Interviews

Michael Haneke, The Art of Screenwriting No. 5

Interviewed by Luisa Zielinski

On the set of Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys), 2000.

Michael Haneke was born in 1942 to an Austrian mother and a German father. He spent his adolescence in Wiener Neustadt in the care of his aunt and grandmother before leaving for Vienna to study psychology, philosophy, and drama. It would be some years before he made his first feature film. Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent) (1989) tells the story of a young, well-to-do family and their dreams of immigrating to Australia. Predictably—in retrospect, for viewers familiar with Haneke’s work—that never happens. They flush their money down the toilet. They kill the goldfish and, next, themselves.

Since then, Haneke has maintained impressive consistency both in his choice of topics and in the stark, unflinching visual language of his films. This has earned him critics and admirers of equal ferocity. He is, depending on whom you ask, the minister of fear, a master of horrors, Europe’s greatest auteur, or simply a sadist. Although his films are considered violent, nearly all the physical violence occurs offscreen. His camera omits the brains-on-the-windshield clichés and torture porn of Hollywood. It lights, instead, on the everyday cruelties to which audiences are not yet numb: the petty acts of bullying, the failure to listen, the delusions of class and privilege. 

Haneke’s early films, such as Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) (1994), largely escaped the attention of ­international audiences. Then, in 2001, La Pianiste, his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, affording Haneke worldwide exposure. The next years saw the release of Caché (2005) and the American remake of Funny Games (2007), Haneke’s most ­severely cynical work, whose Austrian precursor had been released in 1997. For both Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) (2009) and Amour (2012), he ­received the Palme d’Or at Cannes; the latter also won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition to his work in cinema, Haneke ­occasionally directs opera and teaches at the Filmakademie Wien.

Most of this interview was conducted in Haneke’s vast study in the  Vienna apartment he shares with his wife, Susi, an antiques dealer. Over 
the next ten months, he patiently fielded my follow-up questions: curtly via e-mail, exuberantly on the phone. In person, Haneke was an impeccable—if occasionally strict—host. He floated vague promises of wine on the first night, only to deny me a glass: “We must work, Frau Zielinski!” On the second night, however, I arrived to a bottle of Mayer am Pfarrplatz Wiener Gemischter Satz. We finished it. 

Wine or no, Haneke is a spirited conversationalist who carefully weighs his bons mots and can send himself into fits of giggles. He speaks in the drawl of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie, which to Prussian ears sounds opulent and somewhat impenetrable—necessitating, as Haneke quipped, a ­double translation of this interview, from Austrian into German into English. 

Luisa Zielinski 

INTERVIEWER

When you were young—say, a teenager—did you ever imagine that you would become a filmmaker, or was your focus on other arts? 

HANEKE

Like everyone in the throes of puberty, I started writing poems. But originally, I wanted to drop out of school to train as an actor. I’m from a family of actors—my mother was an actress and my father was an actor and director. One day I even decided to skip school and flee Wiener Neustadt for Vienna to audition at the Max Reinhardt Seminar. Everybody there knew my mother, and I considered myself amazingly gifted—it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t take me. But that’s what happened. I was livid. In the end, I did have to get my high school diploma. Then, as a student, I became more serious about writing. I also worked for radio and various magazines as a critic—I ended up reviewing literature and films although I didn’t actually know all that much. 

Around the same time, I started writing short stories. When my son was born, my parents decided to cut me off and I was forced to earn money. I tried to look for a job in publishing and ended up sending off some of my stories to a well-known publishing house. They immediately asked me to submit more. But what I really wanted was a job as an editor! Well, there wasn’t one available. At the time I was upset, but I simply kept on writing. 

INTERVIEWER

Who were your literary heroes? 

HANEKE

My son’s name is David. Why? Because my literary god in those days—and this is highly unusual in German-speaking countries—was a writer named David Herbert Lawrence. I thought he was a real genius and I ­devoured ­everything he wrote. Just around the time my son was born, I started working on a novel. I recently stumbled upon the manuscript in an old suitcase in the attic of my country house. Until I read it again a few weeks ago, I wasn’t able to remember what the novel was about. Of course, I remembered having written one, not least because I had the opportunity to read from it at a small theater in Vienna. That event was of tremendous importance to me—my parents even showed up. In any case, when I read through the manuscript a few weeks ago I was positively surprised. It’s actually not all that lousy! It’s a novel steeped in the experience of having read Lawrence. It’s incredibly sensitive—sensual, even. Reading it today, I almost can’t believe that I wrote it.

INTERVIEWER

Still, it was a while before you made your first feature film, when you were forty-six. How did you go about learning that particular craft? 

