Film

‘If I Have One Potato, Then I Want Two’: Michael Haneke on Consumption, Technology, and “Happy End”

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It’s been five years since the release of Michael Haneke’s Amour, which, to some surprise — it’s a morose film, from a morose director, about an elderly man and his slowly dying wife — snagged widespread awards-season acclaim, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. In his latest work, the Austrian director has returned with an altogether lighter piece — sort of. The darkly comic Happy End (out this Friday) stars Isabelle Huppert as Anne Laurent, the head of an upper-class family’s construction company, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as her contemplating-suicide father, Georges — who may or may not be the same character the actor played in Amour. There’s also Anne’s troubled son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski); her adulterous brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz); and her sociopathic, suicidal niece, Eve (Fantine Harduin), who early on admits over Facebook Live to poisoning her mother. Happy End plays almost like a greatest-hits collection of Haneke’s pet cinematic obsessions: sadism, death, voyeurism, the moral rot of Europe’s upper class. The Voice sat down with the director recently to discuss his approach to those themes and more.

One of the things I like most about Happy End was how brutally you were skewering the high-class bourgeois attitude.

I think it would be a false takeaway if you had the impression that I was trying to skewer or deal with the bourgeoisie, a class that we think of in [terms of] the early twentieth century, but that doesn’t exist anymore. Western societies, at least Europe — because I can only speak for Europe, as that’s only what I know — consist really of entirely middle class, with the exception of very few families. The middle class may be slightly wealthier or slightly less wealthy than others, but nonetheless, everyone belongs to it. The only proletarians who are in Europe are the foreigners — they play that role. But I wanted to set the film in a social class that would allow identification with the figures by as broad an audience as possible. The managers and factory workers are just as philistine, just as middle-class, as each other.

Even with all the money?

They’re all solely interested in consumption.

It connects to the way you bring in digital media, Facebook Live, and how all that flattens people’s lives. It seems to match some of the things you’ve done previously in your work, especially in Caché with the video cameras, but now it’s public. Do you find that unsettling, or interesting?

Both. It’s unsettling and interesting [laughs]. It’s simply a fact of life. It exists, and you can’t get around it. It’s also the speed with [which] this revolutionary change is taking place in society; it’s unprecedented in human history. The extent and speed with which new technology has asserted itself, has permeated our lives in the course of twenty years, is unheard-of. If you think of the movable press invented by Gutenberg — that took centuries before it permeated all of society, whereas today our society is completely changed by the digital media. I couldn’t work professionally without making use of these new media: the cellphone, email. At the same time, life has become more virtual. If you’re sitting in the subway, then people don’t look at each other anymore. They’re all staring at their cellphones. Even if you go into cafés, couples are sitting together at tables, but they’re not talking [to] each other — they’re texting. It’s not that I find it good or bad; I’m not passing judgment on it. But since I’m trying to grapple with contemporary society and depict contemporary society, I can’t get around showing that.

Do you think it leads to a mass sociopathy? With the niece in the film it’s more clear, but it even seems to spread to the rest of the family, the disconnection.

Direct communication exists far less than before. Communication has become virtual, there’s much less contact, much less direct communication between people — [partly] because we’re so busy. We’re so busy with things that are virtual, and that deal with consumption; our entire preoccupation is, and the way that we define ourselves depends on, our capacity to consume. That creates entirely new priorities.

Within that, you have these characters who are each trying to control their own lives. You have the grandfather, who is even trying to set the terms for his own death. Is that something you personally think about?

I don’t think that death has become a more present theme in society. I think, on the contrary, people try to repress that idea of death. However, as you age, yes, death becomes more present. The sense of physical suffering that you see around you, the people who you see dying around you: You have to grapple with that, and it becomes a greater part of your life. It’s the tragedy of humanity: the fact that we want to stay healthy and keep on living and, on the other hand, that we’re condemned to die. When you’re young, then of course death is so far off that it’s unreal and something that you can push aside and don’t have to confront. But as you get older and you start feeling pains that you didn’t have before, you see people around you dropping like flies and dealing with the torture and humiliation of existence — then, yes, it becomes your preoccupation.

Do you think it’s more real in a way, compared to the concerns of the characters in the film, for whom everything is about consuming? Is that something you wish people paid more attention to?

Death, you mean, or mortality?

Mortality, and really the essence of living, which is tied to that.

[Laughs.] It certainly wouldn’t be a mistake if we were to busy ourselves more with real needs, with real life. In terms of death, that is something that we don’t have to preoccupy ourselves with. Or, we don’t have to choose to do that, because it’s there by itself, at least at a certain age when all the people who you loved in your life are suddenly gone, and you’re faced with illness. It’s unavoidable; it’s going to catch up with you anyway. In the film, I’m not trying to ask spectators to face this reality, to confront that. It’s not a real theme. What I try to do in the film is to create a cross section through the family, as broad as possible. You have characters who range from very young to very old, each dealing with different preoccupations.

