Funny Gamesmanship


Many of those who meet Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke in person are surprised at how jolly and gracious he is given the cold-blooded brutality and perversity of his films. Myself, I was surprised to see how much he resembled Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize winning Phoenix classical music critic and a jolly and gracious fellow himself. So impressed was I by this resemblance that I  suggested that Lloyd interview Haneke when he was in town (Lloyd’s interview with Jerry Seinfeld will appear as the “Backtalk” in the 11/2 Phoenix). Or maybe have Haneke interview Lloyd. This was dismissed as yet another of my too often repeated jokes.

At any rate, I ended up interviewing Haneke myself (through an interpreter, a highly competent woman who works at the U.N. and didn’t respond to my references to Sidney Pollack’s “The Interpreter” or its star Nicole Kidman), even though Haneke seemed to speak English pretty well with a slight accent (then again, it could have been Lloyd having one on me). He (Haneke, not Lloyd, was in town as part of the ongoing retrospective of his films at the Harvard Film Archive and the Museum of Fine Arts and in particular was promoting his shot-for-shot remake of his own “Funny Games,” starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt. It's screening here in a sneak preview but not opening theatrically until February (a situaton he seems very unhappy with). Here’s how things started out.

PK: It must be gratifying to come to the United States and be celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art and here at Harvard.

MH:  Yes, it is always a pleasure to have recognition. It’s not my first retrospective, but my first on in America.

PK: It’s the heart of the beast, isn’t it, America?

MH:  (laughs) Yes.

Peter- But it was less gratifying working with the Hollywood studio system on your new movie?

MH: It was of course no problem at all working with the actors. But as far as the team was concerned, and the blown up apparatus on to you, that was less pleasant to work with. You know, for each job you have five people. If I want a glass of water, I tell the assistant, the assistant tells it to the procure man, and they in turn tell someone else, and it takes ten minutes to get a glass of water. I hate that.

PK: Is it like a union thing?

MH: Yeah. That was not so pleasant.

PK: And in dealing with the actual producers, and the people who finance the movie and distribute it?

MH:  They are pretty much thinking that they are it, you know? They are pretty arrogant. They ask what I want to be done and turn around and do whatever they want. However in shooting, I had a contract that no one can interfere, and they were forced to let me do whatever I wanted.

PK: When I heard that you were remaking the film shot by shot, first I thought of George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing,” who made his very successful European movie into a Hollywood movie and it wasn’t so successful. I also thought of Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho,”  which didn’t do so well, either. With those prior examples, weren’t you a little daunted doing this?

MH:  Yeah, I mean you’re always a bit worried. Gus Van Sant was a little bit different because it was a study. He didn’t do his own film as a remake -- he made someone else’s film. For me the first “Funny Games,” the one in Europe, was meant for consumers of violence, and it was a slap in the face for these people. … So when I had the possibility to do it in English, I took the opportunity. And now the film has arrived at the audience that it was meant to be at. It was meant for the United States to begin with, because “Funny Games” has an English title. There was a house in the German version that no house in Austria is like that. It was a set. And, you know, we tried to imitate a classic American colonial house, you know, with the center staircase. And so there was a reason for doing the remake, so when I was offered to make the remake I said sure, I’d love to do it, but only if Naomi Watts is going to play the lead role.

PK: Did she approach you, or did you just see her in a movie and say…

MH:  No, I approached Naomi.

PK:  What was it about her performance or what drew you to her as an actor?

MH: “Mulholland Drive”and “21 Grams.”She was really great in both, I think.

PK: “21 Grams”  is  50 grams short of your “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.”

MH: It was successful, no? I know that the director likes my films. He wrote a very enthusiastic review of “Code Unknown” in some US magazine.

PK: It’s similar to “21 Grams” and “Babel”  -- the multiple narrative.

MH: Yes, these films have similar structure.

PK:  There’s no multi-narrative really in "Funny Games."

MH:  I mean I did a few films that did this  but, you know, I’m not forced to do every film the same way of course.

PK:  “72 Fragments” is kind of like Kieslowski’s “Three Color  Trilogy without a happy ending.

MH:  “The Trilogy” is three dramas, three stories. They come together in a disaster.

