Discussing ‘Amour’ with Director Michael Haneke

There is nothing more devastating than the unsurmountable pain of watching someone you love suffer. You try your best to remedy their sorrow and provide by whatever means possible, delaying the onslaught of grief, but when someone is decaying before your eyes it’s impossible not to find yourself slowly deteriorating with them. And in acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest harrowing film, Amour, the bounds of love and selfless devotion are tested when an elderly couple find themselves dealing with the unwavering face of death. Void of suspense or sentiment, Haneke reveals the couple’s fate in the opening scene of the film, elevating any false sense of hope. Amour unfolds like a long and painful novel, rigid in its unapologetic nature, from the perspective of a man forced to reconcile with terms beyond his grasp and the finality of life. 

Starring brilliant legends of French cinema, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the two share a seasoned simpatico that never allows you to doubt their connection; watching them together feels as though you’re peering in on a couple that has built a life together, only to watch it dissipate before their eyes. As Haneke’s films are wont to be, there is a chilled atmosphere that’s at once reserved and deeply complex with emotion—teeming with an anger and grief that lingers in the four walls of their apartment. Where most films would smear vaseline on the lens or dig for cheap ploys at tenderness, Haneke forces his characters to the uttermost limits of the human condition, evoking this same sense of pain in the audience. It’s almost impossible to imagine another filmmaker who could have taken on such a subject with this much subtly and grace—truly the work of an evolved and intelligent director who employs a minimalist approach in order to shed light on the grimmest of reality.

Thus far, the film has won Haneke the Palm d’Or at Cannes, as well as the award for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Film at the European Film Awards. More than likely this coming year, Haneke will take home his second Golden Globe for Best Foreign Feature after winning for his last film, The White Ribbon. This past September, during the New York Film Festival, I got the chance to sit down with Haneke and a small group of other journalists to discuss the intensity of the film, his narrative choices in the script, and how others use music to cover up their directorial sins.

Essentially everything in the film is working to get the audience to a position where they have no option but to condone the unconscionable. Was that you goal and if so, where did that desire come from?
My impression is that I’m not trying to comment on or condone what I am showing—on the contrary, I am trying to present the film entirely. That scene in particular in such a way that it’s open to interoperation, open to a number of interpretations that I’ve heard since presenting the film.

The title of the film is very simple, but at the same time it’s very provokingly simple. I’ve heard that it was not your first choice.
I chose the title because I couldn’t come up with a better one. I had a list of about twenty titles, none of which I was satisfied with. And one day, I was having lunch with Jean-Louis and I read him the list of titles, and told him I wasn’t happy with them. He responded and said, "the film is about love, why don’t you call it that?" And I thought that was a very convincing argument. However, if I had been making a conventional love story I would have never chosen that title for it because it would have been too obvious.

You take Emmanuelle Riva to such an extreme place. Even in films that are supposed to be looking at this subject, most films usually turn away before they reach the point that you go to. What was the impact on her playing this role?
You’d have to ask her that, I don’t know what her answer is but in the interviews I’ve seen with her she’s repeatedly claimed that it was a huge pleasure making this film.

Did you observe anything during that felt particulary troubling?
She was scared to death of the scene with the electric wheelchair and manipulating it with the joystick. So we spent two evenings getting used to the electric wheelchair, in fact, I had to learn how to use it before she did to show her ands reassure her that it wasn’t that difficult.

Did you have to immerse yourself in research for the film? And if so, what did you do?
Yes of course, it was necessary for me to. The personal story that motivated me to want to deal with this theme had nothing to deal with the story I want to tell on screen. So I went to hospitals, I spent time with old-age homes, talked a lot with doctors, and sat in on a number of sessions of speech therapy where stroke victims learn to regain their speech. Emmanuelle didn’t want to do the research herself, she wanted me to do it and then show her what she had to do. She had that trust in me, and that’s how we worked. But it was important that we had that precision and accuracy in the film.

You reveal everything in the beginning of the film and the rest is a kind of continuous flashback. I understand that this is a very crucial structural decision you made; was this done in order to eliminate any kind of suspense for the viewer?

