Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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Michael Haneke AUSTRIA
The world
that is known

Michael Haneke interviewed

Haneke's films document the failures of modern society on a variety of levels. Christopher Sharrett talks to the director about his ongoing critique of Western civilisation.[*]

Haneke is, perhaps, the most controversial of contemporary European directors. His films, all of which are determinedly successful in making no concessions to the viewer, have both been alienated audiences (being booed at Cannes) and won them over (including a 33-week theatrical run in the US for his most recent title released there), and he has established a position as one of cinema's important provocateurs, a concept lost in an era where cultural/political subversion is often seen as passé, or conceived with jaundiced, anti-humanist cynicism. Equally importantly, he has presented demanding philosophical questions in a formal cinematic language that has a bold and uncomprising nature to match its content.

Born in 1942, Haneke entered film-making rather late in his career, after distinguished work in Austrian theater complemented by seriously engaged, ongoing study of philosophy and psychology. His first feature, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), is a staggering work based on a news story about a family opting for collective suicide rather than continuing in the present alienated world. Unable to accept the notion that the family took their own lives (could the terrors of daily life override the life instinct?), relatives insisted that authorities pursue the case as a murder, despite all the evidence militating against such a conclusion.

The film takes numerous deceptive turns as we expect the family, which goes through daily life in a set of rote behaviors relentlessly chronicled by Haneke's highly disciplined camera (using close-ups and slow intercutting forcing the viewer to consider the features of banal activities), to leave for the promised utopia of rural Australia, since a lush tourist ad for the country appears at regular intervals in the film.

The film introduces altogether unanticipated questions about the nature of utopia, suggesting that the quietude of death may constitute a satisfactory promised land in the mind of the suicide. With its many silences, its interest in the alienating features of contemporary urban life, its remarkable sense of architecture as signifier of entrapment, Der siebente Kontinent introduced Haneke's kinship with forebears such as Antonioni.

With each film—thus far Der siebente Kontinent, Benny's Video (1992), 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of a Chance, 1994), Funny Games (1997), Das Schloß (The Castle, 1997), Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown, 2000), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher (2001) and Le Temps du loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003)—Haneke affirms his presence as one of the key modernist directors at a time when modernist ambitions seem defunct. 71 Fragmente, Benny's Video and Funny Games are among the most unsettling of the cinema's many meditations on television and other media, in particular their role in the erasure of conscience and emotion. These films are by far the most contentious—and perhaps because so least discussed at this writing—observations on the media and their relationship to violence, alienation, and social catastrophe.

Funny Games in particular is the most disturbing remark on action cinema and those works pretending to comment on its social ramifications. Containing elements of Sam Peckinpah and other directors, this tale of a young family besieged by two yuppie psychopaths becomes Brechtian, suddenly "rewinding" scenes, implicating the viewer, who is asked to choose an ending (the film opts for the bloodiest and least consoling). Unlike any number of self-reflexive films engaged with the study of media culture and the role of violence therein, Funny Games never becomes a strained position paper, nor does it participate, for all its relentlessness, in the excesses it criticizes.

Revisiting Kafka's Das Schloß may seem an odd gesture at this date, but Haneke's inflections of Kafka affirm his commitments to reexamination of some of the basic notions of modernity. Haneke's version is the least involved in narrativizing Kafka, and is concerned more with a sense of disruption and dislocation, the structure of the film featuring literal breaks that foreground the novel's artifice.

Code inconnu's exploration of the collapse of language picks up concerns of Bergman, Resnais and Antonioni, suggesting to us that the questions posed by such artists have been ignored as if they have been fully answered, even as the media age has only further complicated them. Using as its linchpin a discarded paper bag cruelly tossed into the lap of a beggar by an insolent, dissolute boy, whose off-hand action affects all the major characters of the narrative in a manner suggesting not the "six degrees of separation" connecting humanity but rather the ever-widening abyss absorbing it, Code inconnu displays Haneke's remarkable "applied theory," his use of semiotics and language theory in a deeply-felt, harrowing exploration of the end of communication, and that failure's relationship to racism and economic and social injustice.

