Code Unknown (2000)
I try to rouse the viewer from his status as a victim in order to give him a more flexible position in relation to the film.”
By Jeremy Carr.
There’s a penetrating coldness that commonly characterizes the films of Michael Haneke. Rightly or wrongly, similar notions of emotional detachment have also fed the superficial perception of the filmmaker himself. As much as anything else worthy of praise, and there is indeed much else, Michael Haneke: Interviews attempts and roundly succeeds in illuminating, if not exactly correcting, many of the common misunderstandings born from this entwined assessment. Published in 2020 by the University Press of Mississippi as part of its Conversations with Filmmakers series, the book collects interviews that range from 1991 to 2017, but what’s covered in the varying discussions span the entirety of Haneke’s career, spanning five decades and twenty-four films. A justly revered and widely awarded auteur, one of the enduring giants of contemporary European art cinema, Haneke engages with the diverse questions put forth and opens himself up in perhaps unexpected ways, responding to the inquiries with unpretentious candor. A one-time philosophy student, he maintains a reflective and observant resolve when discussing all aspects of his life, including those aforementioned assessments related to his taciturn demeanor. Citing Robert Bresson, for example, he cautions on the difference between “pessimism” and “clarity” (12), establishing a distinction central to his worldview and resulting body of work.
Edited by Roy Grundmann, Fatima Naqvi, and Colin Root, Michael Haneke: Interviews is instantly appreciated for its insight into the early portions of Haneke’s career. He had been making films for two decades, beginning with the 1974 television movie After Liverpool, before garnering international attention with the 1989 release of The Seventh Continent, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, a showcase that would be notably kind to Haneke in years to come. Because his feature-length films made for Austrian and German television were limited in their viewership and later availability, the exceptionally thorough introduction to Michael Haneke: Interviews sheds appreciable light on this first phase of Haneke’s vocation (all the Conversations with Filmmakers books contain sweeping introductions, but few have provided such an absolutely essential and meticulously detailed summary of a filmmaker’s oeuvre). The subject of the conversations to open the book likewise reflect on these unfamiliar projects, many of which Haneke speaks glowingly of while others he seems keen to dismiss; when Stefan Grissemann and Michael Omasta note the only thing known about his second film is its title, Sperrmüll (1976), Haneke responds, “I’ve repressed it (laughs). No, seriously, it’s not worth talking about” (5).
As stated by the publisher, Michael Haneke: Interviews contains “seventeen articles, fourteen of which have been translated into English for the first time,” and the international scope of Haneke’s work, particularly as his career progressed, is a key refrain running throughout the text. After surveying the comparatively obscured origins of Haneke’s television experience, and relatedly his relationship to Austria and Germany specifically, the exclusive national focus so appropriate at first grows increasingly secondary to the stories and themes later explored, which bear a fascinating global relevance. “Most [of Haneke’s films] undermine cultural specificity,” the editors point out, and instead “develop a decidedly pan-national, European frame of reference” (viii). In Haneke’s films, these political and social tensions align with what the editors call “the classic problems of modernity” (viii), which include, possibly stemming from his preliminary medium of operation, the impact and consequence of television. “Watching the news on TV is like visiting the Louvre in a single morning,” Haneke declares. “You see tons of pictures, but your consciousness doesn’t retain any of it” (25). Multimedia platforms are a recurring subject scrutinized in Michael Haneke: Interviews, branching out to all facets of influence and technological construction, from the vital absorption explicitly explored in Benny’s Video (1992) to the subtle assortment of devices and services interspersed in Happy End (2017).
