Michael Haneke’s latest film Amour won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and continues to attract awards attention. The Austrian auteur talks to John Hazelton about tackling ageing and suffering on screen — and why he doesn’t like improvisation
It is probably not something the 70-year-old Austrian writer-director would ever say himself, but Michael Haneke is on a roll.
His last three films (leaving the US version of Funny Games aside for the moment) have earned an impressive haul of awards: a Cannes best director prize and five European Film Awards, including European Film and director nods, for 2005’s Hidden (Caché); the Cannes Palme d’Or, the foreign-language film Golden Globe, two Oscar nominations, a Bafta nomination and three European Film Awards, again including European film and director, for 2009’s The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band); and, earlier this year, another Palme d’Or for Amour, which as Austria’s entry for the best foreign-language film Academy Award, is considered a front runner for an Oscar. The film also has six nominations at this year’s European Film Awards.
Audiences have shown their approval by turning the challenging, sometimes bleak or violent films into strong arthouse performers, with the French-language Hidden grossing $16.2m worldwide and the German-language The White Ribbon $19.3m. Amour, another French-language outing, started its international roll-out in September in Germany and Austria, and has since opened in territories such as France, Italy and the UK. It opens in the US on Dec 19 via Sony Pictures Classics.
Haneke has even become something of a role model in the film financing world. Having made most of his films over the past decade as French-German-Austrian co-productions (with the occasional participation of other countries as well) he is, he says with the kind of sly humour that sometimes cuts through his professorial demeanour, “a poster boy for the success of the European financing system”.
The growth of Haneke’s reputation has allowed him to tackle difficult subjects on respectable budgets. With its reported $9.4m (€7.3m) budget, Amour was considerably less costly than the much larger scale The White Ribbon. But its subject, Haneke concedes, speaking in his native German through a translator, was certainly risky: “I’m dealing with a theme that’s usually considered a sure box-office flop.”
Veteran cast confronts taboos
Featuring French veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant (star of European classics ranging from Z and The Conformist to Three Colours: Red) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour to Three Colours: Blue), Amour looks at how the bond of love between two ageing, retired music teachers is tested when one suffers a stroke that leads to rapid physical decline.
Isabelle Huppert, who previously starred in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Time Of The Wolf, plays the couple’s concerned daughter.
‘The question was how do I cope with the suffering of someone I love. That was the starting point’
The inspiration for the story came from personal experience, says Haneke. “It was a case that I experienced in my family. Like so many of us I was confronted with someone who I loved very deeply and who was ill and suffering. And I had to look on helplessly and witness their suffering. It was an unbearable experience and that led me to reflect on the question.”
Though Haneke has been praised for taking on the almost taboo subject of old age, it wasn’t ageing that interested him. “I could just as easily have made a film about a young couple coping with a sick child,” he explains. “The question was how do I cope with the suffering of someone I love. That was the starting point.
“Had I made the film about a younger couple then it would have been a tragic case but an isolated one. Whereas dealing with old age it’s a more universal occurrence and for that reason there’s a greater possibility of the audience identifying with what’s going on.”
The script was nearly abandoned when Haneke became aware of Swiss director Léa Pool’s similarly themed 2010 drama The Last Escape (La Derniere Fugue). But the interruption helped Haneke conceive Amour’s elegantly mysterious ending.
“I didn’t know how I was going to end [the script] and when I heard about this other film I said: ‘Forget it, I’ll work on something else.’ And it was when I started working on this other project that I came up with the ending for Amour.”
When it came to casting, Haneke might have expected some resistance from the 82-year-old Trintignant, who hadn’t made a major film for 14 years.
“He’s said it himself in interviews, he wanted to commit suicide, and my producer [Les Films du Losange head Margaret Ménégoz] told him: ‘Make the film first and you can commit suicide after that,’” Haneke recalls.
In fact, he adds: “It really wasn’t difficult to persuade him. First of all my producer knows him quite well and she told him I was working on a script for him. He’d seen my previous film and was very enthusiastic about it, so that led him to want to accept this film.”
Amour brought together the same three production companies that made The White Ribbon: Austria’s Wega Film (Haneke’s regular production home since the original Funny Games in 1997), France’s Les Films du Losange and Germany’s X Filme Creative Pool. The producers found co-production partners in French and German public television and attracted the participation of Austrian television and no fewer than nine national or regional European bodies.
All in the script
The Parisian apartment where most of Amour’s story takes place was created in a studio near Paris, allowing Haneke to more easily control the lighting conditions and focus on working with his cast.
Famous for shunning rehearsal and improvisation, the director adapted his methods to working with two venerable performers on a story told largely through intimate exchanges between two quietly refined characters.
