Yves Montmayeur on his muscular study of Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, Michael H Profession: Director.
“That’s why I don’t need a psychiatrist. I can deal with all my fears in my work.”—Michael Haneke.
With The White Ribbon and Amour, Michael Haneke is only the seventh director in history to win more than one Palme d’Or at Cannes. In 2013, the contentious arthouse institution whose Funny Games remake got critically belted, gained centrestream attention/respect. Amour won Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars, and was also nominated for Best Actress, Director, Film, and Original Screenplay. On a hot Parisian summer day, French documentarian Yves Montmayeur joined Alexander Bisley for a meaty email dialogue on his engaging Haneke documentary, Michael H Profession: Director. They discussed Viennese psyche, process, humour, and chickens.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: When I interviewed Juliette Binoche, she described Michael Haneke as a “control freak”, with a lilting laugh. “Michael is absolutely and definitively radical,” Isabelle Huppert says in Michael H Profession: Director. Jean-Louis Trintignan describes him as a “terrorist.” How do you describe your friend?
YVES MONTMAYEUR: This is a difficult question. I’ve known him for such a long time, he still appears to me very difficult to identify. Once you think you’re able to understand his way of thinking, he’ll surprise you again with his behaviour. He’s a complex mind. Very cerebral, of course, thinking on several levels at the same time. But also very funny and childish in some moments when you don’t expect it! There’s this dialogue line in Amour when Emmanuelle Riva says to Trintignant, “You’re a monster sometimes, but also a nice man.” I like to think that Haneke is joking here about himself. But Haneke as a friend is like all friends are. He loves eating, drinking good wines, and at the same time making jokes.
AB: What is his biggest weakness?
YM: To lose his physical or mental capacity! I guess he’s aware of his age, 71-years-old, and therefore not making many films in the future. So he really cares about his physical ability. In that way we can see Amour as a visceral fear of an artist who’s witnessing his own mental and physical decline.
AB: There have been other Michael Haneke documentaries. What makes your one special?
YM: Well, I’m not so sure there are so many documentaries on Haneke. I’ve seen one directed by two film students of Haneke’s. They followed him in France and Germany years ago. But it was much more a kind of travel diary than film documentary on his work. The one I did is much more focused on his work as a film director with a lot of film footage that I’ve filmed by myself on many sets from 1999 with Code Inconnu. It’s a unique opportunity to witness his creative process.
AB: My favourite scenes: the end (when he talks about Amour), him laughing about irritating Austrian bourgeois as a young person at a classical music concert, and the exchange where you ask about his obsession with suffering and he replies, “I’m very much afraid of suffering.” Tell me about your favourite moment?
YM: Probably the scene when Haneke is directing White Ribbon actors. The difference between the relaxed and cheerful mood on the set with Haneke joking with his actors and the incredible harshness of the sequence they are shooting is totally amazing and surreal.
AB: “That’s why I don’t need a psychiatrist. I can deal with all my fears in my work. It’s a great privilege artists have.” Revealing, no?
YM: Yes and no. I think Haneke is playing with his Viennese cultural background. Don’t forget that Vienna is the birthplace of psychoanalysis, where Freud was born and wrote most of his essays. From this period all artistic study is based on the life of the artist. It means that we have to look for trauma to understand the work of someone like Haneke. And Haneke who loves to play with interpretations is joking a little bit about that concept. But, of course, it does not prevent at the same time that there are some traces of his primary fears in his films.
AB: When you asked him if you could make this he said, “Surprise me.” What might surprise viewers? His humour?
YM: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to make this film: to show the real man behind the image of the artist. People always automatically assimilate the author with his characters; that’s why they imagine he’s a kind of glacial, cynical monster! But Haneke is very jovial and generous with people in daily life and on set, even if he’s deeply pessimistic about our human condition. This is a typical trait of Viennese psyche: mixing humour with nihilism. You can find it in almost all the Viennese literature fin de siècle.
AB: Haneke says music is the most effective form of communication after sex. Do you agree?
YM: It’s a personal point of view, but according to me music is the less cerebral artistic form. You can more easily enter into a trance-state in listening to music than reading a book or even watching a movie. On that point, it’s the most sensorial and sensual of arts; that’s why we can compare its effects to sexual ecstasy. Music is pagan! That’s probably why the Catholic Church banned the use of the piano—an instrument too sensual—inside the church.
AB: Has Michael changed much over the 20 years you’ve known him? Isabelle Huppert describes him as an unrelenting radical.
YM: Not so much. Physically he looks the same as 20 years before! And that’s true: he’s still as radical as when we met, but perhaps he’s paid much more attention to the quantity of wine he’s drinking at a dinner.
AB: What did Susanna Haneke say when you asked for an interview?
YM: We’re also very close friends, but I never asked for an interview.
AB: What is Michael Haneke’s relationship with Christoph Waltz like? They share a stepfather, Austrian composer Alexander Steinbrecher.
YM: I have to say that I didn’t know that! We never had the opportunity to talk about him.
AB: You include discussion of 1997’s Funny Games, including Cannes Film Festival footage where an outraged woman left the theatre describing it as “a pile of sophisticated Nazism.” You didn’t include Haneke’s American Funny Games remake. The top New York critics hammered it. “The joke is on arthouse audiences who show up for Funny Games, which is basically torture porn every bit as manipulative and reprehensible as Hostel, even if it’s tricked out with intellectual pretension.” Lou Lumenick. “Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there’s no reason why you should.” J. Hoberman. “The film calls attention to its own artificial status. It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.” A.O. Scott. “Haneke’s assault on our fantasy lives is shallow, unimaginative, and glacially unengaged—a sucker punch without the redeeming passion of punk.” David Edelstein. “In addition to being borderline unendurable, Funny Games is inexplicable, and I don’t mean in any philosophical sense.” Joe Morgenstern. Do bad reviews like this upset Michael Haneke? What did you think of the Funny Games remake?