HANEKE

When I was young, I would go to the cinema three times a week. I was ­really quite the moviegoer back then—quite in contrast to today. Everything I know about cinema I learned in those years through careful watching. I often tell my students that they don’t know how privileged they are. Today, you can simply buy a DVD and follow a scene shot by shot. When I was young, that wasn’t possible. If there was something you didn’t get or one particular cutting sequence wasn’t quite clear, you had to go back to the cinema ten times. Nowadays, you can analyze everything in the comfort of your own home. In any case, I was a real cinema addict when I was young. 

I also interned with a TV station in Baden-Baden after the publishing house rejected me. They had been looking for a new dramaturge for years and ended up hiring me, since apparently only imbeciles had wound up there before me. I went on to become Germany’s youngest TV dramaturge and began to cultivate a more professional interest in film, too. Over the course of those three years, I learned everything I needed to know about scriptwriting. And what taught me, above anything, was reading awful scripts. For two of those three years, piles of these rather appropriately named “unsolicited manuscripts” would await me each day. The bad ones were the most instructive. First, you notice that something isn’t quite working, so you ask yourself why it’s not working. Reading terrible scripts teaches you all the great tricks. The good ones leave you in awe—you’re so impressed that you forget to figure out just why they’re good. If I am told today that my scripts are very professional, then that is mainly due to my work in those years. It helped me a lot, even though it gave me no pleasure at all. It is actually quite exhausting having to plough through shit all day long. 

Directing was another thing I learned during my time in Baden-Baden. My first forays happened at the local theater—I was involved with an actress who worked there. You have to keep in mind that Baden-Baden is a true backwater. The actors were mediocre at best, and it took a long time for me to figure out how to get them to strike the right tone. Directing and dealing with people is a matter of experience, and I learned it the hard way in that backwater town. I believe there are even schools in America where they teach writing and directing. And there are virtually thousands of books on the subject, too. But that just doesn’t cut it. You learn writing by writing and directing by directing. Clever books don’t teach you how to write or direct. Don’t get me wrong—clever books are great, but all art takes practice. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve talked a lot about writing. It seems to me that even today, as a filmmaker, you’re still quite attached to the written word. 

HANEKE

Yes, I generally think of myself as an author. The French have this beautiful word, auteur, to refer to filmmakers who are responsible for the content of their own films. I’ve never been interested in directing other people’s works. 

INTERVIEWER

What about Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher, which you adapted for cinema in 2001? 

HANEKE

I still wrote the script myself. For me it’s a matter of principle that I have ­never directed other people’s scripts, not even while I was working in TV. There were a few cases where scriptwriters would provide me with material, but I would always turn that into something else entirely. Those ­writers weren’t very happy, unsurprisingly, but as director I had the upper hand. That’s also when I noticed that I’m not made for collaboration. There are people who can work together on a script—the Coen brothers, for example. To me that’s a complete mystery. 

INTERVIEWER

Still, tell me a little more about the process of adapting literary works for the screen. The Piano Teacher isn’t the only example in your oeuvre. There’s also your made-for-TV adaptation of Kafka’s Castle. What struck me about the latter is that it’s almost aberrantly faithful to the novel. 

HANEKE

The Piano Teacher was the only time I adapted a novel for the cinema, and that in itself was something of a coincidence. I didn’t write the script for myself, but for a friend who had acquired the rights. My friend tried for ten years to secure a budget for the film, but it didn’t work out. In the end, I was persuaded to direct the film myself, even though that hadn’t been my original intention at all. I agreed to do it on the condition that Isabelle Huppert play the lead role. And she did. 

In any case, there are considerable differences in adapting literature for TV and cinema. At the outset the process is quite similar—you will need to read and analyze the book and understand the individual plot lines in order to rearrange them later according to your cinematographic vision. My adaptation of The Piano Teacher departs considerably from the novel in terms of structure, and that is due to the fact that it is an adaptation I conceived for cinema. But whenever I adapted literary works for TV, I adhered painstakingly to the original. There is hardly a line in The Castle that isn’t quoted ­verbatim from the novel. This is in large part thanks to the “educational mandate” of state-funded TV in Germany. The work of a TV director consists in making the viewer want to read the novel. It’s different with a cinematic work. In that case, the book becomes the filmmaker’s intellectual playground while the novel and its author recede into the background.  

INTERVIEWER

When you sit down to write a new script and jot down the first scene, do you already know what the last scene is going to be?  

HANEKE

I know much, much more than that! I only sit down to write when I’ve laid out the entire film. Before that, I work according to the classic method. I spend time collecting all my ideas, and once I feel that I have enough, I start dividing up all these individual thoughts on small Post-it notes, assigning a specific color to each character. Then I start arranging those notes on a large board in order to figure out the arc of the story. I end up scrapping roughly three-quarters of my notes. But it’s only natural that you throw out even good ideas—there is simply no way you can put everything into a story. Only when my story is complete, in the sense that I know all the major plot lines regarding the major characters, do I sit down to write. And that’s just so much fun! It’s really a pleasant process. Once you’re on the right track, you can indulge yourself. Before that, you can’t see the forest for the trees. When I have a thousand options, I actually have none at all. Film requires you to plan each detail meticulously, and this is exactly why it’s so different from writing a novel. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you say more about that difference, between making films and writing novels? 