His La Pianiste contains a complex commentary on classical Western cultures's legacy, in particular its relationship to the idea of the family and gender politics, while in Le Temps du loup, his latest feature, he employs catastrophe to strip his characters of the foundations of contemporary bourgeois living—family unity, running water, electricity—to further explore how civilizational values that may seem rigidly universal to those who subscribe to them bear up when applied to situations for which they were not intended.

In all these films Haneke establishes firmly his sensibility. He rigorously eschews the snide humor, affectlessness, preoccupation with pop culture, film allusions and moral blankness of postmodern art. Yet nothing about Haneke's work seems anachronistic, precisely because he recognizes that the crises that affected 20th-century humanity, in particular alienation and repression, continue in the new millennium even if they are simply embraced as features of contemporary life in much postmodern artistic expression. His harrowing explorations of psychological and societal breakdown and the oppression of technological civilization evoke a yawn only from those who accept the terms of this civilization.

Haneke is currently in the pre-production phase of a new film Caché (Hidden). This interview was conducted by conference telephone call in November, 2002, and April, 2003, before the release of Le Temps du loup. I am most grateful to my colleague Jurgen Heinrichs, without whose skills as a translator the interview would have been impossible.

Your work seems an ongoing critique of current western civilization.

I think you can take that interpretation, but as I'm sure you know it is difficult for an author to give an interpretation of his or her own work. I don't mind that view at all, but I have no interest in self-interpretation. It is the purpose of my films to pose certain questions, and it would be counter-productive if I were to answer all these questions myself.

I'm interested in your sense of the modern landscape, in particular your images of architecture and technology. In a film like Der siebente Kontinent the cityscape comes across as both alluring and deadly, somewhat in the manner of Antonioni.

I think that this landscape operates in both of the modalities you mention. It isn't my interest to denounce technology, but to describe a situation in a highly industrialized society, so in that sense my films are very much concerned with a predicament specific to this society, European society, rather than, say, the Third World. My films are aimed, therefore, more to an audience that is part of the conditions of Western society. I can only deal with the world that I know, to be a little more precise. As for Antonioni, I very much admire his films, no question.

There seems to be some degree of competition in your films between classical culture and popular culture. I'm thinking in particular of the opening of Funny Games, where the music of Mascagni, Handel and Mozart suddenly changes to John Zorn's thrash-punk music.

This question has been asked a great deal. I think there is a certain amount of misunderstanding here, at least in regard to Funny Games. That film is in part a parody of the thriller genre, and my use of John Zorn was also intended as parodical. Zorn isn't a heavy metal artist. I have nothing against popular music and wouldn't think of playing popular against classical forms. I'm very skeptical of the false conflict that already exists between so-called "serious" music and music categorized strictly as entertainment.

These are totally absurd distinctions, especially if one insists that an artist such as John Zorn must be seen as either classical or experimental or pop, since his work cuts across all categories. I see in John Zorn a kind of über-heavy metal, an extreme and ironic accentuation of that form just as the film is an extreme inflection of the thriller. I think Zorn's style tends to alienate the listener in a sense that heightens awareness, which was effective to the points I wanted to address.

In that film it seems the first "funny game" is the guessing game that the bourgeois couple plays with their CD player, guessing the classical compositions. Is there some association here of the bourgeoisie possessing classical culture?

That wasn't my first concern. Of course, there is a certain irony here in the way that the bourgeoisie has insinuated itself in cultural history. But I didn't intend for the Zorn music to be seen solely as the music of the killers, so to speak, with the classical music strictly as the theme of the bourgeoisie. This is too simplistic. But, of course, with the guessing game at the beginning of the film there is an irony in the way their music suggests their deliberate isolation from the exterior world, and in the end they are trapped in a sense by their bourgeois notions and accoutrements, not just by the killers alone.

