After seeing Yves Montmayeur’s documentary Michael H—Profession: Director at Tribeca Film Festival a few weeks ago, I’ve been considering what I now know about Haneke as a person in relation to Amour, undoubtedly one of the most brutally direct films of the last year. Haneke’s interview style both confirms and complicates the viewpoint conveyed in the film. His blithe comments on violence (“In real life, animals die, children die”)* are sometimes punctuated with a smile or a spontaneous giggle. Meanwhile he acknowledges, at times explicitly, that the greatest act of cruelty is wielded by him, the director, against his audience.
Nobody does soul-crushing as well as Michael Haneke, which is why the title of the New Yorker’s 2009 profile, “Happy Haneke”, was both hilarious and, as the piece revealed, apt. Although it hides a demanding personality, Haneke has an outwardly pleasant demeanor that stands in contrast to his dour subject matter. Similarly, while his visual sense is undeniably clear and beautiful, he uses it to frame narratively opaque films. This contrast between content and delivery allows Haneke to both present starkly undisguised philosophical statements and to insist convincingly that he has no single agenda. It’s hard to know what to make of such a person. As a human being and as a director he is somehow both passionate and coldly clinical. But really, why wouldn’t someone like Haneke be happy? He’s an avid participant in the meritocratic rat race, who also engages wholeheartedly in the aesthetic destruction of institutions. In that sense he occupies a uniquely comfortable position of truly having it both ways.
Haneke’s style of directing is shown in Michael H. to be alternately nurturing and antagonistic. Many of his actors express how taxing it is to work under a leader with such boundless energy and ruthlessly precise visions. Emmanuelle Riva is shown in between takes during the filming of Amour, fully made up as the mentally regressing invalid she portrays, and practically groaning with real physical and emotional exhaustion. In another scene, we see Haneke exuberantly leading a group of University aged theater actors through a scene from Chekhov. Later, Haneke orchestrates a scene from The White Ribbon in which a father beats his child, demonstrating the younger actor’s cowering movements with both precision and a certain amount of relish.
Coming from this man, Amour is a punishing offering that in its plausibility is also something of a conciliatory gesture. Many of Haneke’s other films carry a kind of detachment in their distant settings (the dim past of pre-war Austria, a post-apocalyptic future) or their impossibly perfect progressions (the interweaving stories in Code Unknown, the steady march toward death in Funny Games.) Amour instead places us calmly in the center of the stable, settled lifestyle of an elderly couple, Anne and Georges, and then lets time contort it into layers of suffering. Haneke himself is 71 and married. He states plainly in one interview that he fears suffering more than anything else in the world. Amour then may have the distinction of being as much a punishment of himself as his audience.
In the film we are treated to certain details: Anne’s former career as a piano teacher, the couple’s love of books, a successful and emotionally distant daughter, etc. But the characters have hardly passed prototypical status before the intimate surroundings become a kind of pressure cooker, forcing the swift evolution of these persons, demonstrated to be “civilized” and “cultured”, into monsters. Haneke’s motivating force seems to be a disgust with the human need for order, and the perversity of bourgeois pleasures. In this context, professionalized society takes on echoes of Fascism, and the ties of modern comforts to the dehumanizing aging process are more or less direct.
Haneke was born in Munich during WWII, and raised in the placid outer realms of post-war Vienna. His worldview conveys a kind of strident, blanket social condemnation that goes far deeper than the surface shock value of his most “memorable” scenes. In fact, one thing I disliked about the documentary was its rigid dedication to showing clips of sudden violence, which did a disservice to Haneke’s skill in creating an unsettled atmosphere that can’t be explained by one event (Cache scared me out of my mind even though almost nothing happens in the first hour.)
Amour achieves this feeling of terror by marring its calm surface with disfiguring elements. These range from the desperate disruption of social conventions, like family and responsibility, to the visual style itself, which selects tropes from the horror genre to pervert this seemingly safe space. Accordingly, a rare scene in which Georges emerges from the apartment is in the form of a dream sequence impersonating a horror film. It’s a pretty fertile setup: the nice old couple down the hall, normal to all appearances, are actually engulfed in a scene of unimaginably grotesque conditions behind the door of their apartment.