HANEKE

With film, you have to get the timing exactly right, because timing is everything. It’s different with literature. One of my favorite books, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, doesn’t have much going for it in the way of timing. Unless you’re interested in its smallest details and digressions, there’s no point in reading the novel. A film, on the other hand, lasts for one and a half to two hours, and you have to be able to tell your story within that framework. Every single minute has to work. And that’s precisely the art of filmmaking—having the eye to tell whether something works or not. It is true for authors of any sort that, on the one hand, you’re incredibly skeptical toward your creative output, while on the other hand, you get drunk on every single one of your ideas. “Kill your darlings” is one of my favorite sayings, and it’s what I always try to teach my students—don’t take every single fart you rip so damn seriously. Think about how you’d react if you had to watch it. 

If you make realist films—as I do—your task is to render your story into something that is credible and plausible. It starts with the plot—whether your story is believable or not. Then there are the actors—do they manage to convey the story to you in a way that seems realistic? If they don’t, the viewer is never going to buy the scene, no matter how well you wrote it. That’s the hard thing about my job—you end up competing with reality on so many levels. You’re always up against your viewer’s personal experience. Every viewer knows what somebody looks like when they’re taking a bath or walking out the door. Their own experience enables them to recognize whether a scene works. In turn, they won’t believe your story if you didn’t pull it off. You have to exercise great care—not just with the script, but in every small detail. 

INTERVIEWER

If writing is the end of the process for you, what is the beginning? Where do your ideas come from?

HANEKE

That’s hard to say. The inspiration for each of my films was very ­different—there is no common denominator in the genesis of my ideas. The White Ribbon, for example, germinated out of an idea that I had more than twenty-five years ago. I wanted to make a film about blond children in the North German flatlands. That was all. I just had a fantastic image. 

INTERVIEWER

And you just kept that in the back of your mind? How did you nurture that idea over the course of twenty-five years?  

HANEKE

I continuously noticed and thought of things that I wrote down somewhere. But at the beginning, there was simply the image. I only specified the place and its political relevance much later, because originally I hadn’t even thought of those aspects. I started reading countless books about life in nineteenth-century Germany. An incredible number of ideas in that film come from those nonfiction books describing life in the village and contemporary parenting techniques. The idea of making children wear a white ribbon, for example, wasn’t mine at all. I lifted that straight out of a parenting manual from the eighteenth century showing parents how to raise their children in the spirit of purity. I thought the idea was ingenious and I just had to use it! So I continued to collect notes in this manner until I felt I had enough material. And as with my other films, at that point I sat down and began arranging my ideas in a strict chronology. It is quite banal, but I always say that you have to know the story you want to tell and how you will make it work within the timing of your film. That’s the only way you can make a film that is captivating throughout. 

INTERVIEWER

What about Caché? Like The White Ribbon it’s a film that—correctly or not—is often read politically. Were you inspired by the history of the French-Algerian conflict, or did the inspiration come from elsewhere?

HANEKE

It’s hard to say what exactly inspired me. What is true, however, is that most of my films tackle the theme of guilt and how people deal with it. I wanted to make a film about a man confronted with a guilt he carries from his childhood. In the film, the main character betrays his childhood friend, and that bears terrible consequences for the friend. But that’s not even the crux of the story. That’s just what kids are like—selfish, with no view to the repercussions of their actions. And there is no problem with that either. It’s normal that children are egocentric and happily throw someone else to the wolves. The interesting question, to me, is how you deal with such guilt when it comes back to haunt you as an adult. 

While I was working on the story I happened to see a documentary about the Paris massacre of 1961, and it left a huge impression on me. I calculated that against Daniel Auteuil’s age—since I was writing the character for him—and it worked out perfectly. It was a stroke of fortune that the film gained political relevance beyond the individual case of those two men. And yet, it’s also true that you can find such blind spots in the history of any culture or country. I was offered the chance to remake the film in America, but I really didn’t want to do that. I’m sure I would’ve found something that would work there. But that’s not what I wanted. 

INTERVIEWER

Your biggest concern then, if I’m not mistaken, is with your characters’ ­individual psychologies? 

HANEKE

Absolutely, and that’s really the only thing I know anything about. I would never set out to make a political film. I hope that my films provoke reflection and have an illuminating quality—that, of course, may have a political effect. 

