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Not that Haneke has been nearly as universally embraced as his Spanish contemporary. His films’ bold-faced provocations have earned Haneke criticism as a scold, a misanthrope and an all-around miserablist. The very night before our meeting in New York, at a MoMA dinner held in Haneke’s honor, an Austrian cultural attaché and his wife seated at my table spent much of the evening regaling me with their own reservations about the director’s work. “He doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” the woman said, echoing the sentiments of many who have lashed out at the director, whether in print or at audience Q&As. For his part, Haneke is the first to say that a movie like Funny Games isn’t for everybody. “The intellectual people who already worry and think about [violent images] — for them, it might be too obvious,” he concedes. It is also sometimes said that Haneke makes bourgeois films about bourgeois concerns, to which the director again pleads guilty as charged, noting that his chosen subject matter “doesn’t apply to the whole world, but it does apply to all the rich countries. The people in Africa have other problems — they don’t need to watch my films. I make films for a certain level of society, who can afford to go to the movies and who recognize themselves in them, even if they do not want to.”
Whatever way you slice it, Haneke gets people talking — about him and about his movies. For all his indebtedness to Bresson, he possesses the canny pop instincts of a Hitchcock or a Kubrick — directors who knew that before you could implode an audience’s expectations, you first had to get them into the seats. And in this moment of unparalleled audience awareness of all the potential tricks of the filmmaking trade, Haneke is a master at pulling out from under us the rug we didn’t even know we were standing on — as anyone who witnessed Caché’s blind-siding third-act throat slitting can attest. At the end of the same film, perplexed viewers staggered out of the theater asking themselves (and each other), “Who exactly was sending those videotapes?” with the same intensity with which moviegoers of an earlier generation had debated the photographic reality (or lack thereof) of Antonioni’s Blowup and the contents of a certain toilet bowl in Coppola’s The Conversation. The American Funny Games should spur more of the same.
In the meantime, Haneke has already moved on to his next project, The White Ribbon, which will be his first German-language film in more than a decade. “It’s about the education of the generation who became the Nazis,” he tells me when we meet just before Christmas, this time in Berlin, where he is in preproduction. “That interests me because German fascism was completely different from Italian fascism, and in my opinion, this has something to do with education.”
As we dine on schnitzel in a Viennese bistro on the city’s busy Kurfürstendamm thoroughfare, a month before Funny Games receives its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Haneke seems relieved to have survived his American moviemaking trial by fire. Asked whether he expects to make another film in the States, he says only that he will wait to see how Funny Games goes over first. “If it is a success, I may get other offers. If it’s not, there will be no offers and I will continue in Europe.”
Meanwhile, as the streets outside erupt with Christmas cheer, Haneke is confronting a new set of anxieties. Before the cameras have even begun to roll on The White Ribbon, the project has already suffered a couple of significant setbacks, including the death of its intended star, Ulrich Mühe, a longtime Haneke collaborator (he is the father in Benny’s Video and Funny Games) who succumbed to stomach cancer in July 2007, shortly after achieving worldwide celebrity as the wiretapping star of the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others. Then, after agreeing to co-finance the film, a prestigious U.S. art-house distributor pulled out upon discovering that Haneke intended to shoot it in black-and-white.
“C’est difficile, c’est difficile,” he says repeatedly, shaking his head, and it’s not the first time I get the impression that Haneke may do his best work in a state of frayed nerves and extreme psychological duress. If Haneke had stayed with music, it’s tempting to think he would have become one of those composers, like Stravinsky, whose concerts could rouse the audience to simultaneous explosions of adulation and disgust. As it is, his disharmonious cinematic symphonies continue to deliver their own finely calibrated shocks to our system. Which is exactly as Haneke intends. “In all my films, I try to create an innate distrust in reality,” he says. “Because we get all our information from the media, we think that we know something about reality. And actually, we don’t. In reality, we only know what we’ve experienced firsthand. The danger is that we think we know something. We’re the welcome victims of those who wish to manipulate us.”
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