David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor
Though his films might lead you to believe otherwise, Michael Haneke is surprisingly good-humored in conversation. His latest film, Amour, is nominated for five Oscars: best picture, foreign-language film, director, original screenplay, and actress. It soberly and precisely charts the decline of an aged French couple, played to a fare-thee-well by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The film might be the writer-director’s most personal to date, for though it retains the intense focus and absence of sentimentality present in his other work, its plainly expressed—and inevitably touching—humanity was inspired by a chapter from Haneke’s own life. Until Amour, Haneke was best known in America for the Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon (2009), which chillingly depicts village life in pre-World War I Germany and hints at the foundations of Nazism, and Cache (2005), which plumbs issues of memory, guilt, and identity. Speaking from Madrid, during rehearsals for a production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, the filmmaker discussed with AwardsLine various issues connected with his recent film work.
AwardsLine: What compelled you to make Amour?
Michael Haneke: Nothing forced me [to make the film], but what motivated me was a case in my family. I was forced to look on as someone very close to me suffered—but not specifically as depicted in the film—someone for whom I cared for very much. And that led me to make the film.
Related: OSCARS: Does ‘Amour’ Have A Shot To Make Academy History?
AwardsLine: Your films are all very distinctive, but Amour is perhaps more specifically personal. I understand that you had an aged aunt who was ill. And she asked you to help her pass away. Was that part of what made you want to write and direct this film?
Haneke: Yes. Of course, I had to tell her that I was unable to do it. I would have been put in jail if I had done it. But I was grateful for that alibi, for I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do it otherwise. But she did it anyway, without my help.
AwardsLine: And were there things in the film that you took directly from your experience with your aunt?
Haneke: No, there’s nothing at all in the film based on my own experience. What’s shown in the film was the product of lengthy research in similar situations [to what the film shows] or from my imagination.
AwardsLine: You are now 70 years old. Do you yourself worry about the traumas of age and infirmity that you depict in Amour?
Haneke: Billy Wilder was asked a similar question, and he responded, “The knocking is all the more insistent”. No, not the knocking at the door, but rather that the bombardments, so to speak, are coming ever closer.
AwardsLine: What was the most challenging scene to direct in Amour?
Haneke: The pigeon. You can’t direct a pigeon. At most, you can entice it to move it a certain way by placing corn on the ground. But even then, it won’t obey your instructions. Of course I’m joking when I say that. The most difficult scene in the film is the one in which he [Jean-Louis Trintignant, the husband] suffocates her [Emmanuelle Riva, the wife]. The scene is preceded by a 10-minute-long monologue. And Jean-Louis Trintignant had a broken wrist at that time, so we had to shoot around that. And Emmanuelle Riva was concerned about her safety physically. So it was difficult for everyone involved.
AwardsLine: What about the scene in which Ms. Riva was naked in the shower? I can’t imagine that was easy to direct.
Haneke: As a director, it wasn’t difficult for me. It was far more uncomfortable for her. But it was clear from the beginning that it was necessary to shoot this scene—to capture the fragility of her situation, what’s forced up on you as a human being [in such circumstances]. My job as a director was to make sure I didn’t betray her—that she wasn’t shown critically or depicted in an unpleasant light, but just to show what people in such situations have to go through.
AwardsLine: With regard to writing the script—was there one particular scene you especially enjoyed writing, and why?
Haneke: It’s very difficult to say. It was so long ago, I can’t remember [any details about that writing process]. But generally when it comes to screenwriting I can say that if it’s flowing, you enjoy it; if not, it’s far less pleasant. But there’s always ambivalence—the struggle to put something there on a blank page when there was nothing there before. If it’s successful, you’re happy; if not, you’re depressed.
AWARDSLINE: You remade Funny Games in English, but does Hollywood hold any allure for you?
HANEKE: No, I’m willing to work anywhere [that] I’m given the working conditions I prefer. With the exception of a fascist country, I’m willing to work anywhere where I can work as I wish to work. I really can’t say [about Hollywood] because I’ve never worked in Hollywood. But in Hollywood, producers have their say in the project and can impose their own conditions on it. In terms of the conditions I require, I’m willing to work with a producer, but if a producer wants to make his own film, then he’s free to do so, just not with me.
AwardsLine: Whom do you make films for? Or does that change depending on the film?
HANEKE: For everyone and for myself [I make my films]. With Funny Games, I intended an attack on the spectators who enjoyed consuming violence. Unfortunately, it didn’t reach that audience. But like every filmmaker, I make my films to reach the widest audience possible.
AwardsLine: Some of your films are in German and others in French. How do you decide what language to film in?
Haneke: In the case of this film, what determined that it be in French was that Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva only exist in France. Beyond that, if I have the good luck, I can call on collaborators [which is to say, producers] in different countries. It’s great to be able to do that. It’s very difficult to finance films these days. All my films have been coproductions, and that’s made things a lot easier for me. Absolutely Amour is a story that can take place anywhere in the Western world.
AWARDSLINE: But not The White Ribbon.
Haneke: Naturally. Well, yes and no. The film wasn’t intended to be limited to Germany. It’s rooted in the German past, but it shows the dangers of when certain ideas are transformed into ideology. The lesson of the film isn’t limited to Germany. It draws on the German past to tell a lesson that can be applied anywhere. For example you could shoot a similar story in any country with an extremist Islamic regime. The details would be different, but the basic principles would be identical. In the case of The Piano Teacher, too, it was because of the actress [i.e., Isabelle Huppert] that we filmed in French.
AwardsLine: And are there specific challenges attached to one or the other language?
Haneke: I never write in French. I always write my scripts in German, and if they need to be translated, I give them to the same translator I’ve always used. Then I revise them line by line with the translator. Of course, it’s easier to work in your mother tongue. Not because it’s easier to express yourself in the script, but because it’s easier to follow what’s happening on the set if you’re working in your mother tongue. It takes a lot more effort when you’re working in a foreign language. But having worked so often in French now, the stress has diminished.
AwardsLine: You’ve made a number of films with Isabelle Huppert—in particular The Piano Teacher and Time of the Wolf, but also Amour, of course. What is it about this actress that you find so compelling, and can we expect to see her again in future films from you?
Haneke: She is like a Stradivarius violin, on which you can play Bach, Mozart or Brahms, and it will always sound good. I like to write for actors I know and with whom I’ve worked before. You can write to their strengths and weaknesses and write roles that are better suited to them.
AwardsLine: I understand you were once a film critic. So were Truffaut and Godard, of course—and Bogdanovich too. Do you think there is a something film critics bring to filmmaking that others do not?
Haneke: It’s hard to say. You become a film critic because you’re interested in film. I don’t know whether knowing so much about cinema leads you to make better films, but it certainly can’t hurt.