The two yuppie psychopaths seem to be intellectuals, especially in their chatter when they dispose of the wife. They are rather unusual serial killers, at least when we look at the genre.

I think this may be true only of one of them, not Dickie, the fat, slow one. They really don't have names—they are called Peter and Paul, Beavis and Butthead. In a way they aren't characters at all. They come out of the media. The tall one, who is the main "plotter" so to speak, might be seen as an intellectual with a deviousness that could be associated with this type of destructive fascist intellect. I have no problem with that interpretation. The fat one is the opposite; there is nothing there on the order of intellect.

Funny Games seems to be a contribution to the self-reflexive films about media and violence along the lines of Natural Born Killers (1994) or C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992).

My goal there was a kind of counter-program to Natural Born Killers. In my view, Oliver Stone's film, and I use it only as example, is the attempt to use a fascist aesthetic to achieve an anti-fascist goal, and this doesn't work. What is accomplished is something the opposite, since what is produced is something like a cult film where the montage style complements the violence represented and presents it largely in a positive light. It might be argued that Natural Born Killers makes the violent image alluring while allowing no space for the viewer. I feel this would be very difficult to argue about Funny Games. Benny's Video and Funny Games are different kinds of obscenity, in the sense that I intended a slap in the face and a provocation.

If we can return to music, it seems in La Pianiste that classical music, while embodying the best sensibility of Erika, is also implicated in her pathology.

Yes, you can see the music functioning in that way, but you need first to understand that in that film we are seeing a very Austrian situation. Vienna is the capital of classical music and is, therefore, the center of something very extraordinary. The music is very beautiful, but like the surroundings can become an instrument of repression, because this culture takes on a social function that ensures repression, especially as classical music becomes an object for consumption. Of course, you must recognize that these issues are not just subjects of the film's screenplay, but are concerns of the Elfriede Jelinek novel, wherein the female has a chance, a small one, to emancipate herself only as an artist. This doesn't work out, of course, since her artistry turns against her in a sense.

Schubert's Winterreisse seems central to La Pianiste. Some have argued that there is a connection between Erika and Schubert's traveler in that song cycle. This goes back to the broader question as to whether music represents the healthy side of Erika's psyche or simply assists her repression.

Of course, the 17th song holds a central place in the film, and could be viewed as the motto of Erika and the film itself. The whole cycle establishes the idea of following a path not taken by others, which gives an ironic effect to the film, I think. It is difficult to say if there is a correlation between the neurosis of Erika Kohut and what could be called the psychogram of a great composer like Schubert. But of course there is a great sense of mourning in Schubert that is very much part of the milieu of the film. Someone with the tremendous problems borne by Erika may well project them onto an artist of Schubert's very complex sensibility. I can't give a further interpretation.

Great music transcends suffering beyond specific causes. Die Winterreisse transcends misery even in the detailed description of misery. All important artworks, especially those concerned with the darker side of experience, despite whatever despair conveyed, transcend the discomfort of the content in the realization of their form.

Walter Klemmer seems to be the hero of the film, but then becomes a monster.

You need to speak to Jelinek [laughs]. All kidding aside, this character is actually portrayed much more negatively in the novel than in the film. The novel is written in a very cynical mode. The novel turns him from a rather childish idiot into a fascist asshole. The film tries to make him more interesting and attractive. In the film, the "love affair," which is not so central to the novel, is more implicated in the mother-daughter relationship. Walter only triggers the catastrophe. In the book, Walter is a rather secondary character that I thought needed development to the point that he could be a more plausible locus of the catastrophe.

One comes away feeling that sexual relationships are impossible under the assumptions of the current society.

We are all damaged, but not every relationship is played out in the extreme scenario of Erika and Walter. Not everyone is as neurotic as Erika. It's a common truth that we are not a society of happy people, and this is a reality I describe, but I would not say that sexual health is impossible.

