Haneke Puts On His Amour

Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke

The Austrian director Michael Haneke is in a very exclusive club, having won the Palme d’Or for best picture at the Cannes Film Festival for both of his last two films, the Nazi allegory The White Ribbon (2009) and the end-of-life drama Amour, which will be released in the U.S. this month. Late in his career—Mr. Haneke is 70—the onetime provocateur (whose earlier films contained graphic violence and a strong sense of dread) has come to be embraced by the critical establishment. Amour, and its 85-year-old lead actress, Emmanuelle Riva, are considered front-runners in the coming Oscar race.

“It would be hypocritical of me if I said I didn’t like awards,” Mr. Haneke recently told the Transom, speaking through a translator. “Someone liking my work doesn’t make me sad. Every prize improves your working conditions.” Mr. Haneke was dressed entirely in black and occasionally laughed, not quite derisively, at the questions posed. At the beginning of the interview, he got up and turned the thermostat in the hotel conference room down. His answers were to the point.

Amour is about a long-married couple who hit turbulence as the health of the wife (Ms. Riva, legendary for her work in Hiroshima, mon amour) begins to falter. In some ways, it’s a story about health care; its methodical documentation of physical breakdown is as frightening as the white-gloved killers in Mr. Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games. But its title is appropriate—there’s more love in this film than in most of Mr. Haneke’s work. Asked if this film represented an attempt to break free of his reputation for cruelty, he laughed. “No. Not at all. Each theme has its own appropriate form.”

“I don’t have a list of themes. It’s not a question of themes,” he elaborated. “Rather, it’s about stories that occur to me. The story of Funny Games occurred to me, just as The White Ribbon did. I’m not looking to make stories about issues.” Indeed, Amour is hardly a polemic. “The starting point was the suffering of someone I love very deeply, but it has nothing to do with the specificities of that case,” he said.

The promotional duties for Mr. Haneke will likely include a spin at the Oscars, where he was last nominated for Best Foreign Film in 2010. “Up until now, all the reactions I’ve heard are that people have been moved. It’s some comfort to them. That said, I can only base my judgment of its success on the people who come up to me,” Mr. Haneke said.

Yet despite the success of his past work and the universally comprehensible nature of Amour’s script, he had to fight to get the film made. “Every production company was afraid of making Amour,” he said of the film, which was a co-production between French, German and Austrian companies.

But he was undaunted. “I think fear is a good theme for art,” he said. “Fear is a good motivation.”