Michael Haneke’s cinema of aesthetic manipulation: Colin Marshall talks to film scholar Peter Brunette

Peter Brunette was the Reynolds Professor of Film Studies and director of the Film Studies program at Wake Forest University. The author of books on such beloved filmmakers as Michelangelo Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai and Roberto Rossellini, Brunette’s last book was on Austrian cinematic provocateur Michael Haneke. The latest published entry in the University of Illinois Press’ “Contemporary Film Directors” series, Michael Haneke examines in depth the art of and the ideas behind the auteur’s theatrical releases, from late-1980s and early-1990s works such as The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video through his newest and best-known pictures Caché and The White Ribbon. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio show and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]

Brunette1 You’ve written books on on directors before — Antonioni, Rossellini, Wong Kar Wai. Where does Michael Haneke fit into this personal constellation of directors that summon enough of your interest to write a book about?

That’s a very great question. Every book I’ve ever written has come from a desire to understand an idea, more than anything else. People are always disappointed when they ask me biographical questions about a director I’ve written on, because I never know anything about their biography. I’m just fascinated by certain ideas that come up in their films and want to think about them more.

Are you fascinated about whatever ideas a certain filmmaker might happen to have, how filmmakers are driven by ideas, or are you fascinated by certain ideas, and thus the filmmakers that happen to work with those ideas?

I think it’s the former rather than the latter, because it’s not so much what the idea is, it’s that there’s an idea that attracts me. My very first book was on Roberto Rossellini, the Italian director, and what I was largely concerned with there was the whole question of realism. What do we mean when we say that a film is realistic? Out of that grew this book. Of course, it also gave me the chance to do my research in Italy, which was a bit calculated on my part, but I really was wondering about that idea of realism. The same thing with Haneke: it’s more the question of violence, the media critique. I’d heard about him for years before I actually wrote about him.

Did you get any chances to go to France or Germany with the Haneke research?

I sort of was already there. I went to his press conference at Cannes last year. He’s actually Austrian, so I have spent some time in Vienna. He’s kind of a formidable figure. I had heard lots of things about how he scares people, so I stayed away from him. I wanted to stick to the films.

What are these stories you heard about him scaring people? You watch the movies and understand how the movies could scare people, but the man himself?

Apparently he can be a bit of a bear — maybe more than a bit — on the set. I’ve heard of various encounters with actors that he’s quite brutalized. The German version of Funny Games — he even talks about it in an interview that I translated for the book — the character played by Susanne Lothar is actually reduced to a quivering mass, a lump of humanity. He’s very proud of that; I think they did 20 takes of this one horrible torture scene. He got what he wanted. He’s just one of those guys who’s a very serious artist. You know, everything for art.

Brunette2 Aren’t there also the articles out there — I think of Anthony Lane’s recent one in the New Yorker — saying they expected the worst of Haneke’s behavior, but they actually found he acted somewhat happy in real life, and that came as a surprise?

That’s absolutely right. He has such a forbidding appearance — I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of him — but he’s got this white hair and white beard and piercing look. He just looks like a German philosopher who is going to crack his ruler over your knuckles if you don’t give the right answer. But I have heard these stories that, in fact, in real life he’s quite nice. It’s when he’s on the set, apparently, and when he’s doing his artist’s thing, he really has to have it exactly the way he wants it.

How did you first encounter his films?

I had heard about them before I got a chance to see them. These are the two earlier films: one is called Benny’s Video, and the other is the original German version of Funny Games. I had heard they were very troubling and they were about the question of violence and the depiction of violence in the media. I was always intrigued by them, but I never got around to seeing them. The first film I actually saw of his, it’s called in French Code inconnu, or just Code Unknown, with Juliet Binoche. That was his first French film. I was really intrigued by it, and thought there was somebody here who had some ideas and was pushing the envelope, as it were. His film after that, The Pianist with Isabelle Huppert, is very edgy. The figure is a sadomasochist, and it’s a sick relationship she has. That’s immensely intriguing, those kinds of sick films, because there’s so many boring films out there that you want to be — I won’t say titillated, but — you want to be challenge beyond your normal limits.

