Issue 211, Winter 2014
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.
When you were young—say, a teenager—did you ever imagine that you would become a filmmaker, or was your focus on other arts?
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.
Who were your literary heroes?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
What about Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher, which you adapted for cinema in 2001?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.