YM: First of all, I regret not having included a sequence about Funny Games (2007) in my film. But it was for a practical reason. The producers wouldn’t allow me to film on the set. So there wasn’t any behind the scenes material to use. And the film clips were so expensive that my producers and myself decided to skip this movie. But I really like this Funny Games despite the fact that I was reluctant to see it at first. (I have to say, I was a little disappointed with this idea of remaking a movie that was against the whole idea of commercial and Hollywood hijacking. It was like Haneke betrayed his own beliefs and ethics.) But finally after watching it I stood amazed! The mere fact we changed time and context from the original version changed the whole dimension and reach of the film. When the original version came out in 1997, Jörg Haider, leader of the Austrian extreme right wing, had just got a spectacular score at elections the previous year. So I think Funny Games is partly dealing with the fear of neo-Nazism’s return in Austria. But Funny Games deals with others topics in 2007. Especially, to me, with the Iraq War and abuses committed by American troops, like the Abu Ghraib tortures. The U.S. background absolutely changes the atmosphere and the political significance of the film. And this is absolutely brilliant from Haneke to have anticipated.
AB: Tell me about a favourite Haneke film?
YM: The Piano Teacher. Usually I don’t like the term “perfect film,” but it is!
AB: Your documentary “Thanks” includes “Several Chicken” [sic] on Hidden.
YM: Well, do you remember when the young boy chopped off the head of a rooster in the film? Haneke had to check himself on the set because some real roosters have to be killed. No choice. I filmed these gore “rehearsals.” But after seeing my film, Haneke called me back and mentioned this moment, “I have for years the reputation of being a kind of psycho. Do you want to make me an animal torturer too?” He warned me about the perverse use of YouTube, where sequences are put out of context. So I decided to remove this sequence at the very last moment. That’s why the chicken credits are still there!
AB: Michael Haneke must be happy with all the acclaim he’s had for Amour, including winning Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars? He quirkily describes success as, “the butcher next door giving me a better piece of meat.”
YM: Yes, of course. Like any other director, he loves awards and honours. When he was filming Amour he was already thinking about getting a second Palme d’Or.
AB: Haneke cites Abbas Kiarostami as his favourite contemporary filmmaker in conversation with Alexander Horwath. “He is still unsurpassed. As Brecht put it, ‘simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.’ Everyone dreams of doing things simply and still impregnating them with the fullness of the world. Only the best ones achieve this. Kiarostami has.” What do you think of Kiarostami? Have you seen Like Someone in Love?
YM: To be honest, I’m not so familiar with his latest films. What I know about Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love doesn’t interest me. It seems that his cinema became much more academic this last decade. Losing his Iranian identity for a Westerner’s cinematographic passport. Anyway, I really enjoyed his first period when his mise en scène was much more elliptical, with a real sense of poetry.
AB: What connections do you draw between Haneke and Takeshi Kitano, another professional subject of yours?
YM: At first sight nothing. Except the fact that they’re both radical in their choices. They don’t follow any trends. And they don’t like to interpret their owns films. And perhaps their taste for minimalism in mise en scène.
AB: There’s a violent Kitanoesque death in Hidden. Do you draw connections between your creative process, and Haneke’s?
YM: I’m always trying to keep my distance with my subject matter, with the person I’m filming. I did many film documentaries on cinema personalities such as Asia Argento, Christopher Doyle, Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, and each time I’ve tried to follow the same tempo as my “character” without interfering on a film set, or stage some sequences. I hate to play the game of the one who’s the good friend of the artist you’re watching. All these TV tricks that many directors love to use. It’s probably something that Haneke appreciates in our relationship. This attitude helps me to be myself and a little bit ‘Hanekien’ in my way of filming.
AB: What got you hooked on cinema? Tell me about a powerful early cinematic memory.
YM: The child murder operatic scene in Once Upon a Time in the West from Sergio Leone. I saw the film hidden in the back of a car at a drive-in cinema in Marseille. I was 7-years-old. I was mesmerized and scared at the same time. All my senses where alert. I think all my passion for images comes from these mental memories.
AB: Who’s a formative influence on you as a critic/documentary maker?
YM: I was amazed when I was younger with F for Fake from Orson Welles. How Welles mixed documentary with fiction is so brilliant. And what about his art of editing! Everyone who wants to become a director must see this film. But my influences come from features rather than documentaries. That’s why I love to fictionalise my documentaries. Some of my favourite directors who still inspire me, in one way or another, are Jean-Pierre Melville, Erich von Stroheim, Kinji Fukasaku, Kenneth Anger, Alan Clarke, Lars von Trier.
AB: Tell me about another film in the Melbourne International Film Festival you recommend.
YM: I can recommend the Paradise trilogy from the other great master of Austrian cinema, Ulrich Seidl. A must see.
Alexander Bisley’s MIFF ‘First Fifteen’: Grisgris, Jimmy P, A Touch of Sin (director and actress in attendance), The Turning, No Name Big Blanket, Museum Hours, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Rhino Season, Bastards, Like Father, Like Son, The Dance of Reality, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Juvenile Offender, Aim High in Creation, All Is Lost; plus, The Attack (wildcard).