Michael Haneke talks about THE PIANO TEACHER


Michael Haneke's THE PIANO TEACHER (La Pianiste/ Die Klavierspielerin) was one of the most discussed films at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It also received three of the Festivals's top awards - the Grand Prix du Jury and Best Actor Awards for Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel. A conversation with Michael Haneke ...


The Piano Teacheris your first film from an addopted screenplay, based on a versy controversial novel by Elfriede Jelinek. What did you find so interesting about the material?

MICHAEL HANEKE:  I thought it was interesting because it goes very far psychologically.


When reading this novel, did you think that it was very filmic?

MICHAEL HANEKE:  It's filmic in that its structure is very linear, making it suitable for a cinematic version, but its linguistic form is not at all suitable. The essence of Elfriede Jelinek's literature is not in her stories, but in the narrative form. Her main interest is language. This language is not transferable. The same story must be told with the means offered by film. I didn't make a film version of the book - I told the story. In that sense, it's not a film version of a literary work.


The screenplay was written ten, twelve years ago? Why did you start working with this material now?

MICHAEL HANEKE: Firstly because someone suggested it, and secondly because the compelling thing about the story is that extremely complex observations are made about society, and they go beyond private interrelationships. This story is so full of associations and it isn't exhausted in the telling alone. In addition, there are three great roles. One of my conditions when it was offered to me was hiring Isabelle Huppert for the lead.


Why her in particular?

MICHAEL HANEKE:  Because in my opinion, she's the best actress I know in Europe if not the entire world. She has on the one hand the sensitivity and ability to show suffering and on the other this character's cold-bloodedness, and she looks good, too.


Can we expect more such films based on literary works from you?

MICHAEL HANEKE:  No, but that has nothing to do with good or bad experiences - I just have enough material already which I want to use. Because as an auteur, one writes for one's own strengths, which is one of the reasons why auteur films are usually more interesting. The discussion concerning form and content, which decides the quality of a film in the end, is easier to resolve when the screenwriter and director are one and the same person. I find that principle more interesting, of course.


How do you deal with the issue of translating language into film adequately?

MICHAEL HANEKE: Language is used only in dialogs, and I invented quite a few scenes which don't appear in the novel. I made an effort to describe the same internal universe in film, at the same time never thinking about how to include Jelinek's language. That would never have worked, and it wouldn't have made sense to try. Film is an independent art form, and it employs literature as an intellectual quarry. Elfriede Jelinek herself was fascinated to see how another person made use of the material she provided.

Did you work together with the author?

MICHAEL HANEKE: I discussed the main character with her several times at the beginning. The difficulty was that the novel is now 15 years old and it describes a certain period with the apartment and the clothing. As I brought the film into the present so to speak, the question arose of the extent to which she thinks that's possible for the elements which are important to her. But in general, she consciously stayed in the background. She doesn't demand recognition as the sole creator.


The female characters in your films are always stronger and more mysterious than the males.

MICHAEL HANEKE:  I'm not sure that they're deeper or more mysterious. Both women and children - there are also a disproportionate number of the latter in my films - play an important role because victims interest me more than perpetrators. Women - and this is also true of other directors - are the more interesting characters because they're farther down in the pecking order. The alternative to plumbing the depths of their psyches is the hero, who has no psychology and is only a victor. All in all, I'm more interested in women - men bore me.


One level which the book is unable to communicate but which would be perfect for film is music.

MICHAEL HANEKE:  That was my hobby while making this film. Fundamentally, I'm of the opinion that film music has no place in movies because 99% of its function is to compensate for a deficit in the suspense or excitement. Emotions which are not created through the plot or action, the cinematography or by the actors is then produced with a musical sauce underneath everything. That's why there's no music in my films except when it appears in the story. Of course, The Piano Teacher provided an opportunity to use music a bit more indulgently. I picked out the Schubert pieces, which was a lot of fun. Especially the way in which the lieder were used, which appear in Jelinek's work in certain allusions. Of course that provided me as a reader with a legitimate reason for demonstrating my love of Schubert's lieder, and we were lucky to have excellent young musicians.


Were there any considerable differences in the production conditions for Code Inconnu, which was filmed in France, and Die Klavierspielerin, which was shot in Vienna?

MICHAEL HANEKE:  You can find good and bad people everywhere. As my preparations are always painstaking, I seldom have unpleasant surprises, because I've been making films with my team for ten years or more. Of course, it's difficult for me to shoot in a foreign language. When a German-speaking actor says something with the wrong nuance, I can hear it immediately. When the actors are speaking French, I have to concentrate and pay extremely close attention.


Do you plan to work abroad more often, and have you considered English-speaking countries?

MICHAEL HANEKE:  Not really, because my English is much worse than my French. If I were 30, things would be different. I'm 59 now, and I have to think about out how many more films I'll be able to make. At the same time, I hope that I'll continue working for some time, but starting an new career in an English-speaking environment would be absurd. I do what I do. If that's possible in Austria, I'll do it here - if there's an opportunity in France, then I'll work there. That also depends on the material, the actors and the economic conditions for film in Austria. If things continue as they have been, we won't have any money at all and I'll have to go abroad anyway.


Interview: Karin Schiefer