If you know the name Michael Haneke, chances are that merely hearing it provides Pavlovian reactions of dread and despair. Of all the European auteurs who traffic in depressingly painful cinematic expression, no one does it like Haneke. Over the course of a 43-year career the 75-year-old auteur has made everyone who looks at his academically intelligent provocations feel painfully uncomfortable. Classic art house shock classics like Funny Games, Cache, The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher and Time Of The Wolf left even the sturdiest of souls shaken and stirred. Often it was the unsettling subject matter that cut deeply, but just as often it was his stately, static, slow, and rigidly controlled directorial style that trapped characters in frames, trapped audiences with them, and took their time to fill viewers with dread before the worst inevitably happened.
In Haneke’s latest feature Happy End (read our review here), the biggest surprise might be the filmmaker appears to be having fun and even going for a few laughs. Sure, these are Haneke’s style laughs that stick in the throat and make you feel horrible about yourself and the human condition, but they are laughs nonetheless. In a Michael Haneke joint, we’ll take what we can get. The movie also feels like a compilation of the filmmaker’s greatest hits in terms of themes, techniques, and even casting. The ensemble family drama/bleakest of all comedies features everything from an emotionally detached child filming their own awful deeds (now in Snapchat for millenials!) like Benny’s Video, to a harsh commentary on post-colonialist trauma a la Cache, the fragmented storytelling a la Code Unknown, the attack on bourgeoisie values of all Haneke flicks, the stunt casting of the filmmakers’ favourite actress Isabelle Huppert and even Jean-Louis Trintignant subtly reprising his character from Haneke’s last feature Amour (in the sickest joke in a film filled with them, Haneke uses that connection to remove any of the soft emotion and empathy of his gentlest movie). Call it a victory lap, nostalgia, or a master’s thesis, but Haneke clearly used the film to dive into his filmography and explore what he’s done before through a cracked and harshly comedic lens.
Because of the playful tone (well, by this filmmakers’ standards anyways), call-backs and repetition, many have labeled Happy End a lesser Michael Haneke film. They have a point. It’s not as startling, fresh, or focused as his best work. But it’s also not supposed to be. Happy End is a rare and strange case of a beloved and painfully high-minded auteur looking back at the disturbing accomplishments of his career, touching on the highs, giggling, and playing with at his contribution to cinema history. There’s something amusing and fascinating about that approach, which makes it vital viewing for those who adore the twisted and brilliant imagination of this singular director.
Dork Shelf was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with the legendary art house provocateur when he came to Toronto to premiere Happy End to international audiences at TIFF last fall. It was a shockingly playful chat from the Austrian auteur, involving smiles and giggles that we didn’t even know he was capable of. Perhaps when you make movies like Haneke, you rarely get a chance to blow off some steam in an interview. Yet, that’s exactly what we got out of the master of misery while talking up Happy End as well as his career in broad strokes. Enjoy!
The first thing that I wanted to ask is whether you actually use Snapchat or social media? Because you are one of the last filmmakers who I ever expected to incorporate that technology into a movie.
Not really. I wrote it into the film and then I did research on it. I spent time trying some of these services. I created a Facebook account purely for research. But personally in my life no, I don’t generally use those things. I use email and I use SMS, but I don’t feel the need to make myself more visible or expose anymore of myself than I already do.
Did you use your own name for the Facebook account?
Yes, but it’s not there anymore. Don’t look. [laughs, yes from Michael Haneke]
There were many instances in Happy End that felt like homage to your previous work. The Snapchat sequences were quite reminiscent of Benny’s Video, the structure is similar to Code Unknown. There’s even a moment that suggests this could be a direct sequel to Amour. Was this a deliberate attempt to dive back into your own work or am I reading too much into that?
It’s always the same filmmaker and the same mind at work, so it’s to be expected that references to past work or similar situations reappear. The strand of the story with Jean-Louis Trintignant does of course refer to Amour. I wanted to revisit that because the ending of Amour was a metaphorical ending. Here I wanted to revisit it and present a more realistic ending to the same story. But that story with Jean-Louis is only a small part of this film.