I wanted to ask about your use of technology in making the film, using digital cameras. Do you do that just because it’s necessary, or do you like working with digital?

Today I think probably over 95 percent of all films are shot digitally. Celluloid is complicated to shoot. It’s complicated to get the film stock, complicated to get the cameras, and complicated to find labs that can process the film easily. But it’s not really something that I’m concerned about. All I want is to be able to express myself, and whatever tools allow me to express myself as best as possible, I’m fine with, regardless of celluloid or digital. I think the last film I shot on celluloid was The White Ribbon (2009), but it’s not a theme per se that I’m concerned about. Digital filmmaking has expanded my possibilities today. If you think of this film, for example, one of the opening scenes at the construction site, the wall collapsing there, that’s all done via digital effects and would’ve been impossible or inconceivable five years ago. So I’m in favor of whatever extends my range of expression as a filmmaker.

Part of why I ask is that the digital cinematography seems to blur the lines: between the voyeurism of the footage the young girl shoots on her phone for Facebook Live, and us as an audience voyeuristically watching the story of this family.

But cinema’s always been about voyeurism. We’re always looking backstage, we’re trying to peek behind walls. One of the things I like so much about visiting England is that they don’t have curtains there, so you can walk around at night and peer into [people’s homes] and see into their life [laughs].

I want to ask about the final scene at the restaurant, in which the son brings in the immigrants and refugees, and it produces almost a shocking clash between these two groups of people. It feels like it points out a real hypocrisy in European society. Is this something you see generally in daily life, or did you want to create a scenario?

Absolutely. [Laughs.] Hypocrisy in daily life, certainly. We’re all hypocrites.

But it seems quite deliberate because of the things going on in Europe with refugees from Syria, from Africa. Or in Britain, with Brexit. The conversation about this seems so important, but then you see how it affects these upper-class characters’ lives, and it doesn’t at all.

Yes, absolutely, it’s certainly part of the theme I’m dealing with. The very fact that Mr. Trump has become president, for example, expresses precisely that perspective that we refuse and want to shut our eyes to what’s going on around us. You don’t have to only look to Europe to find examples of that. That willful social ignorance. The everyday fascism of Western society is a banality.

But now, in a way, it’s more out in the open.

Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. If it would be more in the heads of the people, they would not have voted for Trump, for example.

Maybe they still would have, though. If it was in the open, if they knew what was really going on, they still might have voted for Trump.

Absolutely. It would even be worse in that case. And this is what I’m referring to, the everyday fascism, which is an integral component of our society. We’re only concerned with navel-gazing, and the piece of cake in front of us that we refuse to share with other people.

Do you think that runs across the classes in European society? I know here in North America it’s a bit more clear, but I don’t know in Europe how it feels. You’re showing people with more money. I don’t know what their political values are, but it seems to infect them, the self-absorption.

There’s nothing we can do about this. Yes, we all are preoccupied, obsessed with our piece of cake. We don’t want to share it, and it’s all we’re concerned about: possessing and consuming and accumulating. That’s become a religion today. It’s not something I judge. Like it or not, you have to accept that’s how it is. We can see it all around us. In fact, it’s even banal to talk about that because it’s so obvious. If I have one potato, then I want two, and if I have one potato and someone else is there, then I don’t want to share it with him. If I have to share it with him, problems ensue. At the same time, if we have survived as a species then it’s because of a sense of community, it’s because of a sense of sharing.

Early on, we realized that as solitary hunters we couldn’t survive. We could only live by forming groups and living together and hunting together. But as soon as the agrarian revolution came about then that was the end of it, that’s when need and desire to accumulate arose, [along with] the fear that what I possess might be taken away by someone else. That was the beginning of this selfishness of which we’ve now seen the absolute high point. Thank goodness, however, that the state has assumed our sense of social responsibility and is there to impose that social responsibility. Of course, politicians are just as middle-class and self-absorbed as the rest of us, so that’s teetering now. However, I don’t think that it’s useful for the film, or even useful for us to talk about that right now. Such generalities aren’t important for the film.

Except that it exposes it. It presents a mirror to people.

I think that’s what it is. It’s about holding up a mirror to the audience to allow them to see themselves and what they feel concerned by. That’s the task of any dramatic art form, whether stage, film, novels. You’re allowing the recipient of the art to feel understood, to feel attacked. That’s the task of any descriptive art form, simple as that: to engage the recipient.

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