“All ide­o­logues are rat-catch­ers. Con­di­tion­ing is all. Chris­tian­ity is a nice idea, but it leads to the cru­sades. Com­mu­nism is a nice idea, but it leads to the gu­lags” – Michael Haneke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

ori­gins of fas­cism? “In a way. But you don’t men­tion what the nar­ra­tor says next. He says that he’s not sure if his mem­ory is ac­cu­rate. Some of this may not have hap­pened.”

Michael Haneke, now 67, comes from that co­hort of Ger­man and Aus­trian artists whose work re­mains over­shad­owed by the out­rages and com­pro­mises of their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion. Born in Mu­nich, he was moved to the out­skirts of Vi­enna when his fa­ther, an ac­tor and the­atre di­rec­tor, left the fam­ily home.

Raised largely by a much-loved aunt, he got used to his mother, also a dis­tin­guished ac­tor, spending much of the week on the road. She later mar­ried a com­poser, and Haneke’s first am­bi­tion was to make it as a pi­anist.

“It was step by step,” he ex­plains. “I wanted to be a mu­si­cian, but the tal­ent was not there. Then I moved into the­atre. I wrote a few sto­ries for tele­vi­sion and even­tu­ally I made my first film. I was 46 be­fore that hap­pened.”

Right from the beginning, Haneke’s films an­nounced an aus­tere, some­times sav­age sen­si­bil­ity to those film­go­ers brave enough to get on board. In The Sev­enth Con­ti­nent from 1989, a mid­dle-class fam­ily drift to­ward a grue­some mass sui­cide. In Benny’s Video, which opens with the slaugh­ter of a pig, an emo­tion­ally dis­tanced teenager mur­ders a friend and tapes the deed. Most no­to­ri­ously, 1997’s Funny Games detailed a house in­va­sion by two cyn­i­cal, gleam­ing youths.

At this point, the crit­ics were di­vided on Haneke’s merit, but even those who loved his work ad­mit­ted there was some­thing a tad dis­rep­utable about it. Con­trast his cur­rent stand­ing. Even be­fore The White Rib­bon won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, Haneke had traded in his du­bi­ous shock­meis­ter sta­tus for that of dis­tin­guished elder states­man. A decade ago, many (wrongly) viewed him as an up­mar­ket video-nasty im­pre­sario. Now he sits be­side Bergman and Tarkovsky as a near-uni­ver­sally praised Euro­pean mas­ter.

“I can’t do any­thing about that,” he says with a quasi-smile. “You’ll have to ask the crit­ics about that. They make those de­ci­sions.”

What about his early rep­u­ta­tion for wal­low­ing in vi­o­lence? For an ap­par­ently peace­able,

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in­tel­lec­tual fel­low, he has blood­ily splat­tered a sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of his ac­tors across hith­erto pris­tine walls.

“It is not a fas­ci­na­tion with vi­o­lence,” he says. “It is, in some ways, the op­po­site. It is a fear of vi­o­lence that leads me to con­sis­tently en­gage with th­ese themes. If you are an artist, you write a book or make a film to en­gage with some­thing. To say it is a fas­ci­na­tion im­plies some­thing patho­log­i­cal, an ob­ses­sion. Sixty per cent of films con­sist of con­sum­able vi­o­lence. The other 40 per cent is sheer kitsch. I see my films as be­ing in op­po­si­tion to that.”

Fair enough. But ex­treme cin­ema vi­o­lence can of­fer a de­li­ciously il­licit thrill. Watch­ing the iso­lated, in­tense acts of bru­tal­ity in Hid­den and Funny Games, many view­ers will ad­mit to feel­ing a sim­i­lar charge to the one they ex­pe­ri­ence when watch­ing a hor­ror film.

“To an ex­tent, yes. I have noth­ing against the ex­cite­ment that might hap­pen in those cir­cum­stances. But what nor­mally hap­pens in cin­ema is that you’re en­cour­aged to en­gage with the per­pe­tra­tors. In my films, we see it from the vic­tim’s per­spec­tive. There­fore it is less easy to con­sume.”

But con­text is im­por­tant. The odd­est choice Haneke has made in an un­pre­dictable ca­reer was to re­uphol­ster Funny Games for the English-speak­ing mar­ket. Star­ring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the ter­ri­fied house­hold­ers, the pic­ture, sim­ply by sneak­ing into US mul­ti­plexes, be­came a very dif­fer­ent arte­fact to its source ma­te­rial. Now those kids who en­joy the “con­sump­tion” of vi­o­lence are lurk­ing in the foyer out­side. Didn’t he worry that older teens might flock to see this “way-cool gorefest”?

“I had no need to worry,” he says with an­other wry snig­ger. “If that had been the case then the film would have made money, but it didn’t. I wanted to show this film to the very au­di­ence who were con­sum­ing vi­o­lence and wouldn’t have seen the orig­i­nal. But it died be­cause all the crit­ics could say was that it was a ‘shot-by-shot’ re­make. Yes. But made for those who hadn’t seen the orig­i­nal.”

Hap­pily for the grey ma­gus, The White Rib­bon re­stored his rep­u­ta­tion with fickle crit­ics. A less ex­plic­itly vi­o­lent film than Funny Games or even Hid­den, the monochrome pic­ture none­the­less con­tin­ues to demon­strate the di­rec­tor’s ap­par­ent be­lief that, when placed un­der stress, hu­man be­ings will usu­ally take the most selfish, least morally jus­ti­fi­able op­tion.

You know how th­ese con­ver­sa­tions go. If you ask direc­tors if they’re pes­simistic they’ll say they’re op­ti­mists. If you say they set out to shock then they’ll rock back aghast.

“No. I do not be­lieve I am a pes­simist,” Haneke con­firms. “I am a fear­ful per­son and my films per­haps re­flect that. But I don’t want to look at my films like a psy­chi­a­trist. To say that I an­a­lyse my­self in my films is a de­duc­tion I would not like to make.”

The White Rib­bon is, in­deed, rid­dled with anx­i­ety and fear. Watch the chil­dren of the town as they bully one an­other and take re­venge on de­fence­less an­i­mals. The ul­ti­mate, aw­ful des­ti­na­tion of th­ese young Ger­mans is never in doubt.

“One is bound to see it that way be­cause of the pe­riod in which it is set,” he says. “But Ger­man fas­cism was only pos­si­ble through a con­di­tion­ing process. Maybe that is what we are looking at. It’s to do with how peo­ple are con­di­tioned by rat­catch­ers. All ide­o­logues are rat­catch­ers. Con­di­tion­ing is all. Chris­tian­ity is a nice idea, but it leads to the Cru­sades. Com­mu­nism is a nice idea, but it leads to the gu­lags.”

Now, this is get­ting dis­tinctly un­nerv­ing. As our lengthy con­ver­sa­tion has con­tin­ued, the sun has swung round and it now blasts through the vast pic­ture win­dow be­hind Haneke. He has be­come noth­ing but a shadow to me. I am in a Michael Haneke film. Could he pos­si­bly have planned this?

“I don’t look at my old films,” the dis­em­bod­ied voice con­tin­ues from its pro­tec­tive shroud. “You just see the mis­takes if you do that. I am­not in­ter­ested in my own past. I am in­ter­ested in my fu­ture. What I do next is what con­cerns me.”

That seems like a suit­able point to make my exit. Out­side Mel B is be­ing screamed at by a hun­dred fren­zied snap­pers. I should laugh, but, in­stead, I find my­self shud­der­ing a lit­tle.

I haven’t quite es­caped Haneke­land yet.

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