Can you elaborate on that?
No. It’s exactly what you say: the want to present the end at the beginning to eliminate any false suspense. Anyway, it’s very clear quickly in the story how the only possible ending for it is. But what I was interested in was not how the film ended but the events, the process that led up to it.

You open the film with death and from there it’s a constant dealing with mortality, which is interesting because most films use that moment, that idea of death, as what you’re leading up to.
The theme that interested me wasn’t death, per say, but rather the question is—how do I cope with the suffering of a loved one?

You’re German but much of your work is in French language films. Where does your love of France come from?
Back when I was your age, it was France that was the pull of attraction for young intellectuals, the object of our desire. It was age of existentialism, the nouvelle vague. When I was going to school I studied French rather than English—I’m sorry about that now—but at the time, French was the pull. Now everyone’s looking to America, but it was simply a matter of chance this collaboration. Juliette Binoche had seen my Austrian theatrical features and called me up and suggested that we work together and that was our first project and the collaboration has worked very well since then.

When you go to write a script, do you see it as a French language film first and then write it in French or do you write it in German and then translate?
No, I am only able to write in German, my French isn’t good enough. Ever since I first started writing films in French I’ve worked with the same translator—he does a first draft of the translation and then we rewrite it together. My French is good enough to be able to judge whether the dialogue that he’s written is what I’m looking for.

When you make a decision to translate it into French, is that based on the actors you want to work with?
In this case, yes, it was because of the actors that I wrote the script in French. I wrote the script specifically for Jean-Louis. There are other cases where I’ve written specifically for German or Austrian actors. It’s a more efficient means of writing a script because you’re able to write to the strengths of the actor when you know who it is, but that’s not always possible.

Do you think that if this story could have been told as an American film?
I never really thought about it because from the beginning, it was clear to me that I wanted to work with Jean-Louis. So I can’t right now come up with the names of any actors who would have been able to play that part, certainly none who has the aura and exude such warmth as he does and that I needed for the part. You never know, in the case of The White Ribbon, I had written the part of the pastor for one of my favorite actors who had been in my other films, and unfortunately he died before I made it.  So I thought I would never be able to find someone to replace him, and however, I was lucky enough to. So you never know beforehand.

Did you choose to set the majority of the film in their apartment to illustrate the new confines of life?
Yes, when you’re old or elderly, your life is restricted to the four walls that you live in. That was the external reason for the choice. In terms of the aesthetic reason for the choice, it’s clear to me that when you’re dealing with such a serious theme as this, you have have to find an appropriate theme that’s fitting to this. That’s why I went back to the forms of classical theater—the three unities of time, space, and action, which seemed appropriate for the reduction of their lives.

Did you shoot the film in sequence? And if not, how did you take your actors through the extremes of the states they had to go to?
We shot as far as possible to shoot the film chronologically. The one exception was the nightmare sequence which we left for the end because we had to tear down the sets and rebuild them. In the second half of shooting we had to make changes, because unfortunately Jean-Louis had broken his hand and for that reason we couldn’t show it in certain scenes.

You do a lot of long takes, which is good, because it adapts to the couple’s slow sense of life but do you also use this as a means to show the spectator what they would normally try to avoid?

Can you discuss the symbolism of the pigeon? There have been various interpretations.
I’m okay with every interpretation; there’s nothing you can do about people’s interpretations. I’m open to them, perhaps the vision of me will change again after my next film.

If you’re writing a film like this, in questions rather than themes—how do you deal with the suffering of a loved one, rather than just death—was there something in your own life that sparked these questions for you?
Yes, of course there was but I do not want to talk about it. It was a private experience.

Can you talk a little bit about the theme of music in your film? You seem to be drawn to people that are musicians or have a love of music.
When I was a young man, it was my dream to become a musician. If it had been up to me, if I had been there when talents were bestowed, then I would have liked to be a musician rather than director. But I would have liked to become a conductor and composer. My stepfather, who himself was a conductor and composer, warned me that I was only a very mediocre pianist and that steered me away from wanting to be a musician and led me eventually to becoming a director. I’m very grateful because there’s nothing more depressing than a mediocre concert pianist. But nonetheless, I have maintained my love of music and try whenever possible to use it in my film when the occasion arrives—but I don’t use it in the way that’s usually done in mainstream cinema, where it’s applied to cover up directorial sins and weaknesses. I love music too greatly to use it for those reasons.