Certainly Haneke himself has had much to say about how he wants to challenge the audience, how he wants to move away from their expectations. You mention the ideas that drive his films, and you also mention the film The Pianist, also known as The Piano Teacher, that is a bit of an outlier as an adaptation of a novel. How wide a range of ideas does Haneke’s body of work encompass? Is he playing, to your mind, on similar sets of ideas every time, or is he jumping around a lot as far as the specific ideas he works with? Is each film an outgrowth of this central core of Haneke ideas, or is he taking on different ones each time?

That’s a great question. I think he’s done himself somewhat of a disservice by focusing on this question of violence. Naturally, that’s the kind of thing that gets headlines, and people are either repelled by or attracted to that kind of exploration. The implication of the involvement of the audience is especially true in Funny Games, and I actually take him to task for that in the book, because I don’t think he really is very coherent when he talks about those things.

What it really covers up is the fact that what he really is is a good old-fashioned art film director in the sense that, first of all, his technical style in his earlier films is very, very obtuse, in the good sense: you have to pay attention every second to see who the characters are. He gives you absolutely no help whatsoever. But his earlier films are more a critique of society, of the way we’re no longer human with each other, that we’ve lost the ability to communicate. These grand old humanist themes — Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni. He’s kind of a throwback. Actually, he’s 67 years old, so he’s kind of at the tail end of that generation of great directors of the sixties and seventies. He’s gotten a little bit of notoriety, maybe a lot of notoriety, about this question of violence and its depiction in the media, but I don’t think that’s the real Haneke.

You might say, then, that of the ideas he’s talked about, made films about — everyone would always say media violence, because the specter of media violence is so at the surface of his movies — you find more interesting the themes of humanity’s loss of recognition of the common humanity of everyone?

Yes, and I think it also tends to have a specific historical valence as well. I asked him a question at the Cannes Film Festival, during the press conference, because I’m one of the few people in the world that’s seen his earlier films. He actually made films for 15 years for television, before he began making theatrical films. Of course, Austrian and German television are very different from American television, so these are tough art films.

I really think that in his new film, The White Ribbon, he’s going back to some of the grand old themes of a film he made in 1979 called The Lemmings, a sociohistorical critique of intergenerational conflict. In other words, it’s the whole question of the way the elder generation tortures and mistreats the younger generation, and the way this leads to grand, historical, horrible consequences like World War II and Nazism, etc. I think he’s going back to that now with his new film, which I loved tremendously. Even though it’s gotten some negative reviews here and there, I think they’ve really missed the point.

You mention his older films, the films that began his career, the television films. Those are ones that even his fans in the U.S. probably won’t have seen. I, personally, have seen all of his theatrically released films, except for the new one, The White Ribbon. I’ve seen one of his TV films, The Castle, which has a wide DVD release. What can you tell somebody who has seen the majority of the theatrical films, not the majority of the television films, about how they compare to one another, how those clusters compare to one another?

He takes up different subjects. You’re right; no one in the United States has seen them. Roy Grundmann, who’s a professor at Boston University and runs the film program there, collected all the major Haneke films that were made for television in the seventies and put on a traveling show that was at various museums around the country, especially on the East Coast. That was fantastic. He has a new edited collection out on Haneke, and I have an essay in there on this early film, The Lemmings. They’re very tough and uncompromising. There’s suicides and people slitting their wrists and slitting each other’s wrists — they’re very tough movies. I have a theory that, in Germany — and I think he agrees with this; there are instances of this in his interviews — they’ve spent so much time coming to grips with the guilt produced by World War II and the Holocaust. In intellectual circles, you get this breast-beating which has lasted for decades and decades and decades, which I think is fine.

