“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
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,
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.