Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a new biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
It’s very possible that many American filmgoers had never heard of Michael Haneke before his win at the Oscars this year for Best Foreign Language Film for Amour. An affecting drama about an older married couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) coping with failing health, the Best Picture-nominated film was Haneke’s biggest commercial hit, bringing in about $6.7 million in the States. But because of its seemingly bleak subject matter—aging and death—Amour was also a movie that scared off a lot of people. By Haneke’s standards, however, the film was practically warm and cuddly. Some filmmakers dabble in dark terrain. Haneke set up camp there long ago.
Born in Germany in 1942, Haneke grew up in Austria, raised by parents in the arts. (His father, a German, was an actor and director. His mother, an Austrian, acted.) After graduating from the University of Vienna, he spent some time working as a film critic and a television director. But as he turned his attention to filmmaking in the late 1980s, he adopted a mindset appropriate to someone who studied philosophy and psychology in college. “In all of my work I’m trying to create a dialogue, in which I want to provoke the recipients, stimulate them to use their own imaginations,” the writer-director told& The New York Times last year. “I don’t just say things recipients want to hear, flatter their egos or comfort them by agreeing with them. I have to provoke them, to take them as seriously as I take myself. When I see a film or read a book, that’s what I’m expecting, to be taken seriously. I want to be led to question myself, to question things I assume I know.”
His first film, 1989’s The Seventh Continent, began the provocations. In it, a husband, wife and daughter go through consciously boring everyday activities, the tedium meant to suggest the emptiness and futility of presumed comforts like love and family. But after expressing that tedium, Haneke went in an entirely different direction for his shocking finale, illustrating the violent consequences of repressing one’s true feelings within polite society. The Seventh Continent was not a film made by someone who wanted to tell viewers what they wanted to hear. Ever since, he’s continued to shatter our sense of security. Name an institution we’ve put our faith in, and it’s likely Haneke has made a film in which that institution collapses.
Not that Haneke has shown much outward compassion or concern for those implosions. Exhibiting a cold, distant approach, his movies have been described as professorial or cruel by those not willing to get on his wavelength. (There’s an element of Stanley Kubrick in his interest in the ways that modern life dehumanizes people—that and his refusal to offer up any sort of relief for audiences trapped with his soulless, occasionally murderous characters.) Whether it’s the titular teen of 1992’s Benny’s Video, who prefers recorded images to flesh-and-blood humans (even when he’s killing them), or Isabelle Huppert’s demented, demanding anti-heroine in 2001’s The Piano Teacher, Haneke’s films strip away the innocence and goodness we’d like to hope surround us, instead offering a counter-narrative in which darkness is always approaching. Haneke has only made one film about the end of the world, 2003’s Time of the Wolf, but his movies are filled with personal apocalypses.
Since the late ’90s, Haneke has been a constant at the Cannes Film Festival, with six of his eight movies premiering at the prestigious annual event. (He’s won two Palme d’Ors, a Best Director award and a Grand Prix, the festival’s second-place prize.) And during that span, he has risen to the top ranks of international filmmakers. If another era celebrated releases from foreign directors like Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman, then Haneke is at the forefront of our time, a filmmaker who like his predecessors has come to represent the sort of arty, challenging work that flies in the face of Hollywood’s safer, more accessible fare. But Haneke’s rise came at a time when world cinema has had a tougher time infiltrating the American market, thanks in large part to the double whammy of dwindling art-house venues and shrinking coverage of such films in local papers. It’s not that those earlier filmmakers were ever household names, per se, but Haneke remains a relative unknown to most Americans, the foreigner whose movies they’ve heard are “difficult.”
Difficult they may be, but especially in the post-9/11 age, few directors have managed to craft a series of movies so in tune with a time that feels more distrustful and wearying. Starting off with Time of the Wolf, about an unexplained global crisis that’s set in a sparsely populated French countryside, Haneke has consistently delivered movies infested with suspicion or death. Caché (2005) begins with a well-to-do Parisian couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) discovering that someone is mailing them surveillance-style video recordings of the front of their apartment, setting in motion the revelation of family secrets that tear apart their bourgeois lifestyle. (Prosperous families are often falling apart in Haneke’s films, their unhappy lives exposed to the world. Is this a theme for him? “Well, I’m certainly a part of bourgeois culture, and I do view the society I live in as pretty loveless,” he told Film Comment in 2009 when questioned about it.)
From there, he got as close as he ever has to making an American film: an English-language remake of his 1997 thriller Funny Games that starred Naomi Watts. Amidst a climate of terrorist paranoia, the 2008 film—which concerned a blissful couple (Watts and Tim Roth) being attacked in their posh vacation cottage by creepy, sadistic thugs (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet)—hit uncomfortably close to home, all the inexplicable anxiety of the post-9/11 period undeniable in every frame. Haneke returned to Europe and went back in time for 2009’s The White Ribbon, his stark black-and-white drama about a 1910s German village unsettled by random acts of violence and vandalism. Like in Caché, the perpetuators are never explicitly named and their crimes never quite halted—there’s a sense that they just continue onward, unpunished.
And so it should be no surprise that some considered Amour almost soft by comparison. And yet look at how Haneke stages the illness that visits Reva, like an unseen burglar breaking into their beautiful Parisian apartment at the beginning of the film. For him, the terrors are always out there, waiting to pounce, and in Amour they cut deeper and are more moving than they ever have been before. Perhaps for Haneke as well: He has said that Amour was inspired by a family member’s protracted illness years earlier. “The thing that interested me was the question: How to manage the suffering of someone you love?” he explained to The Village Voice. “That’s the thing that touched me, that I wanted to investigate. … [T]his subject is universal and timeless. Everyone has parents, grandparents. You could also make a film about a couple in their thirties who have an eight-year-old child who’s dying of cancer; they face the same problem. But that’s a special tragic case, because getting cancer isn’t the destiny of everyone. But old age … it awaits us all. It’s inevitable.”
Maybe that’s why Amour never felt that “difficult.” In a sense, Haneke has always made movies about the frightening things banging on the door, trying to get in. Death is simply the greatest of those fears. You could say that, really, he’s been preparing us for Amour all along.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.