SPIEGEL Interview with Director Michael Haneke 'Every Film Rapes the Viewer'

A scene from Austrian director Michael Haneke's new film, the White Ribbon.
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A scene from Austrian director Michael Haneke's new film, the White Ribbon.

Part 2: 'We Are All Obsessed with Fear'


SPIEGEL: In several of your films, there is no satisfying conclusion to the whodunnit apect of the storyline. In the end, we are always left feeling perplexed. If art does nothing but create perplexity ...

Haneke: ... then you're making things very easy for yourself. There is a logical explanation for everything that happens in these films, but I'll be damned if I'll tell you what it is.

SPIEGEL: And you know the answers?

Haneke: Of course. But what good would the answers do you? As a viewer, I don't want to be palmed off with simple solutions, because I know that they're not real solutions. The world isn't that simple. The only things I've remembered from books or films are the things that made me anxious, the things that forced me to agonize over myself or the world in which I live.

SPIEGEL: In other words, is it sufficient for art to merely perform a diagnosis?

Haneke: That's already too much. My films are a reaction to the cinema that already exists. The authors of mainstream films aren't stupid. They see the abysses just as much as I do, but they deliberately don't address them, because reassurance is easier to sell than agitation.

SPIEGEL: Is that true? The modern commercial horror film also uses unsettling images and scenes. And evil survives in the end in those films, to ensure that a sequel can be made.

Haneke: But that's something else. These films make violence unreal and therefore consumable. It's like being on a ghost train ride. I deliberately allow myself to be frightened but I know that nothing can happen to me. I remember when Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" came out, and I was sitting in a matinee filled with young people. The famous scene of a boy's head being blown off caused a huge commotion in the theater. They thought it was great and they almost died laughing.

SPIEGEL: And you?

Haneke: I was upset because I think it's irresponsible. I can't stand violence. I'm allergic to any form of physical violence. It makes me sick. It's wrong to make it consumable as something fun.

SPIEGEL: It's interesting to hear you say that because your films are filled with violence.

Haneke: But they don't show it and they take away its value as an attraction. Because that's obscene. I think it's more intelligent to work with the viewer's fantasy. The viewer's fantasy is always more powerful than any image. The creaking floorboard is worse than the monster in the door.

SPIEGEL: In other words if we were mentally completely healthy and if we had no chasms in our souls ...

Haneke: ... then I'd certainly like to meet that person ...

SPIEGEL: ... we could watch your films without hesitation because the horror you suggest wouldn't resonate with us?

Haneke: These people you describe don't exist. I believe that we are all obsessed with fear. It's one of the basic conditions of human existence.

SPIEGEL: What are your fears?

Haneke: They aren't particularly original. Fear of illness, fear of pain. Fear of losing a loved one. Fear of dying.

SPIEGEL: But if people have so many fears already, does the cinema have to make them even more anxious?

Haneke: Look, Pier Paolo Pasolini's film "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom," which deals with sexual perversion in fascist Italy, scared me so much that I was sick for 14 days. Completely wiped out. To this day, I haven't drummed up the courage to watch it again. Never again did I look into such a deep abyss and rarely have I learned so much.

SPIEGEL: Apparently there are plenty of abysses in modern middle-class society, the milieu to which you return again and again.

Haneke: It's what I know best. I can tell these stories from first hand experience. Besides, the viewers of my films are also primarily from the middle class which makes it easier for them to identify with the characters in my films.

SPIEGEL: We believe that it isn't easy to identify with them because they are always pathetic creatures. Why do you allow the middle classes to suffer so much? In one film, a family commits collective suicide and in another a family is murdered. And when you portray a happy middle-class family, it ends up being terrorized with threats as in "Caché."

Haneke: We imprison ourselves to defend our affluence. The main characters in "Funny Games" are prisoners in their own world. In the end, they are unable to scale the security fences intended to keep intruders off their property.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you were at odds with your middle-class existence?

Haneke: No, I'm grateful to have had such a privileged upbringing. We constantly see people in the media who are from the Third World and are trying to get to where we live. And we try to keep them out. Because we're afraid to share and fear can quickly lead to aggression. One of the characters in "Caché" says: "Just think of all the things we do so that we don't lose anything." That's a very important sentence in our society.

SPIEGEL: Are you any better?

Haneke: No. I'm just as cowardly and self-absorbed as everyone else. If an immigrant stood at my door and said: You have so much room. Can I live here? Would I let him in? No. I'm not a saint. I cultivate a certain skepticism in my films: toward other people and myself.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Haneke, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philipp Oehmke and Lars-Olav Beier.

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