In Austria, however, it’s been exactly the opposite. They participated, as we know, very happily in the Nazi movement. Yet there’s this little out that they have, that, “Oh, we were the first victims” — when Hitler took over Austria, the famous Anschluss of 1938. But when you look at the pictures, you see all of those Viennese people with their arms raised in the fascist Nazi salute, looking very happy about Hitler’s advent. Haneke himself talks about this, that Austria has never really faced its guilt the way Germany has. So the writers and the artists and the filmmakers are almost berserk at times with anger at the middle class and at this refusal to face the consequences of history. The novel that The Piano Teacher is taken from is by Elfriede Jelinek, as you know, who won the Nobel Prize. I read that novel to see how he had adapted it, and it’s almost berserk with anger and violence at her own countrymen — and hatred. It’s so intense. I think a lot of that comes out in the television films. That would be the primary difference.

The first Haneke film was the first Haneke film a lot of people in the U.S. saw, Caché. It came out in, I believe, 2005. I was immediately taken by the filmmaking, the pure cinematic qualities of the movie. I did feel like there was maybe more direct lecturing of the middle class than I would’ve liked, but that’s washed away by the quality of the film itself. You mention he’s angry at the middle class. In the book, you quote him as saying he makes films about the middle class because he comes from the middle class, and that’s what he knows. There might be an element of, wherever he came from, that’s what he’s angry at?

I think it’s just one of those things: people making films tend to come from the middle class. Since the middle class runs things in most societies, they are the ones responsible for the guilt. They produce directors and writers who attack them. This is a kind of classic gesture throughout history: the middle-class writer or artist who attacks the middle class for being middle class, even though they came from that milieu.

What does he seem to think of the middle class? My favorite film of his is The Seventh Continent, and that does seem like even more of an indictment of the emptiness, or what have you, of the middle class than any of his other films. But what opinion does he actually seem to hold?

He’s very interested in showing body parts, for example. Many of his films, for the first ten or fifteen minutes — all you can see is feet or arms or legs before you’re allowed to begin to identify with the characters. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He could be a wonderful Hollywood director if he didn’t have everything Hollywood stands for. He really knows how to hold attention and suspense in the audience. He’d make a great maker of horror films and thriller films, if that’s the way he wanted to go.

To get back to the ideas that drive his filmmaking, you’ve mentioned the less interesting of the ideas at work: the critique of media violence. You can read him and hear him and see him talk about that theme directly in a lot of interviews, especially the ones on the U.S. region DVDs. I, too, find that the less interesting of the ideas he works with. How seriously do you think he takes his own critique of media violence? I know that’s maybe asking you to be psychic, but do you think media violence is really as important to him as an interview would lead you to believe?

It’s this whole problem of, how do you represent something without exacerbating the desire the audience has to see that? There are many directors in history — Rossellini, Mizoguchi — who make films about the travails of women. But of course, in the making of those films, they also get to torture women. There’s this kind of reverse accidental effect. Another great example is A Clockwork Orange, which is touted as a film that is against violence, and it’s one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen. In the representation of what you’re trying to be against, you can just feed that fire, and I think that’s a problem.

I think what’s most interesting and important in his films about that is the way he deals with it, in terms of the formal techniques he uses, and the doubling. For example, you never know in Caché what the source of any image is. He destabilizes the image. You never know at any moment whether you’re watching a video done by some unknown person that you never discover who it is, or whether it’s Haneke’s shot. He’s keeping you on your toes. Watching his films — as you know, having seen all the theatrical films yourself — you have to pay attention. You can’t nod off. You can’t think about other things. You’ll miss something crucial.

Brunette3 The way he deals with mediation itself I always find interesting, but when he directly approaches media violence itself, I find those efforts to be slightly weaker. You have a chapter on Funny Games, one on the original, one on the remake, and that’s his best-known film. You seem to find it the weakest. Is that true?

