Published On: Fri, Jan 12th, 2018

Happy End’s Michael Haneke says he still doesn’t understand people

The celebrated Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke stares into souls with his camera lens, usually finding them black as soot, the opposite of his snowy white hair and beard.

In his nearly 30 years of filmmaking, he’s crafted masterful movies about some of the worst aspects of human behaviour: wanton violence (Benny’s Video, Funny Games), sexual obsession (The Piano Teacher), guilty secrets (Caché), the rise of fascism (The White Ribbon) and the collapse of the environment and of civilization (Time of the Wolf).

Haneke’s world view is typically so bleak that when he exhibited a modicum of compassion, in his 2012 end-of-life drama Amour from 2012, he astonished critics who’d always assumed he had no heart. Amour won that year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (he’d previously won the Palme for The White Ribbon in 2009) and later garnered five Oscar nominations, winning for Best Foreign Language Film.

He seems to have humanity’s number, fixating on it with long, dispassionate takes. Yet when I meet with him for a chat at TIFF 2017 last September, following the North American premiere of his new filmHappy End, he confesses he doesn’t understand people any better than the rest of us.

“I haven’t understood anything; I don’t think I ever will,” says Haneke, 75, speaking through a translator. “That’s why you make films, why you work — in the hope of understanding a little bit more.”

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Happy End, now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox, is a return to gloomy form for Haneke. It reunites two of his Amour actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert, and hints at a link between the two films, although this new one, set in the French port town of Calais, has family dysfunction and the global refugee crisis on its mind.

It also addresses social media, part of the dehumanizing effect of screen-based culture that Haneke first began exploring with Benny’s Video in 1992.

Prior to its premiere in Cannes last year, word was that Happy End would address the refugee crisis, but it’s only peripherally noted in the film.

I don’t think that migration is the theme of the film . . . I think it deals more with art, inability, or incapacity for empathy. There are so many signs, so many traces, of other forms of lack of empathy in the film, than specifically those which deal with migrants.

You make social media, specifically Snapchat, seem positively sinister.

If you’re seeking to present to make a portrait of contemporary society then you can’t avoid showing how social media has totally, radically changed our daily lives. However, the media — the world of media — has been present in all my films since the second one, since Benny’s Video. It’s also true that with digital media, the world is changing so quickly, you have to remain up to date. And I present social media, I think, in a way without trying to judge them or saying whether they’re good or bad. I simply show how integral they are in our lives.

U.S. President Donald Trump has an unhealthy attachment to social media, specifically Twitter, which seems to make him almost a character out of one of your films. Does he interest you at all?

Hah-hah! If we’re speaking about media and the role of media today in our lives, then the theme of Trump immediately comes to mind . . . but as an individual, as a person, no, he doesn’t interest me in the least.

Do you find you’ve become more or less curious about technology as your filmmaking career has evolved?

It depends on the film, the extent to which the story bears a relation to the use of media in our daily lives. You can’t generalize. If I were to make a film about the love life of two people on a boat, who have left their cellphones on shore, then of course, they’d have no place. In the context of what we’re living in, technological developments have left traces in every aspect of our lives.

You’ve worked with children before, but in Happy End you have a remarkable young actress in Fantine Harduin, who plays a troubled teenager named Ève. How did you find her?

We did a lot of casting. We met with 50 or 60 girls, or my assistants did. Then I saw this picture of her and was immediately struck by it. Because on the one hand, she’s a pretty young girl, on the other hand, there’s something unsettling about her face, and when I saw her I said I’d like to do an audition with her, and if she has any talent at all, then we’ll take her. And we gave her the role.

What do you look for in your actors?

I’m trying to consider how his own personality interacts or connects with the character he’s supposed to play. You can have the best actor, and if he’s badly cast, or cast for the wrong part, the results would be disastrous.

After nearly three decades as a filmmaker, you still seem fascinated by the human condition, the strange beast known as man.

Yes! That’s the theme for every dramatic art form, theatre and cinema. That’s my profession.

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Happy End’s Michael Haneke says he still doesn’t understand people