Interview: Michael Haneke
Film Comment sat down with Michael Haneke in September amid the hustle and bustle of the Toronto International Film Festival, where Happy End had its North American premiere a few months after Cannes. This is the extended version of the interview that appeared in our November/December 2017 issue. Haneke was in fine fettle, speaking through a translator.
You had been working on an Internet-related drama called Flashmob. What happened?
The problem was financial. It would have been either an American co-production or at least 50 percent of the film would have been shot in the United States, and the European producers were afraid that we’d lose money and they wouldn’t be able to obtain financing for it. But the real problem was that my female protagonist was a woman in her late twenties and early thirties, who weighed 350 pounds, and I couldn’t find that actress.
It had to be a European wife with an American man. We were looking for months in Germany, Austria, and northern France.
How did you arrive at the story in Happy End?
I took the part of the young girl who poisons her mother that was in Flashmob and adapted it for the new script. I wrote the new script because I wanted to work with Jean-Louis Trintignant again.
Some reviews treated this movie as if it was the same family, the Laurents, as Amour, and others as a different family. Was it supposed to be the same family?
It’s always the same family, of course! All my films deal with the same family. If you look at the films, then you’ll notice as well that they all have the same names. That’s because they’re the only people I know!
You’ve got to get out more!
I’m not the first doing this, if you think of Bergman’s films. They have all the same names.
Is the family in Happy End supposed to be bourgeois? They seemed rather wealthy.
I can only speak of Europe, but that’s how people are in Europe. Everyone belongs to this uniform society of the middle class. Some with more money, some with less money. But the higher bourgeoisie, the upper middle class that existed in the early 20th century, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been replaced by people who share the same values, whether upper or lower middle class. People who are entirely concerned with their own needs, who see the world as existing only for themselves and for them to make use of it, whatever the cost may be to the world or to others.
A kind of institutionalized custom of selfishness?
Do you attribute that to capitalism or something else?
I think capitalism best brings out the negative characteristics of humanity. If you think of the problem that we’re all facing today, that of immigration, which is evoked in the background of the film, then you also can’t forget that our forefathers and their predecessors were to blame for that situation. I’m referring here to colonialism, which brought about those waves of migration and the social problems that led to it. All of this is happening because of that. We can’t forget it. The bourgeoisie has a very long memory when it comes to the pains that we suffer, but a very short memory when it comes to our own faults and failings.
In terms of filmmaking, what were you trying to do differently from your previous work? I was especially struck by the head-on individual shots in that dinner scene.
The way that I’ve gone further than in my previous films is the extent that I left things out. I tried to tell the story and to present the characters in such a way that I was delivering the strict minimum necessary for the tale, in such a way that it would provoke the audience to complete the story, to project themselves into the story, to complete [the characters’] stories. My main job is to discover how much I can leave out without having the audience lose the thread of the story or where I’m trying to lead them. There’s a nice motto in German theater: what you leave out can’t go wrong. Explanations are boring. That’s how things are in daily life. We only catch fragments of places and people.
The other thing that I was trying to do as much as possible was to bring out the contradictions in each character, and in that way not define each character in a specific manner, and show them oscillating between every potential behavior.
Your characters in Happy End make free use of texting. Does it open up new possibilities as a screenwriter?
It was exciting. For example, sexting—the fact that in the cinema you could be describing every kind of obscenity, every kind of act that you could never show on screen without turning it into a porn film. I found it very intriguing as a possibility. It’s so difficult to portray sexual passion in the cinema. I think the only director who’s managed to do it is Oshima, In the Realm of the Senses. So this offers you different possibilities.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that you didn’t make The Piano Teacher now. She would just write long emails.
You have such a profound artistic relationship with Isabelle Huppert. In many ways she started a new chapter in her career with The Piano Teacher. Did you have that sense then?
It was an important part for her. She got the prize [at Cannes]. I don’t know any other actresses with this courage to do it. It’s not so easy, the things that she has to do in The Piano Teacher, and she did it. It was a pleasure. She has no fear.
A technical master too.
Also in theater, it’s amazing what she’s doing.
Have you directed her in theater?
No, but I saw her.
I read some earlier interviews with you relating to literature. You mentioned that when you were growing up, D.H. Lawrence was a kind of literary god to you.
A long time ago!
Who would be literary gods now that you look to?
I always have the same gods, saints, for I don’t know how many years. My favorite books were always—this has not changed—Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, and The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I think they are the best in German-language literature. One year ago I read again—and in this sense, for the first time—War and Peace by Tolstoy. I think it’s the most amazing book ever written. When I was young and I was reading it, I found it boring. It’s always a question of your own position in life when you read some books. From today, I like Michel Houellebecq’s novels very much. We have some things in common! [Laughs]
Did you see him in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq?
I found it so funny. He’s great as an actor, really. He has a reality, he’s so personal. It’s rare to find an actor who seems to be so open. No playing—just being.
It makes me think a little of the actor [Franz Rogowski] who plays the son in Happy End. He also seems to carry his own world around with him—partly it’s the character, too.
He’s the only person in the film who is dubbed in French because he played the role in German. We dubbed him for the film because I didn’t find anybody in France for the part.
What’s your next project?
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!
Happy End opens on December 22.