Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today, we’re running a new 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.
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?
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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.You’ve said you would not have made this film if Jean-Louis Trintignant was not involved. He’s obviously an icon of cinema, but why specifically him?
Since I was growing up, I’ve always had two favorite actors: Marlon Brando and Jean-Louis Trintignant. They don’t externalize everything. There’s something they keep inside that remains mysterious, and they have a richness to their performances that you only find in real life. That was fundamental in wanting to work with him. But also, He exudes this warmth and humanity. There are any number of great actors in his age, but I don’t know anyone else with that aura about him that was so necessary for the role.
It’s been said that you’re quite demanding, even stubborn with your actors. When you’re dealing with performers who are older, is there a different give and take compared to your usual dealings with your cast?
I understand what you mean. It is true that when you’re with an older and celebrated actor, you’re more respectful. It’s not a question of how well-known they are, but rather their age. When I’m talking to Jean-Louis Trintignant in private conversation, I would never use the form of address you use among friends. In French, there’s the [respectful] vous and the [informal] tu. I would never use the tu with him. But work is work, and regardless of whether you’re directing a child or an 80-year-old, the approach is always the same. If you haven’t gotten what is necessary for the part, then you’re going to insist on as much for an older actor than you do for a younger one. I treat them with the same respect or lack of respect as anyone else.
The apartment is an incredible setpiece. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, two people trapped in a room for two hours would not be the most cinematic conceit. Did you set any guidelines to ensure that it was an aesthetically arresting locale?
When writing a script, especially involving a single set or two people, it is very helpful to have this model in mind. For that reason, I went back to the apartment of my parents in Vienna, not because the story of my parents had anything to do with the story I was telling, but rather because of the layout. It was so familiar, I thought it might give me ideas and help me in imagining the construction of the film, the same way as when you’re writing a crossword puzzle. Having that structure of the squares can be helpful. In fact, that was the case. We transposed the apartment from Vienna and its Austrian furniture to a French studio with French furniture, but used the same layout.
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When [Trintignant’s character] is in bed and he hears the water being turned off, that occurred to me because in my parents’ apartment, the kitchen and the bedroom were quite far apart. If it had been different, I’m not sure I would’ve had that idea. Another example is that when my mother died—again, it has nothing to do with the story since she was very young when she died, before she was 50—but when she died, my stepfather locked that room and moved into the smaller room next to the kitchen.
You evoke religion quite sparingly in this film, but personally, do you think love can transcend death?
I don’t want to take away from viewers the possibility of forming their own opinion by imposing my own. Automatically, it would be applied to that film, and I as an individual think it’s uninteresting.
So it’s probably fruitless to bring up euthanasia as a follow-up.
Many of your films, this one included, feature upwardly mobile characters named Georges and Anne. Is there a specific preoccupation there?
When I was writing my first television film, I had to come up with name. I was looking for short names, one or two syllables, that were relatively common. But in real life, and also in realistic art, names shouldn’t have a symbolic fiction. So once I found those, there was no need to change them. Also, given the fact that my films are usually set in the same social milieu, they can be applied, and given my lack of imagination, it makes things easier now that I’ve found those names.
It has been said that two of the hardest subjects to direct are children and animals. You’ve handled children well, but how hard was it to control the poetry of an onscreen pigeon?
That scene was particularly difficult for Jean-Louis Trintignant to shoot. As you can see in the film, he’s unsteady on his feet and he had to react constantly to the bird, whose movements were unpredictable. We had a bird wrangler on set, and we set out seeds on the ground in hope the bird would move in a certain direction, but it’s very difficult to direct a bird. Those scenes were grueling for [Trintignant], all the more so because he had broken his hand previously. I will mention that he didn’t break his hand while shooting the film, at least. He had asked for a physiotherapist so he’d be stronger while working, and in the course of that, he broke his hand. It was hard for him to then grasp things, something he mentioned in Cannes at the press conference.
Beyond your film career, what do you hope to have done before you shove off this mortal coil?
That’s a hard question… That I haven’t made too many people unhappy. [laughs]