I was surprised by how funny of a film Happy End can be at times. I’m not used to humour coming from you. Have I been missing the humour before or are you trying something new?
I think that in my earlier films there were scenes that I at least personally find funny. But it’s true that if you’re dealing with the stress of a middle class family in Europe, then at best you can treat that with a certain ironic distance. We don’t have the right to claim tragedy for ourselves in the first world. Tragedy is what takes place in the third world. At best we can claim to be participants in a farce.
What’s your family life like? Because the way that you choose to present families in your films sometimes makes me worry about you.
[Haneke laughs and then immediately adopts a stern face for a terse reply] We’re fine.
How do you approach working with children because I find you get remarkable performances out of young actors that many other filmmakers wouldn’t even attempt to achieve?
The most important thing when you’re casting children is to find the talented child with promise. You can work with an untalented child and nothing will ever come of it. I always say that ‘if you ask an adult actor to play a lion, then they will play the lion. If you ask a child actor to play a lion, then they will become the lion.” It’s true that the girl in the film who is on the cusp of adolescence is very good, but I didn’t work with her any differently than I worked with the adult actors. It may be slightly more work to get what you want from them, but it’s also work that I find very enjoyable.
What is it that you find so compelling about Isabelle Huppert that keeps you coming back to work with her?
Simple, she can do everything. First of all, in real life we’re friends and get along very well. We have a similar outlook and perspective on things. So, partly because she’s so intelligent and partly because we’re worked together so often, there’s no need for long explanations. She knows what I want. She reads the script and comes to the set ready. We feel very comfortable together and I love the fact that we don’t need to get into long explanations about backstory and history. We can just work. She’s also so comfortable and talented that I can give her direction as specific as, “in the third sentence on the fourth word, I want tears to well up in your eyes,” and she can deliver it. That’s an extraordinarily pleasant experience for a director. [Haneke smiles wide.]
Is that part of the reason why you wanted to work with Mathieu Kassovitz? Because he’s a director himself, I’d imagine you could work with a certain shorthand that might not be possible with other actors.
It’s the first time that we worked together. We got along great and I think he gave a great performance. He’s someone who I like very much. Ever since the first film of his as director that I saw, La Haine, he’s someone who I’ve always kept an eye on. I also followed his performances on screen and I considered him a great actor. We found it very pleasurable to work together and afterwards agreed if there’s ever another part in one of my movies that he would be right for, we would definitely work together again.
Would you ever act for him?
No. I don’t act.
Have you ever been interested?
No. Absolutely not. I act for my actors occasionally to show them what I want, but no, no, no. That’s enough. [laughs]
I always wondered what your experience was like working in America for the Funny Games remake and whether you’d ever consider going back there to make a movie again?
It was awful. In my experience, everything takes three times as long in the United States as it does in Europe. In the case of the original Funny Games, we had a schedule of six weeks and it was very comfortable and easy to do. For the remake, we had eight weeks and it was a struggle to finish on time. With the unions, the filmmaking structure is so bloated that it’s a mystery to me how anything gets done. It’s a mystery to me that such bloat exists in a country that boasts of its economic efficiency.
Do you go to films much? What sort of films do you watch yourself?
I don’t go to the movies very often. I’m a member of a variety of guilds and academies who send me DVDs and Blu-rays during awards seasons. They fill up shelves in my apartment, but I rarely look at any of them.
What do you think about the pacing of most mainstream film and television? Does the barrage of images and stimulation bother you?
I can’t generalize. There are so many different rhythms and tempos in mainstream cinema. I have nothing against rapid pacing if it’s suitable for the story. If however, it is speed for its own sake or because we expect that due to the commercials that we see everyday, then that’s wrong. Speed for its own sake is artificial and obviously I don’t like it. Every story needs to find its own aesthetic and form. My stories have a different aesthetics and form than action films. That’s why I don’t do action films or anything like that. It’s a form that I don’t grasp.
Finally, a very important question. Where do you keep your Golden Globe?
[laughs] In my country home.
(Note: this interview was conducted through a translator and has been edited for clarity.)
Happy End opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on January 12.