“Everything was in the script,” Haneke asserts in no uncertain terms. “In none of my films is there ever any improvisation.
“But,” he adds, “when you’re working with great actors there are things that they bring to the part, nuances they bring that might not be in the script. Otherwise you wouldn’t need actors, you could do everything with computers.”
However, there were sometimes, he reports, “misunderstandings”.
‘As a director, it’s your job to know everything that’s going on around you on set’
“There was one scene that Jean-Louis had shot and he thought he had poured his soul into it and done a wonderful reading. After I said, ‘Cut,’ I told him that it was wrong, that it wasn’t what I was looking for. And he accepted that, he accepted my perspective on it because he understands that as the director and author I have the sense of the context, the overview of the film and know what I need for that specific scene.”
The key, Haneke suggests, is that such moments should be handled in a way that avoids conflict or stress.
“It’s very important to me on all of my films to create on set a sense of being laid back, being relaxed — at least for the cast. I’m not always as easy or as forgiving on my crew; with them I can sometimes be quite difficult.”
When it premiered in Competition at Cannes last May, Amour was greeted by most critics as another vital work from a film-maker at the top of his game. A few critics also felt the film revealed a kinder, gentler Haneke, with all the control and cinematic precision of his earlier work but a less provocative view of humanity and its failings.
Haneke rejects the idea and puts the tone of Amour down simply to its subject matter. “With the possible exception of Funny Games, none of my films were ever intended to be provocative,” he insists. “If people saw them as provocative that’s fine with me. But personally I don’t see the film as being so different from my previous films. It’s true it’s dealing with a different theme — when you’re dealing with love, automatically you’re going to make a film that’s more tender than if you’re dealing with a film about violence.”
Perhaps critics and audiences will have to wait until Haneke’s next film to see if there has been any significant change in his world view.
On that subject, Haneke isn’t giving anything away. If he discusses possible future projects, he says: “I limit my possibilities.” In particular, his mention a few years ago of a project about the internet to be shot on locations around the world is something “I deeply regret”, he says with a chuckle.
One intriguing possibility is that the man who once put The Gold Rush, Psycho and A Woman Under the Influence among his 10 favourite films of all time might bring his sensibility and skills more into the mainstream by making another English-language film.
His first English-language project was the aforementioned American version of Funny Games, a 2007 scene-by-scene remake of his violent 1997 German-language thriller that commented on the way movies — particularly Hollywood movies — manipulate their audience. The US version was the one blot on Haneke’s recent career, irking some critics, underperforming at the box office and evidently causing its director a good deal of stress.
Because of his “very poor” English, shooting the US version was “incredibly demanding”, says Haneke. “It wasn’t challenging in terms of speaking to the actors because actors are forced to listen to the director. But as a director it’s your job to know everything that’s going on around you on set, have a sense of what everyone’s saying to each other. And that’s much more strenuous and tiring if it’s not a language that you master.”
Still, Haneke remains open to the possibility of another English-language project, if circumstances are right.
“I’ve long wanted to work with Jean-Louis Trintignant and similarly there are a huge number of great English-language actors I’d love to work with. So if the occasion ever presents itself, if there’s a subject that comes up that lends itself to an English-language production, I’d be willing to try it.”
- Haneke was born in 1942 in Munich.
- After his family moved to Austria, he studied philosophy, psychology and theatre in Vienna.
- He worked for German public broadcaster Sudwestfunk from 1967 to 1970 and then became a freelance director and writer, working in theatre and television.
- His first feature, The Seventh Continent, was released in 1989, and was followed in 1992 with the controversial Benny’s Video.
- Funny Games brought him to the attention of a worldwide audience in 1997 and 2001’s The Piano Teacher brought him his first major award, the Grand Prix at Cannes.
- 2012 Amour
- 2009 The White Ribbon
- 2007 Funny Games (US)
- 2005 Hidden
- 2003 Time Of The Wolf
- 2001 The Piano Teacher
- 1999 Code Unknown
- 1997 Funny Games
- 1997 The Castle (TV)
- 1994 71 Fragments Of A Chronology of Chance
- 1993 The Rebellion (TV)
- 1992 Benny’s Video
- 1991 Obituary For A Murderer (TV)
- 1989 The Seventh Continent
- 1986 Fraulein (TV)
- 1984 Who Was Edgar Allan? (TV)
- 1983 Variation (TV)
- 1979 Lemmings (TV)
- 1976 Three Paths To The Lake (TV)
- 1976 Sperrmüll (TV)
- 1974 After Liverpool (TV)