Images of television recur numerous times in your films. Could you address your uses of TV, and your understanding of media in the current world?

Obviously, in Benny's Video and Funny Games I attempt to explore the phenomenon of television. My concern for the topic isn't quite so much in Der siebente Kontinent, Code Unknown, and La Pianiste, although the place of television in society influences these films as well. I am most concerned with television as the key symbol primarily of the media representation of violence, and more generally of a greater crisis, which I see as our collective loss of reality and social disorientation. Alienation is a very complex problem, but television is certainly implicated in it.

We don't, of course, anymore perceive reality, but instead the representation of reality in television. Our experiential horizon is very limited. What we know of the world is little more than the mediated world, the image. We have no reality, but a derivative of reality, which is extremely dangerous, most certainly from a political standpoint but in a larger sense to our ability to have a palpable sense of the truth of everyday experience.

In Der siebente Kontinent there is a privileged use of both TV and pop music in the moment just before the murder/suicide. The family watches a rock video of "The Power of Love" on their TV as they sit in the demolished apartment. There is a sense both of the song as a genuine plea as well as the inadequacy of pop culture.

There I asked the producer to supply me with certain types of songs. The issue of copyright was a problem, of course. I chose a song, actually a series of songs which appealed to me, not so much because of the text, but because of a certain sentiment. As you suggest, the moment generates a certain ironic counterpoint to the story.

There is another very interesting piece of music in Der siebente Kontinent, where you use the Alban Berg violin concerto, suddenly interrupted, as the young girl watches a ship go by while her father sells the family car in the junk yard. She seems to possess a vision of utopia that her family can't realize.

You can certainly interpret it that way, or simply as the girl spotting a boat, a very banal moment. Of course, the Berg piece is not accidental. There is also a citation of the Bach chorale which could be a motto of the entire film.

In the same film, the series of shots showing the couples' destruction of the apartment recalled to me somewhat the end of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970). The shots of the destruction of the household goods are beautiful, but there is real anguish and horror as well. The color scheme, here and elsewhere in the film, is extraordinary.

I'm a little surprised that you found beauty in this sequence. You could look at the phenomenon of the destruction of one's own environment in terms of a German notion, which in translation is "destroy what destroys you." It can be seen as a liberation.

But the way it is represented is rather the opposite. They carry out the destruction with the same constricted narrowness with which they lived their lives, with the same meticulousness as life was lived, so I see this as the opposite of the vision of total destruction in Zabriskie Point. The sequence is portrayed as work. I have tried to portray it as something unbearable. As the wife says, "my hands really hurt from all that arbeit," so all this hard work of destruction merely precedes the self-destruction.

As for the color, I have always tried for cool, neutral colors. I couldn't say that I tried for a rigid color schematic in Der siebente Kontinent. In this film, however, my aesthetic centered mainly on the close-up, the emphasis on enlarged faces and objects. From an aesthetic standpoint, much of the film could be said to resemble television advertising. I have many reservations about television, but saw a use for its style here. Of course, if Der siebente Kontinent had been made for television it would have failed totally in my view. But in the cinematic setting, a close-up of shoes or a doorknob takes on a far different sense than a similar shot in TV, where that style is the norm. This was a very conscious choice, since I wanted to convey not just images of objects but the objectification of life.

You seem very interested in the long take. There are a number of static shots in your films, like the final image of La Pianiste. I'm also thinking of shots like that of the blank bathroom wall just before Walter rushes in for Erika, the many shots of Erika's face, the long take of the bloody living room in Funny Games, or the numerous still lifes in Der siebente Kontinent.

Perhaps I can connect this to the issue of television. Television accelerates our habits of seeing. Look, for example, at advertising in that medium. The faster something is shown, the less able you are to perceive it as an object occupying a space in physical reality, and the more it becomes something seductive. And the less real the image seems to be, the quicker you buy the commodity it seems to depict.

