An interview I did with Michael Haneke.

Original interview published on The Playlist
Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” will be divisive, but it’s also the film that he needed to make at this stage in his career. It’s a sort of reinvention that tackles his obsessive, familiar themes, but feels purposely polarizing and creatively freeing in its lack of a narrative structure. Yes, “Happy End” even has comedic moments, a rarity for the venerable Austrian filmmaker whose reputation has been that of heavy, morosely-driven dramas.
The film stars Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Matthieu Kassovitz and revolves around a dysfunctional family that’s falling apart. Each has their own problems and yet they represent what is wrong with the bourgeoisie these days: all pent-up, airless frustration over the most unimportant topics. In fact, this is Haneke’s most meta-movie, a self-referential farce about all the themes that he’s tackled so far in his illustrious career. The film is reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s provoking cinema of the 1970s and might as well be called “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”
We spoke to the writer-director at the Toronto International Film Festival about social media, Donald Trump, immortality and Jean-Louis Trintignant faking cancer.
This is a fascinating movie, how did the themes and story come to you?
There are many stories in the film but what clicked was the story of this girl whom I read about in the paper. This 14-year-old Japanese girl poisoned her mother and broadcast it on the internet. That really fascinated, and I told myself this could be a really good idea for my next movie.
Was it your intention for this to be a commentary, maybe even formal accusation, on social networking?
No, it didn’t come with that intention. These days we are almost forced to speak about social media because it is integral in all our lives. We cannot live in society without using social media. I even must use it for my profession, to phone, send texts, email, to be updated on everything. Youngsters tend to spend hours upon hours communicating with different forms, this gives them a distraction. My generation was forced to learn it. With youngsters it’s like mother’s milk, they’re more at ease with it, but there’s also a sort of dependence to this media that is sinister.
It seems to have positive consequences, but it also is deteriorating a part of society.
I can’t really say. It’s different. Every invention since the beginning of time have had negative traits. With social media it’s a little too early to really have an opinion on it. It’s new, it’s a historic development in our existence as human beings since everything has changed in the last decade because of it. We’re just at the very start and there are endless possibilities that come with it.
I didn’t know too much about Snapchat before watching “Happy End.”
I did some research, tried to see what was happening, spoke to “specialists” to be knowledgeable. I then opened a Facebook account to be inside the madness and to see what this technology people were using was all about. It’s the same as making a movie about a doctor and going to a hospital for research, but it isn’t my way of living or enjoying life.
Do you still use that Facebook account?
No. I don’t understand it. Intellectually, I “get” it, but emotionally I don’t understand the point of it, this desire to have followers everywhere. It doesn’t enrich me. If we use it to promote a business, that’s another thing. There are youngsters that use it to promote a blog and make money — why not? But for me, there’s nothing interesting in being part of this Machiavellian chain of horror. I used it to learn about an atmosphere that is typical for this generation.
Some people like to use it to find old friends they haven’t spoken to in years.
Most of the people I know or knew my age don’t use Facebook.
Right before the Cannes premiere, which I attended, we didn’t really know what the movie was going to be about. There were rumors that it’d be about the immigrant crisis or at least that would be used as a backdrop, but it only shows up near the tail end of the film.
Oh no, that wasn’t my goal at all. I wanted to show our mental problems, that we are interested just in ourselves, and that we always concentrate on “me, me, me, me.” That’s what I’m seeing these days, it’s part of people’s lives, these narcissistic tendencies. We are blind consumers, we try shut off everything that is disagreeable to us, we ignore what makes us scared. We reap what we sow. Naturally, we try to avoid confrontation or argument at any cost because it bothers us, we don’t care about anything else but our problems. However, each of us as a responsibility within society and within humanity. These little social media wars that happen on a daily basis eventually lead to larger, more destructive wars.
It’s the “me” generation and there is so much at our disposal, but it doesn’t seem to be used properly.
We have access to everything, but we see nothing. Before the internet, it was television media. At the start of the 20th century, there was nothing. A little peasant living in the mountains would know about his village, the mountains around him, maybe once in his life he’d enter a big city. Today this same peasant is in his village, he has a television, he has the internet, but he thinks he knows everything, but he knows even less than back in the day. All he sees are photos, videos, and he reads a few opinionated articles from journalists that he doesn’t even know personally. The only things we know about are our experiences, the things we must confront day in and day out, and in that sense, social media is very, very dangerous because people “think” they know everything, but it’s an illusion, they know nothing, or not more than before. They have an opinion on everything despite not having experienced it. What do I know about Bali or Afghanistan? I know what they told me on television or on the internet from journalists who wrote their own opinion about it. It’s not reality, I didn’t smell it, I didn’t feel it. Yes, it’s shocking to see images of people starving, but what’s lacking is the experience.
Politically and cinematically it becomes an entirely different but similarly dangerous experience.
Without the function of the media, a political figure like Trump would have never been elected. The development of the internet is going so fast, so fast that it’s surpassed all of us. For example, we had to use a movie camera, which was developed for the last 100 years, to make a movie. The camera operator knew what he had to do with the equipment, he was professional and trained. Now with technological developments, where each half-year there is a new kind of camera, the camera operator now has a technical assistant and if there’s a glitch, the camera operator will say it’s the assistant’s fault and vice-versa. This all means that even in moviemaking we’re all still experimenting. We can’t fault the camera guy, everything is going so fast that it surpasses even the smartest of experts. That doesn’t mean I’m against it, all we will discover we need to discover. Even biologically, what we will see the next 100 years, we might be headed to a kind of immortality because we can change everything. Already now, we can change hearts and other organs. It will only evolve and become better. This immortality might complicate things for humanity and bring about a lot of problems. Imagine having to take care of a bunch of 100-year-olds, having to feed them — there will be shortages. Eventually, there won’t be solutions for many of the negatives that comes with technological advances, just look at the atomic book, we haven’t found a way to contain people that have it.
Now anybody can make a movie because cameras are everywhere.
I find that fantastic. It’s a democratization of cinema, and I am absolutely convinced that many that would otherwise never have the opportunity because of financing can now make an excellent movie. Now a person that has no education whatsoever, if he’s talented and has that camera, he or she can make an extraordinary movie, they might even have the advantage of having a uniquely original perspective on things as compared to some mainstream directors who might have a limited vision of things. The lower class can now make movies as well and tell their own stories and I find that very exciting. Technically, there isn’t a good way or bad way to use a camera, it’s the way we use it that makes it exciting art.
You’ve had the reputation of making films that are somber and morose but I find there to be a lot of comedic elements in “Happy End.” It’s also a sorta spiritual sequel to “Amour.” [Laughs]
It’s something that I purposely tried to include in this film. “Happy End” is, in fact, a farce. We are not allowed to have a tragedy anymore [laughs] Well, the end of “Amour” was metaphorical and I wanted to talk about the same story in a more concrete way because it was a personal story that I went through with my own family. It was a therapeutic need for me to tackle it again, and to, as you said, make it a “spiritual sequel.” [laughs]
I was saddened to hear about Jean-Louis Trintignant’s cancer diagnosis.
Yes, but I heard from him yesterday and it was all a joke [laughs]. I don’t know, I’ll see him next week and will let you know. Sometimes when he doesn’t want to do press for film festival he just says, “I can’t, I have cancer” [laughs].
“Happy End” is now playing.