Haneke, who has often probed, sometimes painfully, the troubling nuances of human behavior, seems intensely conscious of the effect his films have on viewers, or the effect they should have. He isn’t, as he acknowledges, concerned with pleasing audiences or presenting palatable tales of escapism, and when asked if he was ever afraid audiences would get up and walk out, he brushes aside the relative trifle: “[N]o, that doesn’t worry me. Some, of course, will get up and leave, but I don’t see this as a problem. You can’t force anyone to do what is ‘good’ for them. One can only make an offer: if it gets accepted, great, but if not, that’s okay too. I am not a social worker” (12). Yet the necessity of an active viewer is imperative for Haneke, who is dependent on their engaged responsiveness. “Given my conception of the filmgoers,” he states, “I try to rouse the viewer from his status as a victim in order to give him a more flexible position in relation to the film” (27). This fundamental dialogue doesn’t come easy, though, and given the depth of his work, it may at times become overwhelmingly disconcerting, to which Haneke offers up some advice: “I believe that my films get better on a second viewing because the first time they pose so many questions in one fell swoop that the viewer is maybe left a little disoriented” (27). Still, he makes no secret of his intentions to confront spectators head-on, as in Funny Games (1997), where he tried to “clear a path to lead the viewer directly into the game and make him understand his own responsibility for the violence that he’s seeing on the screen” (37). Or, take a scene from 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), where Haneke holds a shot “for so long that the viewer crosses the threshold of boredom and actually starts paying attention. This is basically the essence of every dramatic art: one tries to anticipate the audience’s reaction in order to undermine it” (53). At the same time, recognizing this occasionally unnerving objective, he never looks down on anyone who fails to appreciate his antagonistic aims: “I’m not condemning anyone,” he assures. “I don’t have the right” (38).
Although he evokes the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States when discussing Time of the Wolf (2003), pointing to a widespread acceptance of catastrophe that alleviates the need for backstory (75), Haneke is rather adamant in his denial of political messaging. He also resists the sometimes-excessive attempts to “read” his work along any number of diagnostic means: “I consider psychoanalysis the death of art” (51). One of the more amusing properties of Michael Haneke: Interviews is Haneke’s response to these repeated attempts at gleaning a rationale for what he does. He is cagy without ever coming across as outright dismissive: “I think you can take that interpretation…” (67); “I have no problem with that interpretation” (68); “I don’t know […] I don’t know […] that’s fine with me […] could be” (84). And in some cases, he counters with a simpler, if less interesting, reason for what transpires (see his discussion of a scene in Amour  and the real reason why Jean-Louis Trintignant presses his head on a pillow to suffocate Emmanuelle Riva, rather than just his hand). Yet to some of the views regarding what happens in his films, Haneke expresses, for his own part, a degree of disbelief, as when Christopher Sharrett (Film International Contributing Editor, here writing originally for Cineaste) speaks of the “beautiful” destruction of household goods in The Seventh Continent (70-71), a terms that surprises Haneke, and when Michel Cieutat and Philippe Rouyer seem amazed Haneke would have Riva’s Amour character say “life is beautiful, this long life” – “I have never had anything against showing beautiful moments,” Haneke responds (129). The reader may also be stunned to find so many of the collected interviews are scattered with more editorially inserted “(laughs)” and “(laughter)” than expected, and with Haneke exclamations like “gosh” (4). This fatalist filmmaker does, it turns out, have quite the sense of humor, even if it veers toward the unconventional. Usually seen as one of Woody Allen’s more somber and melancholic films, Haneke considers Interiors (1978) “pure comedy” (17), asserting “I can’t stand comedies that support the cliché that everything has to be funny and safe” (18), and he further contends his own Code Unknown (2000) is his “most pleasant film” (though there is another “laughter” following that statement) (64). It’s a minor point, but it’s also refreshing to read Haneke is not above the pleasures of receiving accolades, expressing joy in winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009 (for The White Ribbon) and 2012 (Amour).
Michael Haneke: Interviews covers wide-ranging, on-going discussions of other filmmakers and filmmaking generally, with Haneke stating his appreciation for how Stanley Kubrick and Pier Paolo Pasolini handle violence, voicing his dislike of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and condemning John Woo: “[W]hen a director as talented as John Woo claims that he is doing with violence what Fred Astaire did with his feet, that’s more dangerous by far. Dangerous, irresponsible, and stupid” (39). This exchange does get somewhat muddled, however, as interviewer Marc Toullec states, “John Woo’s films can’t be considered violent or self-indulgent. They are above all morality tales, allegories where the choreography is more important than the blood….” “Exactly,” agrees Haneke (39). So, are they violent or not? Restrained or dangerous? In any case, Haneke’s observations on his work and the medium at large are consistently intriguing and reveal a great deal about why Haneke does what he does, and does so well. “In my definition anything that could be termed ‘obscene’ departs from the bourgeois norm,” he states. “Whether concerned with sexuality or violence or another taboo issue, anything that break with the norm is obscene. Insofar as truth is always obscene, I hope that all of my films have at least an element of obscenity” (72).
