the mechanics of a scene resists telling the personal stories that might link his work to anything about him personally, or to the legacy of the Hitler Era – the kind of roadmap that many Haneke watchers might seek. 

To be able to write a scene, you have to live it, he says. He means that dramatically, not literally. Childhood, parents, social position, lovers, deaths, divorces still never push their way into the doc – not even in credential-crazed Austria, a place where people flaunt university degrees and family history, especially if it is aristocratic. (Many Austrians also suffer from Waldheimer’s Disease, amnesia about the Nazi Era.) One sequence has Haneke stopping the interview in restless frustration when he suspects that he’s being asked to interpret what he’s put on the screen. 

The questions are understandable. Clips from his work, even from the most familiar films, make you want to turn away from the sheer rawness. Haneke says he goes after truth, and that truth can hurt.

We still learn a lot. Haneke says he made “The White Ribbon” in black and white because the visual memory of that era is in black and white. He calls “Funny Games” a parody of a detective story. Austria, he says, is a country that produces neuroses and culture. “True beauty,” he tell us, “is accuracy.”

“Whenever you take an ideal and apply it absolutely, you make it inhuman,” he says professorially. “That is the root of all terrorism.” 

“I want my films to be obscene,” the teacher declares. “Obscene is that which transgresses that which is permitted.”

There’s no critical element to “Michael H. Profession Director,” no effort at balance, and the cheering section of actors acknowledges the emotional toll of any Haneke film. This is a documentary for Haneke’s many admirers, although anyone who’s been put off by his coldness may find the man to be at least a few degrees warmer than assumed. 

Most of the film is in Haneke’s native German, the language in which he is most comfortable. Subtitles will keep the doc off American television – it was shown in a 60-minute TV version in the UK. So will the seriousness of the man who says that he takes his audience seriously. Don’t be deterred. Seek this one out. 

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Lisa Nesselson

Splendidly written!
For those who read French, there's a great deal to be gleaned about the man himself in HANEKE PAR HANEKE, a handsome 340-page book of interviews with the director conducted over the course of two years by French critics Michel Cieutat and Philippe Rouyer.

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