• ​The Author’s Signature: A Conversation with Michael Haneke

    By Hillary Weston


    Michael Haneke on the set of Happy End

    A master of the austere, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has spent his career unnerving audiences with his meticulously constructed, relentlessly provocative commentaries on modern Europe. And as with all his best work, his latest, Happy End, is both intellectually probing and utterly engrossing. Reuniting him with two of his greatest collaborators, Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant, this bone-dry satire infuses the story of a dysfunctional family with the director’s longstanding thematic preoccupations with technology, surveillance, and the sins of the bourgeoisie. While at the Toronto International Film Festival for the North American premiere of Happy End, which opens this week in New York, Haneke sat down with me to talk about his early experiences falling in love with cinema and the films that have shaped his singular aesthetic.

    I’m curious if you remember your first experience in a cinema.

    The first film I did and didn’t see was Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. My grandma took me to see it. The film opens with very dark, gloomy shots of the castle and very disturbing music. I was so frightened that I started crying and disturbing the whole audience, so my grandmother had to take me out.

    That must have unconsciously influenced you in some way. Is there a particular filmmaker who turned you on to the idea of pursuing cinema later on?

    When I was young, there were so many things I wanted to do. First, I wanted to be a concert pianist, but I didn’t have the talent for it. Then I wanted to be an actor, because both of my parents were actors as well, but then I failed the admissions test for acting school—I had to do a performance and I was not accepted. So then I started to write. I became a critic and saw a lot of things, which led me to imagine that I might be able to do it myself. If I had to name one specific person who led me to reflect on that, I would have to say it was Robert Bresson.


    Haneke and actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Fantine Harduin on the set of Happy End

    What was it about Bresson’s work that spoke to you?

    What strikes me about Bresson is the seriousness he brings to the medium itself and to the viewer. I also like his gaze. The fact that he had the ability to invent a personal, unique language that reproduces his way of perceiving the world—that’s something very difficult to do. Most filmmakers take cinematic clichés and use them as building blocks for their movies. But finding an individual voice, a signature for your work, is extremely difficult, and there are only a few filmmakers who have been able to do that. I see those filmmakers as beacons in cinema. I’m thinking of such directors as Tarkovsky and Cassavetes.

    You’ve had such enduring collaborations with actors like Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I’d love to know more about how you work with them.

    There isn’t a specific approach, and I don’t have a theory for this. But what I can say is that I love actors and I love working with them. It’s all about creating a sense of trust, so that the actors know that you’re there to support them, which leads them to be able to give their best. It’s when actors feel the director doesn’t understand them or is an idiot that they’re going to clam up. My students are constantly asking me, “How do you work with actors? What’s the secret?” And I have to tell them that there’s no method. Each actor is different, and you have to work with them differently. I’ve worked with the same actors frequently because I know them and I’m able to write to their strengths and weaknesses. There starts to be continuity in the collaboration, which increases the likelihood of getting good results. When I’m working with Isabelle Huppert, for instance, she reads the script and understands it, and we don’t have to prepare for a long time discussing the character’s intentions.


    Isabelle Huppert in Happy End

    What part of the filmmaking process do you take the most pleasure in?

    Re-recording and sound mixing. By that point you’re in a situation without stress and all the parts have come together and you can make things better. I’m a freak about sound, so we mix for two months—it’s very luxurious, but it’s very satisfying for me. I’ve had a very good mixer for years and years. I’m an auditory person, not a visual person. For many years I worked as a stage director, and I would sit below the stage while my actors were rehearsing with my gaze down. The actors would say, “But you’re not even looking at me!” and I would answer, “But I can see you better that way. If I’m concentrating on your voice, then I can hear the slightest error, whereas if I’m looking at you I might overlook it.”

    When you’re writing a script, is your mind also working as a director and conceiving how the film will be told visually? I imagine that was of particular importance with Happy End, where numerous scenes take place on cell phones and computer screens.

    The films that have motivated me, impressed me, and left a mark on me are films made by authors—directors who also write their own scripts. When they’re writing, they know who is going to be directing their script, and they have in mind what the final product will be. They’re dealing with the subject matter, the dialogue, and the way it’s going to be filmed, all at the same time. For example, in Code Unknown, there is a scene that consists of a series of very long takes that last about ten minutes. It’s a very complicated scene to set up, and it would have been impossible for me to write it if I wasn’t directing it, just as it would have been impossible to direct it if I hadn’t written it. When I was writing I was thinking about how I was going to stage it, how I would direct that scene. If the person directing isn’t the person writing the script, then you’re in a situation where you’re creating something that’s more conventional, where you’re not taking risks. The story may be very well told and technically very well done—that’s the case in Hollywood studio productions, where movies are made by professional technicians and experts in their field—but it’s very impersonal. The form can never be treated separately from the subject matter. But that kind of approach is only possible with a writer-director.


    Code Unknown

    Are there literary authors whose work you find yourself returning to or feel you have a kinship with?

    There are many—I have more than six thousand books in my home! One of my desert island books is Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. I feel a strong kinship with German literature. I also think of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, but also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the greatest of the great. Among contemporary authors, I like Michel Houellebecq. Every week I read at least one book, so it’s very difficult to answer!

    So are you reading more than you’re watching?

    Yes. But I rewatch certain films again and again, because if a film is really good, even if you have seen it twenty times, you can learn more from it. I’m also forced to rewatch because I teach cinema, so every year, when the new students come, we have one course where I show different classic films. I start every year with The Mirror, and then Au hasard Balthazar and The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and A Woman Under the Influence—the great classic films.

    Though you’re not regularly watching new films, are there contemporary filmmakers whose work you admire?

    I like Asghar Farhadi. I think he’s really a great writer. His screenplays are amazing and on the level of Chekhov. I also like Yorgos Lanthimos, Ruben Östlund . . . There are new people who are very interesting. Also, they’re all writer-directors.


  • By Dazzio
    December 26, 2017
    01:00 PM

    It's great to see Haneke likes Ruben Östlund. Force Majeure is a great film and I cannot wait to see The Square.
    • By Andrew_Boone
      January 18, 2018
      01:31 AM

      Don't sleep on "The Guitar Mongoloid", "Involuntary", and "Play" -- his first three features, prior to "Force Majeure". They are all very similar in style and structure, and very different from "Force Majeure", though many of the themes carry over. "The Guitar Mongoloid" I thought was garbage for the entire first half of the movie, then slowly I realized what he was doing, and by the end I was in love with it. I haven't seen "The Square" yet, but I think his first four features are all very good or great.
  • By Ryan
    December 26, 2017
    06:29 PM

    I'm on board with Tarkovsky & Bresson, but I've always had trouble understanding the greatness of Cassavetes, maybe in time....