Still, I despise films that have a political agenda. Their intent is always to manipulate, to convince the viewer of their respective ideologies. Ideologies, however, are artistically uninteresting. I always say that if something can be reduced to one clear concept, it is artistically dead. If a single concept captures something, then everything has already been resolved—or so it ­appears, at least. Maybe that’s why I find it so hard to write synopses. I just cannot do it. If I were able to summarize a film in three sentences, I wouldn’t need to make it. Then I’d be a journalist, I’d get to the heart of the matter in those three sentences, and my readers would know what it’s all about, and that would be that. But that is not what I find interesting. 

Look, life itself is the object of art. You aim to construct a parallel world in your novel or your play. The truly captivating thing is the story that ­unfolds between your protagonists. Of course, for somebody with political convictions—and we all have those—there is no way they aren’t going to seep into your artwork. Céline, for example, was a right-wing extremist. And that was visible in his work, but he still wasn’t completely inept as a writer. There are thousands of examples, from both the left and the right. At the academy, I always lecture on propagandistic films of various origins so as to sensitize my students to their particular way of functioning. In my films, however, politics happen only subcutaneously, and it is never my ­intention to say, Look, this is what I’m trying to tell you, now swallow it. My ­objective is a humanistic one—to enter into a dialogue with my viewers and to make them think. There isn’t much more you will be able to achieve in the dramatic arts. And frankly, I don’t know what else you should be able to achieve. 

INTERVIEWER

You often portray genteel bourgeois characters, many of whom are artists, musicians, literary critics—people who would claim for themselves a certain sensibility, perhaps even the capacity for reflection you just spoke of. Yet you depict these sensitive intellectuals as blinding themselves to realities they believe they understand. So beyond politics, I wonder whether there is a sociological interest that makes you question the bourgeoisie in particular. 

HANEKE

That is automatically true, as I am a child of the bourgeoisie. I only ever write about things with which I’m intimately acquainted. I would never ever make a film about a dockworker, for example, because I have no insight into his psychology. I cannot make films about topics with which I’m not familiar. My concern is with common human problems such as guilt or recklessness—the stuff of our everyday lives. Of course, I always set out to create a context that sparks added interest. If there is an opportunity to do that, as there was with Caché and The White Ribbon, then I’m grateful for that. But my first concern is always how people relate to one another. And that is my artistic interest on the whole. 

INTERVIEWER

But would you say that drawing from one’s own experience and background is always good—or even necessary? 

HANEKE

I’ve never seen good results from people trying to speak about things they don’t know firsthand. They will talk about Afghanistan, about children in Africa, but in the end they only know what they’ve seen on TV or read in the newspaper. And yet they pretend—even to themselves—that they know what they’re saying. But that’s bullshit. I’m quite convinced that I don’t know anything except for what is going on around me, what I can see and perceive every day, and what I have experienced in my life so far. These are the only things I can rely on. Anything else is merely the pretense of knowledge with no depth. Of course, I don’t just write about things precisely as they have happened to me—some have and some haven’t. But at least I try to invent stories with which I can personally identify. 

My students, meanwhile, pitch only the gravest of topics. For them it’s always got to be the Holocaust. I usually tell them, Back off. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You can only reproduce what you read or heard elsewhere. Others who actually lived through it have said it much ­better than you ever could. Try to create something that springs organically from your own experience. For only then does it stand the slightest chance of ­being genuinely interesting. Incidentally, this is also why in our day and age the movies coming out of the developing countries are much more interesting than our own. These films portray an authentic experience, and they do so with real passion, while we, the viewers, only know of these things ­second- or thirdhand. And yet, we can feel when something is real—as a viewer, you can feel the pleasure or despair of a certain scene. We, in our protected little worlds, are much more numb because we are in luck not to ­experience danger on a daily basis. But that’s precisely why the film ­industry in the so-called first world is in such a rut. There is just so much recycling. We don’t have the capability to represent authentic experiences because there is so little we do experience. At the most basic level, all we’re concerned about here are our material possessions and sexual urges. There really isn’t much more to our lives.

INTERVIEWER

Wouldn’t you say that it can be valuable—and not so easy—to write about your material possessions and sexual urges in a way that brings the world of our ­experience to life? Maybe that’s our challenge, in New York or Vienna or Berlin. 

HANEKE

I would agree with that wholeheartedly. 

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that in the context of your oeuvre, Amour marks a slight shift of focus. If previously your films dealt with problems of communication and cruelty, then Amour is surprisingly tender in comparison, displaying something that’s akin even to genuine understanding and love. 