It’s not so much the weakest as… the most wrongheaded. I think he wants to punish his audience, and he’s very open about this. The reason he made this film was to show the audience exactly how complicit they are in the violence they’re enjoying. He says, for example, “If people are so much against this violence, then why don’t they get up and leave? It just seems to me completely bogus. After you’ve paid eight or ten dollars, you’re going to stay, just on a stupid level. On another level, you’ll want to see what happens. It’s only normal.

This is why I think the second Funny Games, the American version, didn’t work at all: he has this idea, he wants to critique people who watch thriller films or violent films, but in fact the kind of people who watch his films are the kind of people who watch art films. They don’t like those kind of films. He was betwixt and between, in the sense that the kind of people he wanted to attack would never go see a Haneke film in a million years. The people who would go see a Haneke film don’t want to see all that violence. It just didn’t work. There are a lot of asides, you remember, where the audiences are brought in to the killers, the torturers of the family. It’s a very tough movie to see, an entire family basically tortured to death over an hour and a half. But it’s a powerful movie also, in some of its ideas. For example, the remote control on the television. The Susanne Lothar character grabs the remote control, and the entire scene of the movie is rewound. Those are some interesting Brechtian ideas, but overall, as a critique of the media depiction of violence, it doesn’t work.

Here’s the thing I think about the remake of Funny Games. It was a big question: why would he bother simply changing the location and essentially shot-for-shot remaking it? I remember Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review; the thrust of that was, he was with it in 1997. In 2008, he’s no longer with the times with his critique. But you just mentioned how the events of the film — you see a lot of torture from near the beginning to the end — and I think, in a way, Lane is right: maybe it’s too late for the critique. But in a way, isn’t that now a legitimate horror subgenre? There are people specifically into the all-torture subgenre of horror. It would seem to have been the time for it. What’s your our stane on how relevant the critique he’s actually making is?

I don’t really buy that Anthony Lane argument. It’s hard for me to tell, because I watched the first film in German and was moved and shaken by it. Not moved in the sense of emotionally overwhelmed, just kind of grossed out by it, and I wanted to find out and discover the source of that, to explore that a little bit. To me, the American version was just boring, in the sense of, now he’s got his audience he wants, but nobody’s going to go see a film like this.

I saw it a couple years ago on Easter Sunday, as a matter of fact, and there were four other people in the audience in my local art-house theater. After the movie was over, one person turned to one of the other four people and said, “What the hell was that about?” They were people who had gone to see a film with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth that was billed as a horror film, a thriller, whatever you want to call it, and they couldn’t make heads or tails of all the Brechtian effects, the turning and looking at the camera, supposedly indicting and incriminating the audience. They had no idea what any of that stuff was there for.

It does seem a little strange to me, though, that the breaking of the fourth wall would, today, be regarded as that weird.

Yeah, but if it’s done for humor. Then it goes way, way back, and it’s been around forever, and it works very well, and there’s no problem with that. We’ve seen many films where a character — in a comedy — will suddenly look at the camera and make a little comment. But when it’s in a serious movie, when it’s in a drama, that we’re not used to, even today. I can’t think of a single other film that’s a serious drama in which that fourth wall is broken now. We don’t want to have that messed with, I think. If it’s part of the laughs, that’s fine.

When Haneke says — and he’s oft-quoted as saying this — that he can’t stand suffering, can’t even bear the idea of violence, do you believe, literally, that that’s true?

Great question. Let’s put it this way: I think he thinks it’s true. That’s why he’s on this crusade. Then again, you get back to that kind of Clockwork Orange factor I mentioned earlier. Somebody who is that drawn to the depiction of something is also interested in that thing, and not merely in a scolding kind of way. There’s some kind of deeper interest going on there. I think only Haneke’s therapist could help us on that one. I think I’m just so attracted to him because he’s a good old-fashioned art film director. You have to work at his films. It’s not something where you come home, grab a beer, “Ah, I’m going to really relax.” These are tough films on lots of different levels: emotional, psychological, but also just artistically, to piece these things together. That’s exciting, in an age when things seem to be getting stupider and easier all the time. It’s nice to be challenged.