Do you think other filmmakers use music as a crutch?
I don’t think so, I am sure.

The pianist in the film is an actual concert pianist—how did you discover him?
We did auditions for actors and for pianists and he was the best actor from among the pianists.

What do you think are the mistakes that other filmmakers make in their use of music?
It depends on what kinds of films you’re making. If, for example, you’re making spaghetti Westerns, if you’re making genre films, then spaghetti Westerns without the music of Ennio Morricone is inconceivable. So music has a fiction in that kind of film, but in most films, music is only present to fill in emotions that are lacking. Most films claim to be realistic and the use of music in them is therefore a lie. In real life we never hear music in our lives unless it’s played on the radio or television or a musician is present. But music is used then to make up for lack of tension that the director hasn’t managed to create. I have nothing against musicals—for example, I love the films of Fred Astaire and the films Hitchcock, but those aren’t realistic films. The use of music in conventional cinema is usually used or almost always used to make up for what’s lacking in emotion because the director has not done his job properly.

As a writer and director with such a definite vision, do you find that you are very demanding of your actors or do you put a lot of trust in them?
Both. I have a lot of trust in my actors and I demand a great deal from them. If I didn’t trust them then I wouldn’t demand much of them.

Were you at all concerned about making this film about assisted suicide?
As I said, I didn’t want to make a film about assisted suicide but I was looking to make a film about how one copes with suffering of other people. There were a number of related tangential issues or themes that are touched upon because of that question, but I never seek to deal with themes, that’s never my approach. My starting point is always a feeling I’ve had or an experience or something I’ve witnessed or read about, and that emotion leads me to want to explore the question. It’s the opposite of the approach of television, which seeks to deal with the theme of the week or the day. That’s not my approach. It’s always dangerous, especially politically, when you decide to make a film about a theme—whereas I discussed, in television you say, oh this theme is being talked about a lot, it’s very hot topic so we’ll make a film about it. In film history I can only think of a handful of films that have dealt with theme successfully. The results are usually quite terrible. When I talk about the handful of films that have been successful in film history, I mean films that are successful from an artistic point of view, not from a box office, commercial point of view.

You say there are political dangers, yet in many of your films you deal with topics that eventually step on some potent political land mines. You’re not afraid of doing that?
That can’t be the starting point for an actor or director. If you’re living today and dealing with contemporary reality then automatically you’re going to want to talk seriously about the society you’re living in and you’re automatically going to touch on raw points. You can’t be a filmmaker or an author and not touch on them. You can’t avoid that. But the point is, that you’re not seeking to exploit those, rather they follow from the issues that you’re dealing with, your vision. In many of my films I’ve talked about the role of the media in society, and not because that seems to be an important point theoretically, but more because I’m a part of that media landscape and because it touches me and it angers me. Tthat’s really why I want to deal with it, because of the emotions it creates in me. Theoretical films are terribly boring.

Talking about actors, the main duo is magnificent, and Isabelle Hubert wonderful as their daughter. What sets her apart from other French actresses of her generation?
She’s one of a number of wonderful actors and actresses of her generation, but the reason I chose her is that we’ve worked together before, we get along. As a director, I’m very faithful; if a collaboration has worked out well together, if it’s been friendly and efficient, then I like to stay true to my actors. It would be senseless to change, because once you’ve worked together, you learn how to work to communicate efficiently. It would be stupid to break that off and not want to continue on the basis of that understanding. In this case, she agreed to play the part for me as a personal favor. She usually plays leading roles, of course, and here I was asking her to play a supporting role and she agreed without hesitation.

Had you discussed the content with your family prior to making the film?
First of all, my parents are dead and second of all, as I said in my acceptance speech for the Palmes d’Or in Cannes, my wife and I have promised each other that we’ll do everything in our power to avoid the other person being shunted off into an old age home or hospital at the end of our lives—and that’s really all I have to say about the question.

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