HANEKE

And even so, we’ve got problems of communication—between father and daughter. But in the married couple I did set out to construct an ideal case. They truly love each other and have respected each other and remained close for over fifty years. That, of course, isn’t very common, but I needed that to raise the stakes in the plot. It was important that this be a couple that has you say, Wow, I would love to have that, too. That was simply necessary from a dramaturgic standpoint. Had I set the film in a social context lacking such financial security, it would’ve been an altogether different film. Amour’s protagonists still take part and pleasure in high culture. They are comfortable, they go to concerts with their friends. I wanted this film to speak about the end of life without being a social drama. Because no matter how rich and cultured you are, if you are sick and nearing death, you’re not going to be having such an amazing time—that was my point of departure. I wanted to ask, How do you deal with the suffering of the person you love? That is an unbearable situation. 

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that Amour is your most personal film?

HANEKE

All my films are personal to some extent, even if that isn’t obvious. Again, I am only able to describe what I’ve experienced for myself. I hold within me both my perpetrators and the victims. But if we are talking about this specific instance, then yes, Amour is my most personal film. 

My aunt who raised me committed suicide at the age of ninety-three. She had already attempted to kill herself a year earlier. Back then she had even asked me whether I would be willing to hold her hand while she swallowed the tablets. I refused, of course, telling her that it would be illegal for me to do that and that I would go to prison, not least because I was heir to her estate. Admittedly, I was quite relieved to have such a good alibi—I don’t think I would have had the strength to be with her in that moment. So when she first attempted suicide, she took tablets, but I found her in time and took her to the hospital. She regained consciousness after two days. I was sitting next to her when she turned to me and said, My God, why would you do this to me?! For her next attempt, she simply waited until I was off to some festival. That time it worked. Of course, that’s different in the film. I set out to portray something more complicated—what would I do if the other was no longer able to communicate what she wanted, or didn’t want. 

INTERVIEWER

The truly moving thing about Amour, to me, is that even once the wife’s sickness has removed the possibility of verbal communication, there remains a kind of communication that transcends speech. In my reading, the husband continues to act in the spirit of the pact those two had forged. But I realize that’s only one option among many. 

HANEKE

Of course. But as with all my films, there are various possible readings. Some said he killed her out of compassion. Others thought it was simply too much for him. Life is not simple enough for us to be able to discern one unambiguous motive underlying the old man’s decision. Reality is always riddled with complexity and contradiction.

I’ve seen it many times in my circle of friends—that when someone is caring for a sick partner, they will just fall apart. Not the one who’s sick, but the partner who is taking care of him. If that goes on for months or years even, those people end up hardly recognizable. People who care for a loved one get crushed under an immense burden. But such are the unpleasant sides of life, and there’s nothing we can do about that. 

INTERVIEWER

And yet you delve into those “unpleasant sides” with great indulgence!

HANEKE

Film is drama, and the essence of drama is conflict. There are two dramatic forms—comedy and tragedy. There is also conflict in comedy, and good comedies can be more hard-hitting than tragedies. I think it is the task of the dramatic arts to reveal the conflicts at the heart of our existence, and that has been true since the ancient Greeks. What that means for one’s own oeuvre, however, is a question of mentalities. There’s a glass that’s half full and one that’s half empty. I’m always going to see the one that’s half empty. I have an eagle eye for the negative side of things. 

INTERVIEWER

In light of the consistency and care with which you seem to choose your topics, I was quite surprised when you said in another interview that story should always be secondary to form. Isn’t it always a film of something? 

HANEKE

But whether it’s a good or a bad film depends entirely on its form. Everything is a story. The Holocaust is as much a story as is the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. Now the real question is, what do you do with it? What will you make of your story and how are you going to tell it? That alone determines how it will be received. A naked woman is a naked woman, but Velázquez’s naked woman is different from Picasso’s naked woman. The form determines the artwork and distinguishes it from the work of a dilettante. Everybody can draw a naked woman, and that’s true across all the arts. The story serves as inspiration, but it is not the decisive factor. You can make a terrible movie about the most meaningful subjects, or you can make a wonderfully devastating film about your grandmother’s café. There are countless examples—books that seem to deal, on the surface, with the tiniest trivialities and yet bring to life entire worlds. With your choice of topic comes responsibility, and the more sophisticated and profound your topic, the greater your responsibility.  

INTERVIEWER

How, then, did you find your form? 

HANEKE

It found me! I think that happened through conscious reduction. I’ve always been most impressed by people who can boil things down and talk with great clarity. The smartest people are able to explain the most complex matters in a way that makes you feel like it is quite simple after all. I’ve always aspired to that. It’s okay if a topic is highly complex, but you have to strive for the greatest clarity in form. 

INTERVIEWER

But in your work there is clarity only in the sense of your films’ precise organization and visual style. You’re almost stubborn in your refusal of narrative closure—there are always countless possible interpretations.