I do want to get into this idea of Haneke as good old art film director. Does that mean you are seeing less of his breed around in the younger generations?

That’s a great question. My own personal take — and this is an idea I’ve had for years, and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I keep inflicting it on my students — is that the salvation of the art film perhaps lies in some sort of a marriage with the genre film. For example, a film like Memento. That’s an exciting film, but it’s also a film with a lot of ethical questions involved, artistic questions. But it’s also a thrilling film about somebody killing somebody, maybe, maybe not — it’s a real brain-teaser. That combination is perhaps the future of art films. Haneke tries to do that: Caché is very suspenseful; you’re sitting on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what’s going on — who’s making these films? — just as the characters in the film are.

This idea of the salvation of the art film being a bit of a hybridization with the genre film; does that mean that’s where new relevance for the art film might lie, or is it more that it’s the only artistic direction that might be left to go, in a creatively profitable sense? Or is in the sense that, well, that’s the way people can get into art films again? Which way do you mean that?

I think all of the above. The market for art films is just shrinking and shrinking. Now, with the different platforms available, really no one knows what’s going on at this point, whether we will still be watching movies in a movie theater in ten or 20 years. The entire box office, historically, for foreign films in the United States has been about one percent of the overall box office. It’s a really tiny amount of money, but we’re a very big country. It ends up being a lot of money.

Interestingly, British Directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach complain that it’s only in the United States that their films can make back the money put into them, because, ironically, it is American Hollywood films that have grabbed all the screens in the U.K. In a weird reversal, they have to come to the United States to attract this art crowd to make their films break even. Especially because of the language thing; you don’t have that problem with translation, subtitling, dubbing and all that. The British art film, especially, is in very serious trouble. Brazil might have 90 percent of its box office from American films, which is a shame. You understand why: we tell stories well. That’s what American filmmakers do very, very well. It drowns out these other voices. In Brazil, Brazilians need to hear voices of other Brazilians.

I think of the reception to, say, The White Ribbon, Haneke’s new one. That seems to have been made quite a big deal of. Is there any glimmer of hope to be found in the way this film has been received, that perhaps the art film is gaining relevance once again?

I hope so, but it seems to me also a variant of the question, the big fish in the small pond or the small fish in the big pond? You and I, because we run in certain circles, have heard a lot about The White Ribbon. But the great unwashed masses of human beings in America, I’m sure, have no idea what The White Ribbon is. My whole life is art films and foreign films and documentaries. It’s always a sobering moment for me in the Academy Awards when the foreign film Oscar is given such short shrift. They’re on and off in a few seconds, something I know is so important to the director, and so important to the people nominated in so many ways around the world: funding, whether they’re going to make films in the future, et cetera. It’s, what, two minutes? You say, “Gee, I guess foreign films really aren’t as important to the rest of the world as they are to me.”

In our circle, the people that read Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, we’ve all heard of The White Ribbon. But I don’t think the art film market is robust right now. But yeah, I always have hope. It’s a great film. I live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and my local art-house theater had a screening where I did a little Q&A and discussion afterwards. It was packed, and I could feel people were on the edge of our seats the whole time, a collective holding of breath, the whole movie. He sustains the tension, and it’s such a beautiful movie in that black and white. I just found it very, very powerful. It has nothing to do with the media; it’s set in 1913. He said he was getting off the media at the press conference. Whether that lasts for a while or not, I don’t know. I think he realizes that’s kind of a dead subject and things are the way they are and there’s not much he can do about it, so he should return to larger themes. Historical, humanistic themes are more important now.

Brunette4 It does seem the buzz around The White Ribbon indicates it is a signal of a new direction in Haneke’s career. I think back to the most media violence-intensive period of his career, to ’92, to Benny’s Video, which I love but which seems badly dated in some respects, to Funny Games, of course, the most direct of the media violence indictments he’s made. To get a general shape of his career across, after Funny Games we do seem to see a change in theme. The media violence becomes less overt. He seems to broaden out to a different set of ideas. Would you agree with that, first of all?