In Haneke’s version, the apartment remains a kind of idyll, though a crumbling, contorted one. As Anne devolves further into a childlike mental state, her descent is ragged and inelegant, the inverse of an infant’s wonder at the world. Her monstrosity becomes a condemnation, and Georges’ devotion takes on a note of abuse. The few outside intrusions come from the couple’s daughter, whose frightful fits of emotion in the film’s second half clatter hypocritically against her earlier cold surface, and the mercenary nurse who Georges disposes of capably. These two minor characters seem to be deliberately similar, creating a parallel between an inability to provide appropriate care and an inability to appropriately feel. As the family’s emotions are outsourced and professionalized to the same degree as home care, an impossible snarl is created, the only outcome of which is aggression.
When I think back to the film I remember two shots: the moment when Georges slaps his wife, a savage instinct overtaking him as he tries to coax life-sustaining food into her mouth, and the curiously long shot of him stripping the petals from a bunch of flowers that he will use to decorate Anne’s deathbed. Rituals, it seems, do not keep us from being animals. In fact, Anne’s entire decline is dependent on the conditions we cultivate every day—the tidy apartments, clean water and available food, the luxuries of pupils, legacies, physical and emotional warmth. Haneke’s version of the surreal draws from the same pool of experience we feed in our daily lives, and so it feels real and inevitable.
I think this is why I liked his 2009 film The White Ribbon so much. An austere fable about inhumanity, it managed to darken the idyllic haze of pre-war Austria enough to convey the inevitability of the Great War, that defining event of mass disillusionment, in the aftermath of which Freud wrote: “the state has forbidden to the individual the practice of wrong-doing, not because it desires to abolish it, but because it wants to monopolize it.”* The White Ribbon seemed to explain the root of mistrust in the rest of Haneke’s work. The other horrors he’s created reinforce the idea that social order is an illusion, and conventions nothing but a comfortable structure for moral degradation.
On a fundamental level it is terrifying to see your darkest conclusions illuminated onscreen. But if you carry a certain kind of fear around with you, the experience can also be rather satisfying. Haneke claims the right to resist interpreting his own work (in one of the documentary’s most memorable segments he repeatedly refuses, with growing agitation, to answer the interviewer’s carefully reworded questions). But I think he is very shrewd about the way it will be interpreted by his audience. So Amour gives us none of the gratification of a brutal spectacle and all of its pain, because Georges and Anne are sympathetic, because they are old, and because this isn’t the way we are used to seeing violence portrayed on a screen.
Seeing people hug each other, cry, and shuffle out the door miserably after Amour ended, I felt a mix of anger and fascination at Haneke’s willingness to exploit his audience’s emotions and natural need for closure. But maybe that’s where you can find the one shred of hope that Haneke offers us, that might explain his disconcerting laughter. I suspect that what makes Haneke’s work watchable at all is that there is a strange sense of wonder to it. His specialty is examining ritual—be it self-mutilation, surveillance, or suicide—with a closeness that borders on loving. And in particular, his careful attention to the visual product implies a certain deference, a power in the beholder. At the end of Amour, Georges follows a vision of Anne out the door, grabbing his coat along the way. Maybe Haneke is more generous than we think: why be a victim of an imposed reality, when there’s a view of the way out?
*Quoting from memory here, so this is approximate.
*Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915)
…Kobena Mercer’s perceptive analysis of Thriller (1991, 300-16) discusses the two principle metamorphoses— the werewolf and the zombie— which, it is argued, evidence the horror fascination with sexuality whereby gender identity is codified in terms that revolve around the symbolic presence of the monster."
(Excerpted from Sheila Whiteley’s discussion of Michael Jackson’s complicated childhood and public image, in her book Too Much Too Young: Popular Music, Age, and Gender.)