PK: But they’re saved. I guess that’s the difference right there, one of them anyway. It seems like you are drawn to a particular actor, like Daniel Auteuil, you wrote the role in “Cache” for him. Do actors provide your inspiration for making movies these days?

MH:  I mean it’s not THE inspiration, no. But if I like an actor or an actress then obviously I’m very intrigued to get to know them, and it’s very gratifying then to get to work together. In Juliette Binoche’s case, she approached me. She had seen some of my films, some of my television films, so she called me and asked me whether we could do something together. =

PK: And they all asked to do more movies with you. Maybe Naomi Watts can do a sequel to this movie!

MH:  We can do one of these multiple end things where the viewer has the ability to manipulate which end he’d like.

PK It could be a video game actually.

MH:  Yes (Laughing).

PK: This is how you make money these days. So it’s a shot by shot remake but there are some differences. What are the differences?

MH:  Well the difference is obviously the actors. The actors have a different charismatic, different way of portraying things, and that obviously results in differences. And I did try and really succeed in reflecting all the shots one to one. I mean there are even shots that I wouldn’t have done in such a way nowadays, had I done the film from scratch. But because I decided to do an exact replica in terms of shots, I left them in.

PK: So you’ve become a better filmmaker since you repeated the same?

MH:  If it’s better? I don’t know. It’s a different sensibility.

PK:  It’s also different because 10 years have passed and there are different connotations and historical contexts.

MH:  In some ways I feel that the film has become more up to date because violence in the media, if anything, has increased, and the senseless consumption of it. I mean, you had to do nothing different, you had to change nothing, and it became more apropos. And the social level I am describing there, they are the same all over the world. I mean whether they are in Austria or in the United States, they are “bo-bo-” maybe you know that expression describing the bourgeoisie in France. A well educated, cultivated, and still saturated blasé bourgeoisie. In other words the people from which I come.

PK:  But it’s not the group of people who go to see movies like "Saw IV" or "Hostel" or something like that.

MH:  The young people? Or the “bo-bos?”

PK: [agenda in mind, obviously not paying attention] I was thinking of the scene with the kid with the pillowcase over his head- Abu Ghraib crossed my mind.

MH: Yeah, you know, it was actually the poster of the first “Funny Games,” and it was way before Abu Ghraib, but the associations of course have multiplied.

PK:  So do you think “Funny Games” inspired Abu Ghraib?

MH: (Laughs) No. You don’t need to inspire these kinds of things. Yesterday, actually, at the master class [taught for students at the Harvard Film Archive], I mentioned a story that illustrates that you don’t need to tell people how to commit violence. When the first film came out -- well it had not come out yet, it was finished, but it had not come out. Nobody had seen it yet. There was an article in Der Spiegel,” a German magazine, and it had talked about a case that happened in Spain where two young men got white gloves [part of the m.o. in “Funny Games”], very polite, the whole thing, and tortured a family -- one person to death.

PK: So when the movie came out they probably started blaming you for it.

MH:  It’s interesting to see the parallels because the two young men that did that, in reality, were two well educated people. One was a student of chemistry, and when he was put in jail he actually then wrote a very intelligent essay. He quoted Nietzche and everything and the worthlessness of life. The victims deserved to die, he argued,  because there is no point to existence.

PK: That Nietzsche -- he's got a lot to answer for.  Do you remember the Virginia Tech killings, where a student killed 20 or 30 other students? They were saying that it was inspired by this Korean movie because there was a shot of the killer with a hammer and there was the same shot in the Korean movie. He made a video of his like, manifesto, and it’s the same shot as the movie. But he never saw the movie, he never played video games. He just spent his time in his room doing nothing. He never had any connection to videos. So it’s like as soon as something like this happens, they look for something in the film culture or popular culture…

MH:  It’s a clever method of the lawyer’s too. It’s the famous litigation of “Natural Born Killers.”

PK: Right. But you also seem to suggest in your films, and in Benny’s video, and that whole “glaciation” trilogy that there is an alienation effect that images and video and the whole culture seem to have. Some people start losing their connection with reality.

MH:  Now our understanding of reality is really based on television nowadays, and that’s of course very dangerous because the images are not the reality. So I always in my films try to nourish some distrust in taking this reality for granted.

PK: Do you own a TV?

MH:  Yes.

NEXT: What Michael Haneke watches on TV!

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