Described memorably as the Minister of Fear by the New York Times some years ago, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has been terrorizing audiences and holding them emotionally and psychologically hostage ever since his career began. Fond of rigorous, excruciatingly brutal portraits of human suffering, misery and seemingly sadomasochistic torture, Haneke’s vision of such painful aims is always unflinching, coldly dispassionate and cruelly voyeuristic. With the absence of joy, hope and relief in his movies, and a stringent, rap-on-the-knuckles approach that sometimes verges on being scolding, many have assumed Haneke to be a soulless misanthrope, humorlessly putting audiences through the paces because he can. But over the years in many interviews it’s been shown that the 71-year-old, two-time Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker is polite, genial, and has even displayed flashes of uncharacteristic humor. But the question remains: what is the psychology that drives a provocateur to ceaselessly punish and provoke his audience?
If that’s the central question to be asked, the portrait documentary, “Michael H. Profession: Director” never quite answers it. Directed by Yves Montmayeur — a filmmaker who has shot several making-of features for Haneke’s films — perhaps this is because the documentarian and friend knows that finding the answer isn’t tenable. Perhaps Montmayeur knows his subject too well. Whatever the case, ‘Profession: Director,’ while interesting, is never essential nor as absorbing as the subject Haneke himself. Looking at Haneke’s films in reverse chronological order (up to and including “Amour“), it’s not that the Foreign Language Oscar-winning filmmaker is obscure or that the documentary doesn’t penetrate; a portrait does form. It’s just not one that elucidates too deeply. Part of it may be Haneke’s refusal to be psychoanalyzed, and part of it might be a slightly inept interviewer leading an already-cagey subject (early interviews fall flat, though the filmmaker likely chose them to represent that the direct path will never work here). With a fierce intellect and bullshit detector on amber alert at all times, Haneke guardedly swats down some questions that go in for the kill too soon. And while Montmayeur had unprecedented access to Haneke and his productions (behind-the-scenes footage goes as far back as “Cache“), that early, first-depicted interview seems to set the tone against any kind of traditional documentary.
But it would be false and unfair to say that Haneke is completely closed off. While not necessarily gregarious, the gray-bearded director, who often resembles a deathly-looking owl in photos, is chatty, but sometimes unwilling to answer the obvious. The closest the filmmaker gets to unveiling the layers of Haneke’s psyche is when he intimates that he is driven by fears and he does not need therapy because he works out and explores his anxieties in his films. Haneke says it’s the “privilege of artists… to explore [their own] unhappiness and neuroses” through their work. “I am very much afraid of suffering,” he says when asked why he is so preoccupied with depicting abject suffering in human beings.
“Trust is good, control is better,” Haneke says, and it’s a maxim that his team and collaborators know all too well. The self-confessed control freak is seen much more animated than you’d expect in behind-the-scenes footage, acting out sequences they way he envisions them, falling to the floor the way he would ask his actor to and generally fussing about. Many talking heads admit working with Haneke isn’t easy. Actress Emmanuelle Riva is shown on camera so emotionally traumatized by an “Amour” scene that she says she wants to quit, and Haneke, realizing he may have pushed her too far, has to try and assuage her. Depicted as impatient and severe, and even losing his temper completely a few times, the filmmaker does seem to realize he’s not the easiest person in the world to work with, but he’s clearly not a tyrant either. Isabelle Huppert (“The Piano Teacher,” “Amour”) clearly has deep admiration and respect for him, describing Haneke as an unflappable iconoclast, even suggesting cinema would be lesser without him (hard to argue). “Amour” star Jean-Louis Trintignant describes him as a “genius,” and while “No Code” and “Cache” star Juliette Binoche admits his films are hard to stomach at times, she also calls them absolutely essential.
A craftsman and a consummate professional, Haneke clearly takes the job of filmmaking very seriously, and his philosophical outlook is often as austere and painstakingly exact as his movies. “In all my films I have made an attempt to approach the truth,” he says. “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.”
“True beauty is accuracy,” he continues, suggesting the brutality in his films stems from the desire to be honest, no matter how difficult the subject may be. “Whenever you take an ideal and apply it absolutely, you make it inhuman. That is the root of all terrorism. I want my films to be obscene. Obscene is that which transgresses that which is permitted.”
“In cinema the viewer is always the director’s victim,” Haneke says with a slight smile. And while these are all somewhat telling statements, they’re actually just a part of Haneke’s intellectual view of the art of filmmaking which he holds so dear, clearly in the utmost sacred regard. One anecdote about Hollywood offers — “they were all so idiotic” — is admittedly amusing. He describes being absolutely dumbfounded by an offer to direct an action-adventure film in the jungle starring a father and son. While the anecdote is, again, interesting, its inclusion feels like it’s there in the presence of something more enlightening.
We do glean some aspects of how Haneke approaches filmmaking. He calls “Funny Games” a “parody of a thriller” and says he told the young tormenters to act as though they were in a comedy and the agonized adults to perform as though they were in a serious home invasion thriller (curiously enough, the shot-by-shot American remake of “Funny Games” is absent from this collection, as are Haneke’s previously suggested comments that Americans as “consumers of violence” deserved this film).
We learn about Haneke in ‘Profession: Director,’ through action caught on camera, periphery elements and conversations as described above, but we never truly feel like we get to know him, and Montmayeur’s documentary never quite captures the elusive filmmaker. Michael Haneke remains one of the most inscrutable, fascinating and most revered filmmakers on the planet, and perhaps one of the few remaining filmmakers capable of achieving 3 Palme d’Or prizes (which would make a record). But ‘Profession: Director’ remains content with a process-centered and outside-the-window glimpse of the filmmaker (despite being on the inside), and thus Haneke continues to be far more fascinating than the documentary could ever hope to be. That isn’t to say “Michael H. Profession: Director” isn’t interesting. It’s just not deeply engaging or essential. [C+]
“Profession: Director” screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.