“Who on earth would want to see that?”
—Overheard at a Los Angeles multiplex during the trailer to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games
“That was weird, but I kind of want to see it again.”
—Overheard following the midnight premiere of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival
To the uninitiated viewer, Austrian director Michael Haneke might best be described as the modern cinema’s master of the unkind rewind. In the opening scene of his second theatrical feature, Benny’s Video (1992), we see crude camcorder footage of a farm pig being shot with a cattle gun during a family’s bucolic holiday. Then the images begin to play in reverse before our eyes, then forward again, this time in slow motion, until the titular teenage videographer gets it in his head to restage this grisly scene in his own bedroom, with a female classmate in place of the swine. Thirteen years later, the opening scene of Haneke’s Caché similarly doubled back on itself, revealing that the establishing exterior shot of a Parisian book critic’s home was, in actuality, an excerpt from a surveillance video left on the critic’s doorstep by an anonymous voyeur.
The most unnerving instant replay in the Haneke canon, however, is the one that occurs late in his 1997 film Funny Games, when the distraught matriarch of a family held hostage in their lakeside vacation home by two sadistic intruders momentarily turns the tables on her captors and leaves one of them with a gaping shotgun wound in his stomach. Already, by this point in the film, the woman has watched helplessly as her husband is savagely beaten with a golf club and her 10-year-old son finds himself on the losing end of a life-or-death round of eeny-meeny-miny-moe. But mere seconds after our heroine appears to gain the upper hand, the surviving tormentor picks up a remote control and, in a moment that might be dubbed “night of the living TiVo,” resurrects his fallen partner in crime with a single touch of the backward arrow.
It is the most discussed and debated single moment in Haneke’s most discussed and debated movie — an abrupt breaking of whatever rules we thought Funny Games had established for itself, and a blunt-force denial of our desire for closure and catharsis. When the film premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Haneke recalls, the shooting earned the enthusiastic applause of the audience. “Later, when the scene gets rewound, there was embarrassed silence, because they realized that they had applauded a murder. That’s what I have to play with as a filmmaker, so that people become aware of their roles as accomplices to the violence that they are viewing.”
As Haneke speaks, the sunlight of a crisp fall afternoon streams through the windows of his suite at New York City’s Regency Hotel and glints off his white, professorial beard. Tall and slender, with a wolfish jowl and a penchant for dressing head to toe in various shades of black, the 65-year-old filmmaker cuts an undeniably imposing figure, which, coupled with the bleak tone of his films, has led to his reputation as a chilly prince of cinematic darkness. In person, though, Haneke’s formidable demeanor is offset by kind, fatherly eyes and a convulsive, deep-throated laugh that rises up at unexpected intervals. He is quick to offer praise for his filmmaking contemporaries. (Of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, he says, “He is, in my opinion, the most important, the most advanced film director in the world today.”) Perhaps most disarming is his habit of peppering his conversation with German proverbs, some of which survive the translation into English better than others. “There is a saying in German, ‘Wash my pelt, but don’t get me wet,’ ” Haneke tells me when I raise the fact that many audiences prefer movies to be a little less aggressive than his. A few days later, during a workshop at Boston University, he has these words for a student who asks him why he’s never made a children’s film or a comedy: “There is a saying in German, ‘Don’t ask a shoemaker for a hat.’ ”
The purpose of Haneke’s visit to the U.S. is twofold. One reason is a complete retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Film Archive. The other is the promotion of Funny Games — not the decade-old Austrian film mentioned above, but rather an American remake starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth that marks Haneke’s first foray into English-language cinema. It has already entered the film-history textbooks as the first time a director has remade his own film shot by shot, with only the subtlest of variations in dialogue, costumes and production design. For its creator, it is an unexpected career move that has raised its share of eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic ever since it was first announced two years ago. Why would Haneke, on the heels of Caché — his greatest international success to date (including nearly $4 million at the U.S. box office) — opt to revisit one of his own films, in a language in which he is less than fluent, in a place (Hollywood) famous for sending many a world-cinema maverick running home with his tail between his legs?
