Michael Haneke: A truly shocking director

Michael Haneke talks to James Mottram about his latest success in a line of movies consistently providing uneasy viewing
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The Independent Culture

When Michael Haneke collected the best director prize for his latest film, Hidden (Caché), at the Cannes Film Festival last May, he commented that it was the attention, and not the award, that was the important thing. This was already the most talked about competition film among critics, and the spotlight of a major prize meant Hidden could remain so no longer. International distributors, including Sony Pictures Classics - giving the film an all-important American release - came flocking. "That doesn't mean it'll be on the same footing as Star Wars," said its Austrian director in a rare moment of humour. But in art-house terms, the release of a Michael Haneke film is becoming as much of an event as the conclusion of George Lucas's space opera.

Since Cannes, Hidden has been showered with awards. Winning the LA Critics' foreign language film of 2005, it took five prizes at the European Film Awards in December from its eight nominated categories, including best director for Haneke, best actor for Daniel Auteuil and best film. An austere individual, whose grey beard, glasses and black polo neck and suit belie his academic background, Haneke is level-headed about the film's recent success. "The more important the prize, then the better the conditions you have for your next film," he shrugs, when we meet in a Parisian hotel. "We're not here hoping that gold is going to rain down on our heads. That's not what we're looking for. We're striving to be able to work again in the best possible conditions. Every success gives you that chance. A director is only as good as his last film."

If that's the case, then the 63-year-old Haneke is in peak condition. With Hidden his ninth feature film (his fourth in French), in the pantheon of European auteurs, he must now be ranked alongside Pedro Almodóvar and Lars von Trier as one of the most provocative yet consistent directors working today. While he has the ability to disconcert with images of violence, he inspires loyalty from his actors, with the likes of Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert both returning to work with him on more than one occasion.

While his last film, 2003's apocalyptic tale, Time of the Wolf, left most people blinking in the dark, its predecessor, The Piano Teacher, won the grand jury prize in Cannes, as well as its stars, Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel, best actress and actor. The story of the eponymous Vienna virtuoso with a penchant for extreme sexual practices, it was the classic example of a film by Haneke, who likes nothing better than forcing his audience to feel as much pain as his protagonists. "I think it's with extremes that you can best deal with normality," he argues. "I'm not a naturalistic film-maker. I take these realities, exaggerate them and take them to extremes. That's the best way of depicting the normal insanity of our lives."

On the surface, Hidden returns us to territory already crossed in both 1992's Benny's Video, the story of a boy obsessed with violent movies who ultimately films a murder he commits, and 1997's Funny Games, a deeply uncomfortable story in which a family on holiday are terrorised by two assailants. Both critiqued audio-visual media for the ability to cheapen the impact of screen violence, while accusing viewers of complicity in this act. "If film aspires to be a form of art, then it's absolutely indispensable that it reflects upon itself," says Haneke. "In the realm of literature, you'll scarcely find a serious author who pretends within the covers of a book to reproduce reality. The book will much more be about the impossibility or the difficulty of reproducing reality."

Shot on high-def video, to affect an unreal look, Hidden begins with a long, static take of a suburban home that we soon discover belongs to a bourgeois Parisian couple (Auteuil, Binoche). It's only after the credits have played out and the screen hits "pause", that we realise this is not "reality" but a videotaped recording sent anonymously to the couple to indicate that they are under surveillance. "I'm always attempting in my works to shake up the confidence the viewer has in what he's seeing," says Haneke. "The more you shake it up, the more you disturb that sense of trust and confidence he has in what he's seeing, then the less capable the viewer will be of being manipulated by the images he or she is seeing."

Ostensibly a mystery thriller, the film follows Auteuil's TV show host, Georges, as his attempts to find out who is watching his family lead him back to an act of cruelty from his childhood. Haneke says he wanted to make a film about guilt, specifically about an adult forced to confront the actions of his youth. But, with the film referencing the 1961 Parisian massacre of Algerian immigrants - when French police gunned down as many as 400 protesting against a government curfew - Haneke widens the scope of the story beyond the personal. Inspired by a documentary he watched on the subject which "shocked" him, he nevertheless does not want his feelings towards the massacre to be the focus. "The film could take place in any country, and every country has these dark corners where collective guilt corresponds to a sense of personal guilt in terms of each of us," he says.

With the release in France just a few weeks before November's riots, Hidden uncannily foretold the country's worst unrest in 30 years. Both his earlier works 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) and Code Unknown (2000), which also starred Binoche, already tackled xenophobia and the victimisation of illegal immigrants and it's evidently a subject he feels passionate about. "We're all afraid of sharing and that leads to the very restrictive immigration laws we have everywhere," he says. "As individuals, we're simply not willing to share."

Speaking through a translator - though he evidently is able to understand English - Haneke makes for a truculent interviewee. With his ability to make you feel as if your questions are beneath him, one has to feel for the students he teaches in his part-time role as professor of directing at the Vienna Film Academy. Unwilling to provide pat explanations of his work, he evidently has contempt for his ice-cold media image. "It's true that I have an analytic gaze, but it's also mixed with compassion," he argues. "I don't really see myself as gazing through a magnifying glass at the life of insects."

Haneke was raised in Wiener Neustadt, in Austria. The fact that he studied psychology, philosophy and theatrical sciences at the University of Vienna lends him and his work a scholarly and detached air. Yet, as the son of the director and actor Fritz Haneke and the actress Beatrix von Degenschild, Haneke had a background that was as much in the arts as anything else. He began his career by writing scripts for German television in the late 1960s before branching out as a freelance director of television and stage.

It wasn't until 1989 that he directed his first feature film, The Seventh Continent, but Haneke has watched his reputation grow steadily ever since. "You can't place too much faith in what people tell you," he sniffs. "A lot of people come up to me and tell me how much my films have influenced them, but maybe they're just trying to be nice to me. People never come up to you and tell you your films are shit!"

The likelihood of this seems less and less. As demonstrated by one standout scene in Hidden - which caused a collective gasp from the press screening I saw - Haneke has not lost his desire to shock. But as he prepares to direct his next film, a three-hour epic about Nazi youth, it appears his ability to hold a mirror up to contemporary society has become unparalleled. If the images of violent self-mutilation or murder don't get you, the shock at your own guilt-ridden reaction to them will.

'Hidden' opens on 27 January