Furthermore, Haneke speaks of the inherent manipulation of cinema, adapting Jean-Luc Godard’s famous observation to declare “film is a lie at twenty-four frames per second in the service of truth” (80) and, before proclaiming he would choose to be composer and conductor over a director (88), he talks of the use of music in movies, maintaining “Music has no place in a realistic film” (80). Haneke speaks of speculative aesthetic choices (“If it were up to me, I would only make black-and-white films, although,” he adds with a notable caveat, “this depends on the subject, of course” ), and of those decisions literally staged, speaking of his attention to detail, for instance, as with a bookshelf in Amour where the books are arranged by theme and alphabetically, although the titles are never seen. Questions about his process of adaptation also arise, prompting Haneke to say he feels beholden to a source, “but only to the extent it dovetails with [his] concept of the film” (7), and avow his preference for people who don’t know the source to see his films (59). This is particularly relevant when it comes to The Piano Teacher (2001). In a hesitant conversation with the novel’s author, Elfriede Jelinek, who reveals she hadn’t seen the final cut of the film, Haneke faces the question of “how he as a man could adapt a feminist novel.” His answer is simple and persuasive, arguing that he was “attuned to the characters and their constellations” regardless of its ostensible genre (49).
Quite understandably, Haneke’s Funny Games – the controversial original and his controversial 2007 American remake (which was more controversial for being a remake) – receives considerable notice. As the editors point out in their introduction, this “piece of Situationist art as film […] flopped with the very audience Haneke targeted, consumers of gratuitously violent action and horror movies” (xi). It was to this end that with the American version Haneke wanted English-speaking audiences, “the biggest fans of violent cinema,” to discover the film (107). Corresponding to an earlier insistence that “the whole shooting experience seems to consist of removing and overcoming […] obstacles” and that the “work with a good cast is really the only thing that is truly enjoyable” (31), he confirms that without Naomi Watts in the remake, he would have “scrapped everything” (107). Despite its many detractors, he remains happy he did the remake, though he does submit some skepticism as he remarks that Ron Howard took out an option for an adaptation of his 2005 film Caché (109).
Aware of the judgement that has followed him and possibly increased with each new film, Haneke readily accepts any apparent referentiality, to his own work and to cinema in general. “I believe that any film, any art form aspiring to call itself that, is obligated to be self-reflexive,” he tells Grissemann and Omasta in 1991. “If you want to be serious, you can’t make a film that does not reflect on its own aesthetics” (9). Years later, the issue returns when Haneke discusses Happy End, which, he says, “nasty commentators have said […] is a ‘best of’ compilation of [his] work,” though he does admit it is, in fact, “a kind of summation” (146). He returns to the subject of shallow assumptions as he points out, again concerning his most recent feature, “It is clear that, if Haneke makes a film called Happy End, there must be a catch” (157). Along these lines, the editors of Michael Haneke: Interviews write that like other auteurs, “Haneke tends to remake a small number of stories, finding new ways to present the cluster of problems that have preoccupied him from the beginning of his career. He has finessed profound variations on a limited repertoire of plots focused on the nuclear family” (ix). And when asked by Thomas Assheuer about his fidelity to certain motifs, Haneke counters with, “it’s not fidelity. I simply can’t think of anything else. I just remain interested in the same things” (105). Haneke allows for related limitations when it comes to his filmmaking, which he nevertheless challenges and surpasses on a routine basis, reasoning, “The cinema can offer very little that is new; everything that is said has been said a thousand times, but cinema still has the capacity” (71). But as ever in his productively provocative style, he accepts the need for this opposition. “One could say that my films challenge the dominant cinema,” he states, “the mainstream film that promises entertainment, but actually delivers escapism and distraction” (29). And when it comes to his enacted resistance toward such fare, he upholds his comfort with “being the troublemaker.” Even if it’s not always pleasant, he feels good about it because he thinks it is necessary, adding, “The fact that I have the courage to look in the mirror has something to do with it. But it surprised me that so few people feel the way I do. That does give me pause” (86).
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).
Travis Merchant’s review of Funny Games (Criterion Collection)