To hear Haneke tell it, his rationale was quite simple. From its English-language title to the architectural details of its setting, even the original Funny Games was intended, he says coyly, “for the consumers of violence — in other words, Americans. The house in the first film — such a house doesn’t even exist in Austria. It’s a typical American suburban house.” Just as the NASCAR racing that plays on a television in the background of one of the grisliest scenes in both versions of the film is a uniquely American pastime. (Asked why he chose the sport, Haneke says it was the loudest thing he could think of.)
But in our globalized entertainment marketplace, I ask Haneke, isn’t the entire world a consumer of violence? “Yes, yes, of course,” he replies, “but it’s the English language that is the language of the world. If you want to reach as large an audience as possible, you have to make an English-language film. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.”
So, when the British producers Chris Coen and Hamish McAlpine approached Haneke about another round of Funny Games, he agreed, on one condition — that Watts take on the role of the imperiled wife and mother originated by Haneke regular Susanne Lothar. With the Australian actress onboard as both star and executive producer, and with a reported $15 million budget, Funny Games U.S. (as the film was titled during production and at its first press screenings) began shooting in the fall of 2006 on sound stages in Brooklyn and locations on Long Island. But even with a literal blueprint in place, and a contract that guaranteed him final cut, Haneke discovered that retracing his own celluloid footsteps was easier said than done. In addition to the language barrier, Haneke, like many international directors getting their first taste of American film production, found himself at loggerheads with the ironclad union rules and crew hierarchies that sometimes seemed to slow progress to a glacial crawl.
“The work with the actors was good, and the camera team was very good, but the rest was difficult,” he sighs. “You need five people for every job. If I want to move a pencil from here to there, then I have to tell this to my assistant, and he tells his assistant; I can’t just carry it myself. We were filming for eight and a half weeks, which wasn’t even enough time. But in Austria, we filmed the whole thing in six weeks.” Much of that time, Haneke says, he felt like he was towing a huge steamship across the ocean with a rope slung over his shoulder. “To work within this huge apparatus, you need a lot of money and a lot of time. If you’re doing a huge studio production with a $100 million budget, it’s great — you get 30 seconds of footage a day, and that’s fine. But if you want to get three minutes a day, it’s very paralyzing.”
Once he was in the editing room, Haneke’s confidence grew, and with good reason. Much more than a mere translation of Funny Games for the subtitle-impaired, or a mass-market lithograph of a hand-painted original, the new film stands on its own as a bold, consciousness-altering work that neither requires nor is diluted by foreknowledge of its predecessor. The play, you might say, is the thing: Like a theatrical production that changes its cast midway through the run, or gets revived years later in another city (the way Haneke’s controversial staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, first mounted in Paris in 2006, will travel to New York in 2012), the American Funny Games is at once every inch the film Haneke first made a decade ago and a vibrant, living object that seems to be evolving right before our eyes.
Credit for this goes largely to the actors, especially Watts, who navigates the film’s Olympiad of physical and psychological punishments with mesmerizing intensity. Funny Games offers a genuine revelation, though, in the form of the 26-year-old American actor Michael Pitt (Last Days, The Dreamers), whose performance as the film’s alpha intruder, Paul (played in the original version by Benny’s Video star Arno Frisch), rivals Malcolm McDowell’s iconic turn in A Clockwork Orange in its balletic, gleeful amorality. It’s a performance so commanding, in fact, that it shifts the focus of the film from the homeowners to their uninvited guests. “In the Austrian version, you had the impression that the main parts are the parents, and now it’s different,” Haneke concurs. “Now you know that [Paul] is the main part.”
But the greatest strength of Haneke’s film remains its unceasing conceptual rigor. Seen a decade ago, the movie’s hard-line critique of media violence and its transformation of human torture into a spectator sport might have seemed a tad reactionary. In 2008, it feels like a high-IQ smart bomb launched into the culture of commemorative Abu Ghraib snapshots, the endless slo-mo looping of the 9/11 attacks, and the use of odds-making vernacular to turn everything from the Iraq war to the presidential election into their own brand of funny games.