HANEKE

Yes, but only if you tell your story with enough precision will the question of interpretation become a pressing one. To make films that are as open to ­interpretation as my last few is a hard trick to pull off. It would be much ­easier providing all the answers. That’s the essence of bad mysteries—­someone is marked out as the culprit, then the plot twists, and it turns out that it’s ­actually someone else. As a viewer, that leaves you angry, because you feel like you’ve been lied to. And that is terrible. As a director I’m not allowed to lie. It is my task to render all these various interpretations. I’ve heard countless ­theories on my films—all of which do actually work. Of course, that takes some effort, but in the end, that is also the joy of the craft. If everything was geared toward one neat ending, then I wouldn’t have to bother making the film. I used to read a lot of Chandler. He’s an amazing writer and quite entertaining, but you really don’t know what’s going on in the last twenty or thirty pages. Consider The Big Sleep, which was turned into a movie. When they asked Chandler what happened in the end he ­responded, I have no idea, either!  

INTERVIEWER

I’d bet good money that this would be your answer if someone were to ask the same about your films.

HANEKE

Absolutely. There are always multiple interpretations because I’m trying to make my viewers have to pick an option. That is my attempt to activate the viewer—I present my stories in a relatively open way so as to coerce the viewer to contribute his own reflections. That, by the way, is also the most respectful behavior toward the viewer. When I’m in the position of reader or viewer, I tend to avoid the books or films that set out to tell me something about the way the world works. That bores me to death. I have always found much greater merit in the books and films that have left me confused and insecure, the books and films that raised questions and encouraged me to think, without prescribing answers. Feeling my brain kick into action is a truly pleasurable thing. And it’s what I aspire to in my films.

INTERVIEWER

For you, the attempt to activate the viewer may be a matter of respect, but it still feels like manipulation.  

HANEKE

Oh, it’s manipulation all right! 

INTERVIEWER

You took Godard’s famous quotation and changed it around—film means lying twenty-four times a second.

HANEKE

Although no one ever bothers to quote me to the end. Film means lying twenty-four times a second—in the service of truth. 

Film, of course, is always a lie. It never tells the truth. But film, more so than any other form of art, conveys the impression that we are beholding something real. 

INTERVIEWER

That’s especially true for a realist approach such as yours. 

HANEKE

Yes, exactly. But the reality I convey is a mere artifact. Of course, “reality” is nonexistent anyway, but that is not a matter for us to resolve here. Filmic reality works through illusion, and it is an illusion for which the viewer pays at the ticket booth. It endows him with the ­opportunity to experience—in the comfort of a cozy chair—all the ­adventures that he cannot and does not want to experience. And then he is free to leave the cinema at the end. Such is the basic pact between director and viewer, or between viewer and product. For film, in the end, is but a salable product. 

We live in an age of media ubiquity and it is good to inspire doubts in the viewer as to our supposed “reality.” That, at least, is what I’ve set out to do. Only bad films provide answers and explanations for everything. Real life is different. Tell me, what do you know about your neighbors? Maybe some insignificant details, but I’m sure you have no idea what they really think. And then you hear about Herr Mayer or Herr Müller, and you’re ­astounded—He did what? That’s impossible! But why would you be so surprised? You knew nothing about him. We don’t know all that much about ourselves either. When we talk about the Nazi period in Germany and Austria, people are always so quick to claim, I never would have done that! But you weren’t there, and we are capable of anything—each one of us. All it takes is the right situation. And that is the ­essence of my work—revealing how little we actually know and causing distrust in ­everything that poses as knowledge and reality in this dictatorship of the media. 

INTERVIEWER

Please admit that you’re at least a little bit didactic. 

HANEKE

No, I’m not didactic. It infuriates me that the world is the way it is and that I’m so powerless. I voice my opinions through my work, but not because I’m trying to convert anybody. I wouldn’t know what to convert them to. I have only my own anxieties and annoyances to share. And that’s all I can do.  

INTERVIEWER

Out of all your films, Funny Games stands out as the one that seems to ­inspire the kind of distrust you just spoke of most explicitly.  

HANEKE

It does so most brutally, above all. I don’t usually set out to provoke ­people, but with Funny Games I did. The film was the direct result of my rage against ­viewers who will swallow anything as long as it’s marketed well. I wanted to show them just how readily manipulable they are. Make no mistake, though—Funny Games is just a small part of my oeuvre, even if it is the most provocative part. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t derive great pleasure from this provocation, but it is not what I’m after in general. In any case, nothing infuriates me more than hypocrisy. There were many people who stayed in the cinema to the end and then complained that it was such a scandal and whatnot. I would say to them, Then why did you stay? Why didn’t you leave? No, be honest, you get off on violence, and that’s why you stayed. If someone genuinely thought the film was shit and left the cinema, I would shake his hand and say, Congratulations, well done, you are completely right. I would’ve walked out, too, you know. 

Have you seen Pasolini’s Salò?  

INTERVIEWER

No—thank God. Funny Games was already well beyond what I can take. 

