Michael Haneke sits in a darkened balcony, perched high in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, at the New York Film Festival premiere of his new film, Amour. The crowd is almost totally silent, taking in the spectacle of an elderly man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tending to his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) as she faces the final stages of stroke-induced dementia. In the past, Haneke’s work has been met with many reactions, including walkouts and fiery denunciations, but the response to Amour has been largely new to him: laughter, tears, applause. The film over, a spotlight swings our way, and he stands to take a bow, hand on heart.
“With all my films I have big reactions,” he says afterward, in his soft bass, telling me of a man at the Munich premiere of his first film, 1989’s The Seventh Continent, about a family that commits ritual suicide. “He said, ‘How can you make a movie like this?’ He was trembling. I start to explain—he stood very close to me throughout—and by the end he said, ‘Thank you very much.’ It was fantastic. For this, you do this job.”
A youthful-looking 70-year-old with a white beard, rimless spectacles, and a full head of silvery hair, Haneke is dressed entirely in black. He cuts an elegant figure, legs crossed, translator scribbling by his side, in a beige room deep in the bowels of Lincoln Center. Around him mill reps from Sony, the studio that acquired the North American rights to Amour even before it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Critics there were quick to acclaim the new thread of tenderness in Haneke’s work, something the director is equally quick to dismiss.
“It’s a disease of critics that once they’ve labeled someone, it’s very hard to change their perspective,” he says. “It’s laziness. If you think of The White Ribbon”—Haneke’s 2009 Palme d’Or winner about an isolated German village beset by a series of horrific events just before World War I—“there is a tender love story involving the young couple.”
It is not just critics, I say; the audiences seem to be reacting differently. “I can’t say I think it’s a proof of quality that people cry at your film,” he says. “I think it just depends on the theme.”
Haneke’s interview technique owes more than a passing resemblance to Federer’s drop shot: killing the speed on any question, refusing its underlying premise, and gently rolling it back to your feet with a smile. He takes questions the same way he makes movies: by jamming expectations, if not waging all-out war on them. His 1997 film Funny Games (which he remade in English a decade later)—an ultraviolent objection to American movie violence—brutalized its audience far more than the films to which it was objecting. That was the point—Haneke wanted people to walk out. “Very often anger is my motive to do something,” he says. “Funny Games came from real anger. I wanted to slap the audience in the face.”
Unusually for Haneke, the inspiration for Amour was autobiographical: the suffering of an aunt, crippled by rheumatism at the age of 92, who asked him to help her commit suicide. He refused, telling her, “I am your legal heir, and I’d go to jail. Also, it would be impossible for me.” When she tried to kill herself without him, Haneke found her. When she awoke in the hospital, she asked accusingly, “Why have you done this to me?” Two years later, when he was away at a festival, she tried again, this time successfully.
So Amour was his way of granting his aunt’s wish? “That’s too deep a psychological question for me,” he says. “You can’t solve psychological problems by making a film.”
Speak to his actors and you get a different story. Haneke’s French films are slightly more yielding than his German-language ones, in part because of his use of stars: Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher; Juliette Binoche in Hidden and Code Unknown. For Amour, he turned to art-house legends Riva and Trintignant, now in their eighties. “It’s an austerity, but it’s a benign austerity,” says Riva of Haneke’s method. “It requires absolute precision, absolute honesty. You give yourself over to it completely.” Says Trintignant, “I think he made Amour because the subject touched him so much. He loved his aunt very deeply. She raised him. In many ways, this is his most personal film.”
Haneke was raised by three women—his aunt, his mother, and his grandmother—after his father, Fritz, left when he was young. Comparing his upbringing to that of Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is difficult not to wonder whether the preeminent qualification for postwar German-speaking auteurs is fatherlessness. Echoing the wounded psyche of a generation, their films subject authority figures to lacerating deconstruction, whether they are the scarecrow Hitlers played by Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s films, the absent or incapacitated fathers in Fassbinder’s, or the mantle of cinematic authority itself in Haneke’s. “It’s always rape. Manipulation is rape, no?” he says. “The question is, to what end, for what purpose? Especially when you come from a German-language background. That is why in my films I try to rape the audience into independence, autonomy.”
The paradoxes of his cinema are rooted in the introvert’s dilemma: an acute sensitivity to the brutality of others that, expressing itself under duress, risks its own form of violence. Haneke calls himself “radically shy” and the implicit extremism in that label is a perfect fit. “It’s necessary to portray the suffering as unflinchingly as possible in order to present the compassion as precisely as possible,” he says of Amour, which represents the first time these two things have achieved such balance in his work. “Jean-Louis said this amazing thing. He said, ‘I have appeared in a lot of Westerns, but I do not know any cowboys. I have appeared in a lot of thrillers, but I do not know any gangsters.’ Cinema in general speaks of things that have nothing to do with our lives, and that makes me sick because it’s such a fantastic medium. You can really communicate with people. And it’s used to make people stupid. That makes me angry.”
It’s the third time the topic of communication has come up as we’re ushered from one place to another by handlers. We find refuge in a lounge where Haneke, glass of wine in hand, seems more relaxed. He says he didn’t see any other films at the festival, but on the plane, he did catch Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, “a souvenir of my childhood. It was fantastic.”
So has he mellowed any with age?
“A little,” he concedes. “I think when I was young, I was a little bit more fearful.”
“People.” He laughs. “I control it better than I used to. You learn to hide it.”
*This article originally appeared in the December 17, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.