When I read this, I was immediately reminded of a boy I knew in elementary school, partly because of the werewolf motif but also because of the connection to escapism, the childish love of dressing up in costumes, and the conflict of individual sexuality and gender identity with social constrictions. Mike moved to our school partway through the year in 4th grade. I’ll never forget how on his first day, he asked to introduce himself by getting up in front of the class and singing along with great gusto to The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” My teacher, who ran the spring Operetta (a glorified sing-along that was nevertheless an extremely popular program) was thrilled to let him do this. But the kids in the class immediately branded him a weirdo.
Actually, the song was well-suited to his voice, which was high and strong, and he kind of had a Jonathan Taylor Thomas cuteness about him, although he was taller and thinner. His hair was blonde and looked styled, where most kids in my grade either had buzz cuts or (I think this started around this time) those frosted, gelled spikes. Basically, he was weirdly self-possessed for a 9-year-old, and he was immediately seen as threatening. My classmates latched onto his perceived flamboyance and talked about him meanly at recess.
I wish I could remember exactly how these conversations went. I just remember that it was generally accepted that he was weird, in a very particular way. And most of the shit-talking related to how he was too “girly.” Mike’s treatment is the most glaring, uncomfortable example in my memory of how homophobia was rampant, even at that early age, as a defense against any behavior that was seen as aberrational. I don’t think, and really hope I’m right, that Mike was ever physically harmed, because most of my classmates were too intimidated by his brassy personality to really start anything, but verbal conflicts certainly occurred.
To his endless credit, Mike completely played into his outsider status, with the aplomb of a much older person. One of the most daring ways he did this was to tell anyone who would listen that he and his father were both wolves, and lived at Valley Falls, one of the town’s public parks. According to him, they took their true forms at night and hunted together for deer. A few kids in particular got very angry at this, because even though they knew it was impossible, there was simply no way to prove that it was untrue. I was fascinated: here was somebody who had come up with what I saw as a very childish fantasy, fit for 4 or 5 year olds, not us 4th graders, and was insisting on its truth even as he was roughly challenged by his peers.
Mike’s divisive storytelling distracted from the fact that none of us really knew anything about his home life, other than that he lived with his dad and his mom didn’t seem to be in the picture. I didn’t know anyone who had been to his house or maintained a strong friendship with him. Eventually, he moved away, I think after 5th grade.
Before he left, though, he made sure to cement his reputation. Because he had immediately become one of my teacher’s favorites with that first day performance, Mike got a plum role when the Spring Operetta finally rolled around. The show was made up of standards and show tunes, and Mike was the only student who got a solo number— he performed “Once in Love With Amy,” complete with a top hat and cane, and to say that he killed it would be an understatement. He was just so far beyond the level of showmanship that anyone expected from us. If he didn’t eventually go into show business, it would be a damn shame. All the parents were extremely impressed and gave him a standing ovation. I had this very clear sense that my peers didn’t know a goddamn thing after all. Most of us hadn’t even known that he was rehearsing the number.
At that age, I was so painfully shy that the amount I participated in any sort of peer interaction was probably pretty limited. I spent most of my recesses writing and acting out an elaborate parody of the movie Clue that involved aliens and intergalactic warfare with two friends who also liked that kind of thing. I wish I could remember being nice to him, but I don’t remember talking to him at all, and it makes me sad to think about this kid being alone, nobly scorning his bullies with his fantasies and his preternatural charisma. And the worst thing about it is that Mike’s character traits were a short step away from what it would take to achieve godlike popularity. But normalization is as harsh and fierce in this young age group as it is in adolescence, and deviations automatically assume a sense of perversion. It’s a different kind of reaction than the self-conscious whispering that generates from kids collectively handling puberty. It scares me that I remember that gender-normative pressure so clearly, yet I don’t understand exactly where it came from, why it was so fundamentally accepted, and why our teachers seemed to have no awareness of it.
Now that I’ve rambled through this story and away from the quote that originally spurred it, I’ll just say that as a figure Mike had a lot in common with Michael Jackson, even if it was within a tiny microcosmic setting. I felt the same sense of distrust towards the way the world treated Michael Jackson in his last years as I did towards the way my elementary school treated Mike. But I know enough now to admire him and to be totally thankful that if the true, evil nature of group mentality had to be revealed, I also got to see how a creative individualist could defang it by being better and bolder than anyone else.