'IW Talks to the Oscar 13' Nominees' is a daily series running through to this year's Oscar ceremony (February 24) that features new or previously published interviews with some of this year's nominees. Today, we're re-running an interview with Michael Haneke, whose devastating drama "Amour" won the Palme d'Or this year and is the top contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. He was also nominated for Best Director, beating out Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow.
Always misspelled but often retweeted, the phony Twitter feed attributed to "Michael Haneke" is a crassly waggish parody of the celebrated Austrian auteur's forbidding persona. (Sample tweet: "if werner hurtsog asks u 2 join his pyramid skeem then dont do it. hes usin all the money 4 his documentry on pebbles lol") Not that a sober-minded, 70-year-old artist like Haneke—whose austere, confrontational masterworks include "Caché," "The White Ribbon" and "Time of the Wolf"—would ever use Twitter, but leave it to our postmodern culture to mine snarky laughs from a man whose oeuvre is regularly described as "bleak."
However, there's a surprising tenderness to Haneke's new chamber drama "Amour," for which he won his second consecutive Palme d'Or at Cannes ("parms dorz," as fake Haneke calls them). Starring screen legends Emmanuelle Riva ("Hiroshima Mon Amour") and Jean-Louis Trintignant ("The Conformist") as a retired octogenarian couple coping with the cruel impermanence of life after the wife suffers a stroke, the film presents a brutally honest portrait of marital bonds tested by the inevitable pain and loss of human decay. Beautifully acted and conceived, "Amour" is as profoundly direct and moving as it is hard to watch.
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This past fall, during the film's NYFF premiere, I sat down with Haneke and his translator to discuss the film, one of the year's most critically lauded.
At 70, you seem in good health. Was the impetus of this story your own sense of mortality, or seeing others struggling through it?
Like almost all of us in my family, I was forced to witness the suffering of someone I loved very deeply, and that was the catalyst. It was the worst experience that you can imagine. However, what I experienced in my family has nothing to do with the story that I tell onscreen.
Is it cathartic to make a film on this subject, even removed from your personal familiarities?
I don't think you can achieve catharsis with a novel or a film—at least, in a classical sense. If a film or a book leads people to be meditative, to think about things, to be more sensitive for a couple of hours, then you have achieved a great deal. I don't think you can expect to do more than that.
What about after the fact, when you're talking to anyone who has had an emotional response to the film?
Yes, of course. You make a film in order to communicate with people, and when you see that you've achieved that goal, then it makes you happy. There are, on one hand, the reactions on the part of professional people, whether colleagues or critics, and that's important to you. That's part of your work. But even more satisfying is when non-professionals come up to you, when they tell you how important the film was to them, how it touched them. It makes you feel particularly gratifying.
This seems to me the most compassionate film you've yet made. Is this the start of a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke?
[laughs] I don't think I've changed. It's the same filmmaker making the films. It's a question of the theme that you deal with. If you're making a film about love, then you're going to be a lot more tender, warmer, gentler, then if you're making a film about the representation of violence in the media. I always try to approach my theme closely and use a form as appropriate as possible.
Earlier this year, you told The New York Times: "I don't feel like I'm growing wiser or quieter with age." So how are you growing?
More impatient. [laughs]
Filmmakers often shy away from harsh truths like old age and death, perhaps because they're not comfortable addressing them or they think audiences won't want to see that. Was "Amour" challenging to get financed?
Not really. Of course, it does depend upon your track record. If my previous films had been failures, I don't think I would have been permitted to make this film. Similarly, let me take the example of "The White Ribbon," for which I had written the script ten years before actually making the film. People wouldn't let me do it. They said, "The film is black and white, two-and-a-half hours long and has no music. It's going to be a catastrophe." It was only because "Caché" had been such a success that I had the opportunity to make "White Ribbon." That's why prizes and recognition are so important for directors. They allow you greater freedom in your work, and improve the working conditions for your next films.