HANEKE

Forty years ago, that was a key moment in my career as a viewer. Now Salò isn’t much like Funny Games at all. Funny Gamesis unbearable for its ­relentless cynicism—I don’t actually depict much physical violence. But in Salò, there are people tied up naked on dog leashes, they are force-fed bread stuffed with thumbtacks, blood runs from their mouths while their tormentors are boiling up shit in massive pots to be served up, eaten, and of course they all end up puking. It is unbearable, and Pasolini shows everything. After watching that film I was devastated and unresponsive for several days. Yet Salò was how I realized what you can do in cinema—what the true possibilities of the medium are. That, to me, is still the only film that has ­managed to show violence for what it is. All these “action movies” are merely spectacular. They make violence a consumable good. They may be scary, but they’re still a turn-on. Salò won’t turn you on at all—it will turn your stomach. Funny Games was meant as a counterpart to Salò, except that I tried to treat violence in a different way—in the context of a self-reflexive thriller that doesn’t depict physical violence but works through psychological cruelty alone. 

INTERVIEWER

When you remade the film ten years later in the United States, why did you opt to copy your original shot by shot? 

HANEKE

I remade the film shot by shot because I didn’t have anything to add to the Austrian version. That, of course, was difficult for my actors. Also, when I made the original in 1997, I already had the American market in mind—I thought Funny Games would work really well in the U.S. But then that version made it only into art-house cinemas and the big audiences stayed away. I was quite frustrated. Ten years on, however, I was approached by a producer in Cannes who asked me whether I would like to remake the film in the U.S. with American celebrities. And I thought silently to myself, That isn’t such a terrible idea! I had this vision of Funny Games as a Trojan horse that I would carry to the birthplace of violent cinema. They asked me what I would need so as to agree to a remake and I simply replied, I’d like Naomi Watts. I had seen her in Mulholland Drive and thought her perfect for the role. That worked out, but the production phase was still incredibly tough. Plus, English isn’t a language in which I can communicate spontaneously and with authority. It was even more difficult not being able to understand what’s going on—and I’m a control freak. I always need to know everything. Now I’m in the process of making another film that is partly set in America. I must be a real masochist. 

INTERVIEWER

Or a sadist, some would say, but that’s on the same continuum. I’d like to hear more about the process of working with actors. Do you allow space for improvisation and debate, or are you the kind of director who sticks rigorously to his own ideas? 

 

HANEKE

I draw up precise storyboards, and they may not be pretty, but they are ninety-five percent the same as the final film. It is entirely possible that I will end up making small changes even when we’re shooting, but only if there is no way around it. For example, if I can tell that an actor struggles with one particular sentence I will try to find a way for the actor to say it so that it works. That’s preferable to having him say my original sentence badly. But these are exceptions. I am impeccably prepared whenever I turn up on set. I know what I want and how to communicate that. 

Again, it’s a question of mindset. Some people like to improvise. I personally hate it. My films aren’t fit for improvisation anyway. A strict form such as mine cannot be achieved through improvisation. When I devise my storyboards, I think long and hard about the right form for a particular scene. That is why drawing up storyboards after having finalized my choice of actors and locations takes me as long as shooting. There are millions of possibilities—for the camera to be here but not there, and so on. In a way, it’s like having to find the solutions before you create the puzzle. And that is the challenge in directing. 

INTERVIEWER

There is an anecdote that Juliette Binoche once wanted to find out more about a character and you responded, Listen, I only know what’s in the script!

HANEKE

And not only did I say that but also that I’m not on good terms with the writer and that I can’t just call him up to check. She asked me, for example, what had happened to her character in the past. I replied that I don’t know the writer that well and that we’ve had a terrible falling out. She just smiled and was slightly annoyed.

INTERVIEWER

Do your actors fear you?

HANEKE

I shouldn’t think so. If they did, they wouldn’t keep coming back to work with me. But what do I know—maybe they’re all masochists, too. For me, actors are of singular importance. The actor is a delicate creature and must be treated as such. Technicians, on the other hand, just need to function. I may be stubborn, but I worship my actors. I’ve rarely blown up at an actor, whereas I tend to shout at technicians with some frequency. Especially if it’s too loud. This is something I learned at the theater, back in Baden-Baden—you need absolute quiet. When you’re about to shoot a scene and there are twenty people in the room, you have to make sure that everybody shuts up. If they don’t, I’m going to throw a massive tantrum and that usually gets us about thirty minutes of silence. Typically, that ­happens on the second or third day. The other people on set just have to learn that they count for nothing. Their primary task is to roll out the red carpet for the actors so that they can shine. My actors deliver great per­formances, but that’s partly because they’re respected. This does not mean that I’ll let them play a character the way they see fit. If an actor isn’t able to do something, I will try to find a way. But if he doesn’t want to do it, I don’t care. 