I think he wants a wider market at that point. This is also one of the realities of filmmaking: if you make films in German, they don’t have as wide a spread as films, say, in French. I think he wanted to work with other actors. Right after Funny Games is when he makes his first French film. Juliette Binoche wrote to him and apparently said, “I’d like to make a film with you some time.” He really jumped on that. He may have realized that was kind of a dead end for him. He lived in Paris for a while, then went back and lived in Vienna. It’s really interesting that he has gone back to making films in German. I wonder how long that will last. I think he’s probably just trying to maximize his possibilities. I don’t know whether he’ll come back to Hollywood and make a film in English again. I seriously doubt that.

My favorite films are actually the early ones, the ones you pointed out, that you liked. The Seventh Continent is such a powerful, disturbing film, partly because it’s based on a true story in which this family, as you know, just completely destroys all of its possessions and itself, makes that choice. And he never explains. I think a beautiful quote of his is, “How can you possibly ever capture the truth of somebody’s actions in a two-hour movie, or even in a 300-page novel? You can’t ever fully capture the intentions and implications of something, so I’m not even going to try.” Some people are very angry with him because they think the role of the artists is to give answers to the questions he or she raises, and Haneke obviously just refuses that.

I think in The White Ribbon, my one little complaint about it is he kind of artificially, at the end, introduces his patented mystery, a couple elements I won’t go into so as not to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it. That may be getting to be a little bit of a fetish on his part. There’s always this unexplained thing. And of course, his other powerful technique, in Caché for example, is that intense moment of sudden violence, which still makes me jump out of my seat every single time I see that movie. Also, it’s in Code Unknown in the metro scene. There’s this outburst of violence or hatred or something that just sets your teeth on edge and is unforgettable.

This idea of actual reality not being conveyable in art; that’s probably the most interesting to me personally. You mention that angers some people, but it seems that drives the parts of his pure filmmaking skill that are the most interesting. How do you see that idea that reality can’t be fully represented itself represented in the way he shoots, the way he edits, the way his films are assembled?

He just refuses to answer all the questions. There’s, at the very end of Caché, that long shot of the school entrance. Suddenly we see the two sons — this will be completely mysterious to anybody who hasn’t seen the movie — if you look closely, you see the Arab son and Daniel Auteuil’s son standing there together. Suddenly, you wonder, “Oh my god! Maybe Daniel Auteuil’s son made the film.” You have absolutely no idea. I find those things totally intriguing and exciting; again, something to think about.

I felt that in The White Ribbon, maybe the little thing at the end was artificially introduced, but generally I think that’s marvelous. It’s just that he rejects the facile quality of so much media analysis. In 71 Fragments, the newscaster keeps saying, “This is an inexplicable act of violence,” and Haneke shows, through these 71 fragments — true story again — how this cadet could have been led to murder all these people in a bank. But he lets you put the pieces together; he doesn’t lead you through them. He gives you the 71 fragments, and you have to piece them together yourself. I think that’s his difference.

How much does it matter to you, purely as a viewer, that — let’s take the mystery in Caché. How much does it matter to you that there is or is not an actual answer to the question of who made the videos in Haneke’s mind? Does it matter to you if he constructs it to be unanswerable, or if he constructs it in an unanswerable way but has an answer in his mind? Does anything beyond what’s on the screen affect how much you enjoy some element like this an a movie of his?

That’s a complicated question. You never know to what extent he has something in his mind or whether it’s artificially introducing a mystery element just for the sake of it. For example, the film Doubt, apparently we never know at the end whether the priest is guilt of what he’s accused of or not. I’ve heard the director said, “Oh, there is an answer, but I’m not telling you.” I’ve never heard Haneke say that. Human reality and human actions and human consciousness are ultimately inexplicable. Why in the world would I make a two-hour movie in which I explain everything, because it is so false to reality and so false to our lived experience? I am going to present to you a little bit more what real life is like. The artificiality of fiction — we know more about the characters than we even know about ourselves, let alone about other people. We barely understand ourselves. Yet in novels or in films, we’re expected to completely understand the motivations of all the characters, but that’s so un-lifelike.

