A master of masochism: Michael Haneke assesses his oeuvre

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“HAPPY END”, Michael Haneke’s new film, features murder, suicidal depression and myriad forms of torture—none of which will surprise anyone who has seen the Austrian writer-director’s previous work. Mr Haneke may be acclaimed as one of European cinema’s most intelligent and formally inventive auteurs: his previous two films, “Amour” and “The White Ribbon”, both won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Festival. But no one would accuse him of making feel-good entertainment. For the past three decades, the 75-year-old’s provocative dramas have been unsparing in their depiction of bloody violence, and unwavering in their focus on man’s inhumanity to man, especially within supposedly respectable bourgeois circles. From the self-mutilating heroine in “The Piano Teacher” to the home-owners who open their door to two sadistic strangers in “Funny Games”, his characters’ lives rarely have anything like a happy end.

In person, however, Mr Haneke is a relaxed and good-humoured interviewee who is given to toothy smiles and twinkle-eyed chuckles as he reels off long, fluent answers in German. He does not believe that his films inflict cruel and unusual punishment on their viewers. “I personally don’t find my films darker than other people’s,” he says. “If people feel that, that’s absolutely fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But the point is that they are more realistic than other films. Mainstream cinema is not realistic.”

Whether the macabre crimes and farcical situations in “Happy End” are “realistic” is open to debate, but its scenario is probably less outlandish than we would like to think. A forensic dissection of the selfish mind-set wrought by first-world entitlement and desensitising technology, it is somewhere between a blackly comic soap opera and a spine-tingling gothic horror movie. Its anti-heroes are a dynasty of wealthy Calais industrialists. The family’s forbidding, 80-something patriarch, Jean-Louis Trintignant, still sits at the head of the table, but its construction business is now run by his children (played by Isabelle Huppert and Matthieu Kassovitz). They convince themselves that they are pillars of the community, but “Happy End” chronicles the casual, habitual way they deceive and mistreat each other, their employees and the area’s migrant population.

As moneyed as the family is, Mr Haneke insists that the film is not about the rich in particular: “That’s not the issue. The issue is heartlessness.” And while the Calais setting is “the most obvious background for a story about how we deal with foreigners and poor people, and the lack of empathy within society as a whole,” he doesn’t believe that immigration issues are any more pressing in Calais than in other European cities. “The strange thing is,” he muses, “that in Calais you see far fewer black people on the streets than you would in Paris. Occasionally you come upon groups of three or four people, exactly as you see in the film. But if you look at the news you get the impression that it’s entirely flooded by black people, and it’s simply not true. The media are responsible for spreading a false view of reality. And of course that’s what those on the political right exploit.”

The dangerous distortions of the media have long been a preoccupation of Mr Haneke’s, perhaps because he worked in television for 18 years before switching to film in his mid-40s. Another preoccupation is the rise of the far-right—“White Ribbon” posited that Nazism was born at the start of the first world war—and he sees worrying signs of that rise at the moment. “A few years ago you couldn’t have believed that Donald Trump could become president of America. And even now it seems pretty extraordinary.” 

But he won’t speculate about the root causes of society’s current “heartlessness”. “There are lots of clever people who have written big thick books about such things,” he says. “My task is not to analyse an extremely complex question, but to show you what I see, and to provoke associations and thoughts on the part of the audience.” And if it those associations and thoughts are harrowing ones, well, that’s the way it goes. “Art is not meant to make people comfortable about the way they are, it’s meant to make people ask questions about their lives. What would life be if it wasn’t interrogated in one way or another?” 

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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