Michael Haneke talks about AMOUR


«AMOUR involves a thousand different things, and when I emphasize one of them, I reduce all the others. I’ve never set out to make a film about a certain theme. What led to me making this one was the question of how you deal with the death of someone you love?»

“Ideas and reality are rarely similar,” says Anne to Georges at a place in the film where they discuss how he treats her. Was your intention in Amour to enter a reality of love in which common ideas about it reach their limits, thereby reflecting on the topos of love in the cinema?
Michael Haneke: Answering that question would lead to me interpreting my own work, but I would rather not specify what I want to say with this film, because then the audience would see nothing more than what I said. Journalists want answers to the questions I pose with my films. But the members of the audience should be posing the questions.

Something that’s just as distinct as these two individuals’ love for each other is how unconditionally they cling to their dignity.
Michael Haneke: People always fight to maintain their dignity, and the more difficult the situation you’re in, the bigger the battle. That’s our fate as humans, regardless of age. Every individual is confronted with the question of how much of their dignity they’re prepared to give up, or the extent to which they’ll fight against it.

The few times Anne and Georges encounter members of their children’s generation, whether their daughter, son-in-law or the pianist, underlines the gap between the generations and the change in values and life concepts. Is Amour also about the passing of a certain world?
Michael Haneke: Different generations develop different life concepts depending on their environment. That’s something that happens in every generation. The interesting and sad thing about this is that with each new generation, difficulties in communicating arise. That’s a constant source of potential conflict, and it always represents a departure. The older generation is always the one that departs and is discarded, because the world around it changes to such a degree that it’s unable to deal with it any longer. Of course, I can only make a film about the generation I’m familiar with. It’s a problem that everyone faces at some point, whether in terms of their parents or themselves. Our society’s set up in such a way that if you become seriously handicapped and aren’t a millionaire who can afford home care, you have to leave your home and the environment you’re accustomed to, where you feel safe, and that’s a terrible process, everybody’s nightmare.

There’s a beautiful scene at the kitchen table where Anne asks for the photo albums and turns to the past while Georges continues eating and remains in the present. Amour not only confronts different generations with one another, but time periods too.
Michael Haneke: I don’t approach a film with an idea of making it about a certain theme. Personal experiences or figures or constellations of individuals are what interest me. Journalists have to condense these things and write about them in a catchy way, but that’s not how art works. Most catchy phrases are generalizations, because that’s the only way. The minute something can be described with a single term, it’s dead artistically. Nothing living is left, and there’s no reason to watch the film. That’s always the problem with an artistic statement and an article about it. When you watch a film without any prior knowledge, it’s much more contradictory and complex. AMOUR involves a thousand different things, and when I emphasize one of them, I reduce all the others. Of course, these observations are part of my thoughts, but I’ve never set out to make a film about a certain theme. What led to me making this one was the question of how you deal with the death of someone you love. That interested me because I’ve experienced it in my own family, and it moved me a great deal. That’s why I began to think about it. And you think of things from your own memories or your imagination. The result is that situations with a certain meaning develop. In the case of The White Ribbon too, I didn’t say, “Now I’m going to make a film about upbringing and fascism.” It began with my idea to make a film about a children’s choir in the North. This idea then led to various other things. But the theme’s never the starting point of my work as an artist. Nothing else would occur to me if what I wanted to say was already obvious at the very beginning.

Doors and windows, closed or open, thresholds between inside and outside. In terms of space Amour is a chamber play, except for the beginning. Can you say anything about the conception of this apartment?
Michael Haneke: The first two scenes are set in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, then there’s the scene on a bus, and after these three initial scenes everything was shot in the studio. All shooting took place in France, the studios were just outside Paris. Then we had to shoot the views from windows, such as with curtains blowing in the breeze, which was of course extremely difficult to show in a believable way.

An aspect that stood out in this indoor shoot is an extremely consistent color concept. Why?
Michael Haneke: These people have taste and decorated their living space tastefully. The floor plan of this apartment is the floor plan of my parent’s apartment – reconstructed according to a French style of interior decoration, of course – but other than that it corresponds to the setup of my parent’s apartment almost precisely. That facilitates the approach. When you think about something, a lot of new ideas can result. The color concept came from the reconstructed library: On that basis we attempted to furnish the apartment tastefully without adding more significance to the color. I wanted a tasteful apartment in the style of a certain generation – there’s furniture from the ’50s, a stereo with elements from the ’60s and a DVD player made during the ’00s. We thought it all out to the last detail, how the furnishings in this apartment came together over the years. In any case it should look lived in and not like a studio. That’s one of the most difficult things to do, building an apartment that looks lived in rather than a film set.

How was the cast in AMOUR put together?
Michael Haneke: In the same way that I wrote Caché for Daniel Auteuil, I wrote this role for Jean-Louis Trintignant because I’ve always admired him and wanted to work with him. That was one of the reasons I thought up a film about older individuals. Isabelle Huppert was an obvious choice for the role of the daughter: Her age fit perfectly, and you could say there’s a slight resemblance to Emmanuelle Riva. Of course, I knew Emmanuelle Riva from Hiroshima, Mon Amour – a film that had an important influence on me – and I’ve always thought that she’s magnificent. But then she stopped playing leads for theatrical films. I imagined Emmanuelle Riva for this role from the very beginning, though I didn’t know if it would work. The casting process in France then settled the question, and in my opinion they make a very attractive couple.

You managed to coax Jean-Louis Trintignant, a great personality in French cinema, back in front of the camera after an extended period of time. Was it easy to convince him? Emmanuelle Riva does a great job creating the realism you require for this role. What was working with your two leads like?
Michael Haneke: Jean-Louis Trintignant saw The White Ribbon and liked it so much that he was willing to work with me. Watching him memorize something and witnessing his depth was a pleasure. In addition, he’s an extremely charming person, and during shooting everybody loved him. It was an exciting experience to shoot with these two older people, as their physical health is no longer the best, and see their great discipline when at work and their confidence. We were all extremely impressed by Emmanuelle Riva, because her role involved a certain amount of danger. Playing a role with any kind of handicap is extremely rewarding when it’s done well, but it also involves the great danger that the end result isn’t good. That was the case with the part of Anne. One the one hand, her paralysis had to be believable, and on the other it was extremely important to convince the audience that this was a lady of distinction and a woman with authority who drilled the pianist. You have to remember that she was 84, and she put a great deal into this role with an iron will and a feeling of great responsibility, which she mentioned repeatedly. It’s an amusing coincidence that her very first film role and her first film at Cannes was Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and now she’s at Cannes again in a film with “amour” in the title.

Once again you chose a frame story. Why do you like to make use of this narrative element?
Michael Haneke: It’s an efficient way to begin a narrative arc, and it was an obvious choice in this case. With this story you can expect that there won’t be a happy ending. Why should I play with the uncertainty of the conclusion? When death is a certainty from the very beginning, this false narrative arc is unnecessary. This gives the story a different twist.

In this story you have reality and realism, dream and memory merge seamlessly...
Michael Haneke: ... just like in real life.

Does the pigeon serve as a surprising symbol in your films?
Michael Haneke: Consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means. All that I know for certain, I think, is that the pigeon appears. It may symbolize something in particular to Georges and individual viewers, but it doesn’t symbolize anything to me. You have to be careful when you deal with elements with multiple meanings, they must be dealt with ambiguously. This has already happened several times in the past. Remember 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance: Bach chorales can be heard playing on a radio again and again, and you could regard that as a metaphor, as an opportunity to see it as more than it is. But you don’t have to. There are lots of pigeons in Paris.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
May 2012