Of course, this type of aesthetic has gained the upper hand in commercial cinema. Television accelerates experience, but one needs time to understand what one sees, which the current media disallows. Not just understand on an intellectual level, but emotionally. 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, I think, to let us experience the world anew.

The long take is an aesthetic means to accomplish this by its particular emphasis. This has long been understood. Code Unknown consists very much of static sequences, with each shot from only one perspective, precisely because I don't want to patronize or manipulate the viewer, or at least to the smallest degree possible. Of course, film is always manipulation, but if each scene is only one shot, then, I think, there is at least less of a sense of time being manipulated when one tries to stay close to a "real time" framework. The reduction of montage to a minimum also tends to shift responsibility back to the viewer in that more contemplation is required, in my view.

Beyond this, my approach is very intuitive, without anything very programmatic. The final image of La Pianiste is simply a reassertion of the conservatory, the classical symmetry of that beautiful building in the darkness. The viewer is asked to reconsider it.

Would you speak to your conception of the family as it is portrayed La Pianiste?

I wanted first of all to describe the bourgeois setting, and to establish the family as the germinating cell for all conflicts. I always want to describe the world that I know, and for me the family is the locus of the miniature war, the first site of all warfare. The larger political-economic site is what one usually associates with warfare, but the everyday site of war in the family is as murderous in its own way, whether between parents and children or wife and husband.

If you start exploring the concept of family in Western society you can't avoid realizing that the family is the origin of all conflicts. I wanted to describe this in as detailed a way as I can, leaving to the viewer to draw conclusions. The cinema has tended to offer closure on such topics and to send people home rather comforted and pacified. My objective is to unsettle the viewer and to take away any consolation or self-satisfaction.

Porno and erotica play a role in La Pianiste that caused much controversy in America. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not porno has a liberating function.

I would like to be recognized for making in La Pianiste an obscenity, but not a pornographic film. In my definition, anything that could be termed obscene departs from the bourgeois norm. Whether concerned with sexuality or violence or another taboo issue, anything that breaks 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.

By contrast, pornography is the opposite, in that it makes into a commodity that which is obscene, makes the unusual consumable, which is the truly scandalous aspect of porno rather than the traditional arguments posed by institutions of society. It isn't the sexual aspect but the commercial aspect of porno that makes it repulsive. I think that any contemporary art practice is pornographic if it attempts to bandage the wound, so to speak, which is to say our social and psychological wound. Pornography, it seems to me, is no different from war films or propaganda films in that it tries to make the visceral, horrific, or transgressive elements of life consumable. Propaganda is far more pornographic than a home video of two people fucking.

I notice that the porno shop Erika visits is in a shopping mall, which is a little unusual to an American viewer.

That was shot on location, the original setting. That is the way porno is sold in Vienna. Maybe we are a tiny less puritanical than the Americans [laughs].

Just before she goes to the mall and the porno shop we see Erika practicing Schubert's Piano Trio in E Flat with her colleagues. The music stays on the soundtrack right up to the moment that she puts coins in the video booth to start the porno video, at which point the music stops, as if Schubert finally can't compete with this image.

I have no problem with that interpretation at all, but again, I don't want to impose my own views beyond what I have already committed to film.

One of your concerns seems to be, at least as expressed in Code Unknown, that all communication, the linguistic code, has failed. The scene of the deaf children drumming toward the end of the film seems to emphasize this failure.

Of course, the film is about such failure, but the scene of the children drumming is concerned with communication with the body, so the deaf children have hope after all, although the drumming takes on a different function at the conclusion when it provides a specific background. Yes, the failure of communication is on all levels: interpersonal, familial, sociological, political. The film also questions whether the image transmits meaning. Everyone assumes it does. The film also questions the purpose of communication, and also what is being avoided and prevented in communication processes. The film tries to present these questions in a broad spectrum.