INTERVIEWER

Another one of the continuities across your oeuvre is in music. Not just the way you use it, but what you use. Schubert, for example, is a regular feature. What’s behind that? 

HANEKE

There’s nothing behind it. It’s just that Schubert and Mozart are my favorite composers. I know and love their music—and the viewers love it, too. That aside, I only use music diegetically. I never use scores, because I make realist films and there is no musical accompaniment to reality, unless, of course, the radio is on. If a film is set within a musician’s household, like Amour,The Piano Teacher, or my next film, then there is ample opportunity to use ­music. It’s also a great delight getting to rummage through my collection when I’m trying to find the right piece. That said, classical music doesn’t ­really lend itself to use in film because it is structured too rigidly. But some of Schubert’s short pieces—the Impromptus, for example—are like little dots that you can apply pointillistically, as citations. And that’s what I do—I cite. And that may or may not spark associations for my viewers. 

For The Seventh Continent I was awarded a prize for the best use of ­music in film. Berg’s Violin Concerto plays as the father is selling the car ­before the family commits suicide together. The little daughter walks across the parking lot, a ship sails by, and from the car’s stereo sounds Berg’s concerto, whose second movement, in turn, quotes a Bach chorale—“It is enough, O Lord, when it is pleasing to you, then grant me release. May my Jesus come! Now good night, O world.” Do you see what I did there? It’s wonderful music as it is, but I take great pleasure in creating additional layers of meaning through such seemingly irrelevant details. 

I’m always keen to stress that music is the queen of the arts because in ­music, form and content are identical. Oh, music is a beautiful thing. If I had been given a choice—up there, where they pick your gifts for you—I would have preferred to be a musician. But my talents didn’t quite suffice for that.  

INTERVIEWER

But how does one know that one’s talents are indeed sufficient? Are you ever plagued by doubts about the quality of your work? 

HANEKE

It is true—there lies a great danger in not realizing that the quality of your work is diminishing. You’re always the last to know. It’s a classic comedy trope—­everybody knows, except for the cuckolded husband. And it’s the same for the people who begin to stagnate at the height of their success. Everyone else is already whispering behind their backs while they are still convinced they’re at the top of their game. I, too, wonder, Haneke, is it possible that the others are thinking that you’re churning out crap now and that no one dares to tell you? It is hard to judge your own work, no matter who you are. If you are successful, there is the added danger that people might not be honest. My wife, by the way, is absolutely fantastic—she has no ­respect for me. I can hand her a script and she will tell me straight out that it’s boring. And that’s invaluable. 

One of my favorite actors, Gert Voss, always repeated his own variation on Beckett’s famous sentence—fail, fail again, fail better. I think it is ­astounding and important that a renowned actor should say that. Every artist should have this phrase pinned up above his bed, for it is the reality of our lives. That’s hard to ­accept when you are young, of course. You think you’ll have to do everything a hundred percent. What age teaches you is that there is no way you will manage a hundred percent. Anyone who is bright in any way knows himself to be mediocre. But you have to embrace that and recognize that there is no way around it.

When I directed Don Giovanni, for example, that was a great success. And yet I knew myself to be so far beneath the quality of Mozart’s music. At best, you will fail gracefully. Even so, your failure is a foregone conclusion. Directing Mozart is necessarily a masochistic endeavor, in the same way that Beethoven’s late quartets will always leave a performer feeling inadequate vis-à-vis the material. And yet, the demands you place on yourself only increase alongside the quality of your work. That never stops. 

INTERVIEWER

If the demands on yourself have only increased, then how do you feel about your earlier films? Is there anything you’d like to change or correct? 

HANEKE

I only watch my early films when I have to—say, at a retrospective or a festival. Other than that, I tend to avoid it. I just don’t find it terribly interesting.

There probably isn’t a director in the world who doesn’t focus on his mistakes upon revisiting his older works. You’re bound to notice the things that didn’t quite pan out. And that’s annoying, even if it’s really nothing drastic. It’s not that I don’t like my older films or feel ashamed of them. There are some small things that I feel I didn’t pull off or occasions where perhaps I got the timing slightly wrong. But then again, these tend to be things that I’ve noticed before. That’s normal, I suppose—it’s the same for musicians who will always keep an ear out for their mistakes. A singer who listens to himself will always suffer. He will never sound the way he would like to sound. 

INTERVIEWER

So if the only option is to fail gracefully, how much longer do you intend to do that? Are you thinking of retiring?

HANEKE

I have no intention of quitting. I wouldn’t know what to do with my life! No one who is in any way serious about this job thinks about retirement—­unless of course he has to. Fundamentally, there are two things in my life—my partner and my work. Of course, my wife and the women before her would have said I care for my work first and only then for my partner. However, it is true that everything else is only of peripheral interest to me. It just feels right—there is no other way. The system in which I’ve set up my life allows me to do my work. And that is all that matters.