It doesn’t bother me, at all. It’s only a movie. To me, it’s the construction. My students go crazy because I can never remember how movies end. They say, “What happens at the end?” I say, “Gee, I can’t remember.” “What?” They’re astonished, because for them, the intrigue of the plot is most important, whereas for me, it’s striking moments, ideas that are used and played with. I rarely pay attention to plot. I know that makes me a little weird, makes my students laugh at me, but it’s just the way it is. I’m sure you’re the same way: you’ll remember an image from a movie you saw 20 years ago, but you’ll absolutely have no idea of anything else about it: who was who, what the story was…

Indeed. This is why my favorite filmmakers also are names like Abbas Kiarostami or Peter Greenaway. These are not plot guys.

No no, definitely not. They’re tough guys. This is my mission in life: to get my students to like these people. I’m teaching a course now called “Recent Asian Cinema”. As you know, the long-take aesthetic is used extensively in Asian cinema, including Iranian cinema. God, that is some labor. That is missionary work, I’ll tell you. It takes about six weeks for them to get off of their MTV, stoned, caffeinated high where everything has to cut every two seconds to appreciate that long take. But you know, about 50 percent of the class comes along by the end of it. I hope it’s having some kind of result.

Brunette5 Given your experience teaching students, what idea can you give us of students’ reactions to the films of Michael Haneke?

As a matter of fact, a friend of mine and I co-taught, two years ago, an honors course in which Haneke was one of the three figures we covered. I gave them typescript files of my chapters that were ready then, and they seemed to be really intrigued, interested and actually bothered by the violence. We have this image, the oldsters are bothered by violence and the kids are used to it, but my students were very upset about it. What was wonderful for me is, when I did this thing I mentioned a couple weeks ago at my local art-house, this Q&A for The White Ribbon, two of the students from that honors class, whom I hadn’t seen for two years, showed up. They said, “Oh, we got so entranced by Haneke that we wanted to see the next film.” I was really encouraged by that: this very difficult, very demanding auteur did have some interest for a 20-year-old. That greatly encouraged me, I must say.

Is this representative of the student reaction you’ve seen, that Haneke is able to draw viewers — his Hollywood abilities, that he uses in moderation — those draw students and others in, and he’s got them at that point?

Well, I think not. The kind of students who read Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are the kind of students who would be interested in Haneke. His ability to manipulate his audience, a very important idea for him, the responsibility of the filmmaker as well. That’s what films are: we go there to be manipulated and to have emotions wrung from us. I think they’re more interested in that. It’s what a French sociologist called the habitus: if you read the New Yorker, you’re probably also going to read the New York Times and go see art films, that kind of idea. That’s the kind of student interested in Haneke. The vast majority would find him utterly boring.

Students have to be educated in the concept of the art film. They don’t even know what that is anymore. To them, movies are something that occur at the mall; you eat popcorn with them and they’re supposed to be mindless, escapist and just fun. That’s the trouble I have the first few weeks of a beginning course, to try to explain to students that there’s this other tradition. It’s okay to read airport novels. It’s okay to read Tom Clancy. Those are fine. But you also have to read some James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Then maybe there’s a little more there. Or Proust, or whomever. Then these filmmakers are the equivalent of those greater writers that lasted a little bit longer and aren’t so easily digested.

With his attitude toward the manipulation of the audience, he talks about how he manipulates the audience and he talks about Hollywood doing the same. I’m certain we can say Michael Haneke manipulates his audience as well as, say, Steven Spielberg manipulates his audience, but it’s, of course, different manipulation. In what way is the manipulation different? Is Haneke more aware of his own audience manipulation, or is he more reflexive about it? How can we separate these two?

