Realism Isn’t Pessimism

Michael Haneke says the Internet is the modern Church

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

There’s no question German filmmaker Michael Haneke is an acquired taste. His clinical dissection of contemporary malaise is unflinching and each one of his movies contains at least one scene that ends up seared into your brain. Like a scar.

My introduction to Haneke came very late, in 2005. I was watching a screener of Funny Games on my computer, in less-than-ideal circumstances. I was both gripped and terrified. My next fix was Caché, which plastered me against my seat in a mostly empty theatre one afternoon.

Haneke doesn’t work as fast as fans would like him to (only four movies in the last decade), but his films have become events among cinephiles.

I was privileged to interview him (via interpreter) at the Toronto International Film Festival last year for Happy End (see review page 14). While slightly brittle (he is 75, after all), the man is a beacon of intelligence who wants everybody to know he’s not a pessimist, he’s a realist.

What’s at the root of your decision to shoot sections of Happy End with a cell phone?

If you want to create a realistic depiction of our society, dealing with “handies” is unavoidable. All of us carry these gadgets. It’s part of our daily life.

What’s your personal relationship with smartphones? Do you believe they’re responsible for our communication problems?

[Waves his iPhone] I don’t have Instagram or Snapchat, but if you’re working professionally, you can’t refuse using them. That said, I don’t judge. I don’t have a position for or against these devices. At the same time, the speed these means of communication changed our lives is unheard of. Never before in human history has change has been so radical or quick. If you think back to the printing press, it took centuries for change to permeate every level of society. With cell phones it has been only 15 years.

How does that phenomenon apply to Happy End?

I wanted to investigate the role of digital media in our lives. I have the suspicion the Internet has taken the role the church once had. It’s not unusual that one family member poisons another, but when the perpetrator publishes it on the Internet, there has to be a desire to be discovered. It’s a form of confession.

There are several recurring names in your films (Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant). Why do you go back to them?

When you don’t have to start from zero you get better results. If you’ve gotten along in the past, it’s enjoyable to work with friends.

Do you believe movies have the power to change the world?

[Laughs] No art form can change the world, but the sum of all our artistic endeavors can make it more livable. To expect more than that would be naïve. This is the human dilemma: on one hand we want to live, on the other, we know we are going to die. There are no happy endings. The title of my movie is intended to be ironic, like Funny Games: the ending is as happy as the games were funny.

You’ve mentioned in the past you look at life from outside. Does that mean you don’t live your life totally in the moment?

Depends on what role I’m playing, if I’m writing a script or directing a film, I have to objectify things. It happens to every artist. In my private life, I’m fully a participant and perhaps the victim of what’s going on around me.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about your work?

That I’m a pessimist. I see myself as a realist. Pessimists are those people who make mainstream Hollywood movies and treat spectators as if they were dumb and just give them what they want. Anyone who confronts life and takes a stand generates meaningful work. That’s actually optimistic.

Do you ever revisit your films?

I don’t like to. I just look forward.