The son of an actress, Beatrix von Degenschild, and an actor and theater director, Fritz Haneke, Michael Haneke grew up in a high-culture world not unlike the one he would go on to depict in The Piano Teacher. As a boy, he toyed with the idea of becoming an actor, and later, a classical pianist, though a few bad auditions and the tough love of his talented family members set him on another course.
“My stepfather was a composer, and he said to me, ‘You are not going to become a great musician,’ ” Haneke recalls. “I always tell my students that directing is the profession of cheats. A complete idiot can make a good film if he’s saved by his collaborators, but if a musician plays badly, all the world knows he’s a bad musician.”
It was as a student at the University of Vienna that Haneke saw the movie that would change his life — a film, he later wrote in an essay, that “crashed into our seminar like a UFO fallen from a distant planet, and divided us into fanatic supporters and fierce opponents.” The film was Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the great French director’s 1966 classic about the life of the titular donkey, whose brief time upon the earth is more than long enough for him to encounter the full spectrum of human kindness and cruelty. The film, Haneke goes on to write, “remains for me the most precious of all cinematic jewels. No other film has ever made my heart and my head spin like this one.”
Not surprisingly, the influence of Bresson looms large over Haneke’s own movies — in their visual austerity, in the absence of original music and, most of all, in their asking of a great many more questions than they answer about the motives of human behavior. Consider Haneke’s first theatrical feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), which dramatizes a real incident in which a seemingly ordinary Austrian family committed group suicide after (and this is the thing Haneke says fascinated him about the case) first destroying every possession in their Vienna apartment. It is a startling film — a portrait of suburban ennui and madness that leaves American Beauty and Little Children looking as genteel as Leave It to Beaver — made all the more so by Haneke’s persistent dissociation of people and objects, until the real stars of the drama seem to be an alarm clock, a fish tank and a package of frozen broccoli (all of which, like their owners, meet with a bad end). Haneke followed up with Benny’s Video, and then 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), in which another ripped-from-the-headlines incident — the 1993 murder-suicide enacted by a 19-year-old student in a Vienna bank — becomes the leaping-off point for a kaleidoscopic portrait of a lonely, disconnected society seething with unexpressed rage.
At the time, Haneke termed the three films a loose trilogy of “emotional glaciation” — a branding, he now says, that seems doomed to follow him for the rest of his life. What he meant, simply, was that the films grew out of his fear of the breakdown of human connections in this so-called age of communication — an age, Haneke says, in which “we talk a lot in order not to have to say anything.”
“I get aggressive when I’m afraid, and I become afraid when I don’t understand something,” he elaborates. “Why don’t I understand? Because there’s no communication. Lack of communication is the cause of all these interpersonal problems. Xenophobia” — the subject of two later Haneke films, Code Unknown and Caché — “is a classical example of that.”
Though it bears many similarities to the trilogy — it too features prominent supporting roles for a collection of inanimate objects, including a telephone and a bag of golf clubs — the original Funny Games has always occupied a unique place in Haneke’s filmography. The first of his films to be screened in the Official Selection at Cannes (where tickets to the black-tie gala were emblazoned with warnings for the faint of heart), it was — and remains — his most directly confrontational, frequently breaking the so-called fourth wall through first-person asides in which Paul turns to the camera and implicates the audience in his actions. “What do you think? Do you think they have a chance of winning?” he asks us in the midst of forcing the characters onscreen to bet on their own chances of survival. “You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don’t you?” he volleys a bit later.
By the time the film arrived at its now-infamous rewind, some viewers walked out in a huff. Even so, the movie established Haneke’s international reputation as one of contemporary cinema’s most uncompromising, original voices, going on to achieve wider distribution (including in the U.S.) than any of his previous films and leading directly to the series of French-language co-productions (including The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown) that have made him, alongside Pedro Almodóvar, one of the world’s few “name” directors working regularly in a language other than English.
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.”