I think he tried two different ways, and one does not work very well. That is the Funny Games way, by making the audience aware that it’s being manipulated and making the audience come to grips with its own involvement in what is being shown, in its own acceding to its own violence and imagemaking. I don’t think people really want to hear that. There is this side to Haneke of the scold, the one who’s trying to improve us, that I think people don’t respond to very well. The second way, I think, works better for him. In some of his interviews, he points out that he tries to manipulate as little as possible, but he admits openly that, of course, that’s what movies are about.

He says, at one point — I think I quoted it as the epigraph of the book — something to the effect that we don’t get reality. We never get the real image. We get a manipulated image; that’s the best we can do. I think he accepts that but tries to make it for a larger purpose. In other words, you’re being manipulated, but it’s not for cheap thrills or, worse, for some kind of provoking of excitement about violence or death and murder and torture. In fact, you are being manipulated for the purpose of some more transcendental realizations about the nature of human life and humanity. Again, all these great scenes that go back to Ingmar Bergman and before.

Some sort of nobler, higher manipulation?

As it were, yes. Manipulation in a good cause.

In writing the book, I assume you must have done multiple re-viewings of films of Haneke’s you’ve seen many times already. What aspects of Haneke prove to be the richest? You watch these films so many times; what wells run less dry than others? What do you keep an eye on that endlessly rewards attention?

Great question. Two things. First of all, the play of ideas. There’s always an intelligent consciousness there that I feel the presence of. I’ve talked to so many of my friends at lunch and other times about The White Ribbon, because they’ve all been blown away by it. I originally saw it about a year ago. Just the way ideas come together suddenly in an image. That’s the second thing that attracted me to him: the power of the image. He talks about how fearful he is about the power of the image, and he tries to deconstruct or de-fang its power in some ways. Yet you can see he’s really an artist deep down, and he makes these beautiful images.

In The White Ribbon, there’s a new technique — not so new now; it was used years ago in a Coen brothers film with Billy Bob Thornton, the one about the barber, I forget the name — but what they do now for black-and-white movies is shoot them in color and take the color out, so what is left is not really black-and-white but this richer, creamier black-and-white that’s not as flat as the old black-and-white used to be. It just gleams off of the screen. You want to dive into those images. Each moment seems to be like a painting, or an Ansel Adams photograph hanging on a wall. You want to linger with that image. Yet you also feel the same tension: he knows the power of the image and he’s frightened by that, because it sucks you in. It’s this internal squabbling you feel inside him: how much to give in to this predilection he has for the beautiful image?

It seems like that’s a broader theme of his career. When I watch his movies, I do think about there being — whether it’s true or not — a conflict between what his stated goals are and the way he has to achieve them. This is clearest with his whole media violence period: he has to use media violence to indict it. Is it accurate to say that happens for many of the ideas, of not all of them, that he works with? He has to somehow use the thing he wants to critique?

True. Film and television are media, and he’s implicated. Even in Funny Games, he realizes and recognizes that he’s implicating himself to some extent. There’s part of him in Funny Games lecturing the audience about how bad they are, and then there’s another part in which he realizes, “Wait a minute. Gee, this audience is seeing this film through my film, so I’m implicated in m own images.” That’s one of the exciting things about him, all the way through. But the other thing that’s interesting — as a cultural studies person, I don’t always agree with him — but he really has an old-fashioned idea — I use “old-fashioned” in a neutral sense — of art as redemptive.

It’s something you don’t hear much anymore. Maybe on NPR stations you do. But this idea that hearing Beethoven or seeing Rembrandt paintings or whatever is good for you, it redeems the dross and pain of life. He really believes that; he really believes in art with a capital A. While I’m doubtful myself sometimes — I guess I’ve read too much cultural studies theory — I respect that. You feel that power because his belief is so strong in the redemptive power of art to transcend our problems, to make us better people. It kind of rubs off on you; you feel that yourself.

R.I.P. Peter Brunette, 1943 – 2010

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