The world your films describe seems catastrophic. There is the family suicide of Der siebente Kontinent, the violence of Funny Games, the image of the media in Benny's Video, the collapse of meaning in Code Unknown, the tragedy of La Pianiste.

I'm trying as best I can to describe a situation as I see it without bullshitting or disingenuousness, but by so doing I subscribe to the notion that communication is still possible, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this. I cannot make comedies about these subjects, so it is true the films are bleak. On the subject of violence, there are an increasing number of modalities with which one can present violence, so much so that we need to reconceptualize the whole concept of violence and its origins.

The new technologies, of both media representation and the political world, allow greater damage with ever-increasing speed. The media contribute to a confused consciousness through this illusion that we know all things at all times, and always with this great sense of immediacy. We live in this environment where we think we know more things faster, when in fact we know nothing at all. This propels us into terrible internal conflicts, which then creates angst, which in turn causes aggression, and this creates violence. This is a vicious cycle.

There seems to be some confusion about the title of your last film, which is actually La Pianiste although marketed in America as The Piano Teacher.

I was adapting the title of Jelinek's book, which in the original is Die Klavierspielerin, or The Piano Player, which is a deliberately awkward title and an uncommon term in German. This is to point to Erika's degraded situation. Pianisitin is the German word for the female pianist, so the title of the novel in German is a put-down suggesting Erika's crisis. The English translation of the novel is The Piano Teacher, which isn't correct at all, and is of course a little nonsensical and even more devaluing of the protagonist. I left the German title of the book not quite as it is, to give her more dignity, which is simply my approach to the material.

La Pianiste is the most popular and recognized of your films thus far. Do you feel that it best represents your sensibility and development as a film-maker?

I wouldn't say this, since the idea isn't mine but based on a novel, whereas my other films come from my own ideas. I recognize myself a bit more in those films rather than in works based on other texts. Of course, I chose the topic of La Pianiste because I was very much drawn to it, and what I could bring to this work. But in some ways it is a bit distant from me. For example, I couldn't have written a novel on the subject of female sexuality. The topic of the novel interested me, but my choice of other source material for a film will probably continue to be the exception.

I notice that your recent films are in French, although the setting remains Austrian.

This is to accommodate the producers and actors. My principal source of support has come from France, and my casts have been largely French. Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot... they are wonderful. Austria's film industry is a bit more limited in resources. The French production industry has been very helpful to me, and I am very comfortable with the language.

Could you speak a bit about your new projects?

I am making Hidden, which is about the French occupation of Algeria on a broad level, but more personally a story of guilt and the denial of guilt. The main character is a Frenchman, with another character an Arab, but it would be incorrect to see it strictly as a story of the past but rather a political story that deals with personal guilt. So it might be seen as more philosophical than political. The second film I'm preparing is Le Temp du loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) [which has now released]. This is about how people treat each other when electricity no longer comes out of the outlet and water no longer comes out of the faucet. I'm a bit concerned that after the events of September 11th this film will be read very specifically, but it takes place in neither America nor Europe, and focuses on very primal anxieties.

Could I ask you for your views on the current international situation, the war on Iraq, the "war on terrorism" and the like?

I think that at least 80 per cent of the people of Europe, and perhaps the United States, did not want war. The war is horrible. War is always the dumbest way of solving problems, as history clearly shows. My impression is that the American government made up its mind a long time ago, so I'm rather pessimistic about the outcome. The war is insanity. The US government doesn't see it this way, because it represents powerful interests. But the people don't want it. Some may be nervous merely because of the economic consequences, and some seem to follow blindly, but my impression is that the people are very much against war.

Christopher Sharrett

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Also of interest
About the author

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication at Seton Hall University. He is currently editing with Barry Keith Grant a new edition of Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film.

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* This is an expanded version of an interview that originally appeared under the same title in Cineaste, Vol XXVIII, No 3 (Summer 2003).return to text

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