Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Michael Haneke.
Earlier in the year, Michele Haneke became the seventh director in history to win more than one Palme d’Or at Cannes. The record for most Palme d’Or wins is now a seven-way tie.
The writer/director’s work is often enigmatic or experimental, but he’s also crafted stories that plumb the dramatic depths of loving relationships and extensively explored the beauty of music. From The Seventh Continent to Love, he’s made us question our role as viewers, challenged concepts of freedom and security, and did it all by making entertaining films. Some of which involve pig slaughter.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who turned Jean-Luc Godard’s most famous quote upside down.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Michael Haneke
1. Funny and Horrifying Can Be The Same Thing
“There are many scenes [in The Piano Teacher] that are both terrible and horrifying for the spectator and funny at the same time. There are really two types of laughter on the part of the spectator. There is the laughter of recognition ‐ which means seeing things you’re familiar with and laughing at yourself. But there’s also hysterical laughter ‐ a way of dealing with the things we see that upset us. This is also the case in our everyday lives: we turn to laughter as an escape valve.”
2. Mess With Your Audience Visually
“We’re used, from TV, to scenes giving immediate information, so that the viewer thinks ‘I’ve seen it. I understand it. Next,’ and you never really get to the point of having a particular sensitivity to the situation. . . If you want to move someone, then you have to play with their visual habits, with what they’re used to seeing.”
Breaking the fourth wall is nothing new, but the moment in Funny Games when Paul (Arno Frisch) looks over his shoulder and winks right into the camera is terribly unsettling, not just because of what’s happening to one of the characters, but because of how brazenly Haneke is acknowledging the audience’s presence. It’s something we’re not used to.
That’s one example of many, and there are a lot of different ways to shake convention, but the key is not to deliver the same rhythms we’re used to. Don’t be afraid to shake the audience up.
3. Draw Scenes From Your Slaughter-Filled, Sheltered Childhood
4. You Need an Audience, But Not at the Cost of Your Principles
“If a director says he doesn’t care how many people see his films at all, I simply don’t believe him. Otherwise, why would he bother to make the film? The only explanation would be that it would be an act of masturbation. I think that every creator is looking for a receptor. He’s looking for an audience. There are two parts of the equation: a creator and, necessarily, the receiver of the work. It’s the same thing for a painter who wants his paintings to be seen. However, if you betray your principles in the hopes of reaching a wider audience, then that’s as fatal as betraying your belief. Even the most elitist director or author who claims that he doesn’t care if his works are seen or not, then I have to think that he’s either a liar or a hypocrite. “
Creation is the first step in a two-step process. Getting eyes and ears on your work is the fulfillment of why it was created ‐ and it’s easy to see why a provocateur like Haneke believes this ‐ but there’s a balance. It feels incredible to see a huge audience experience what you’ve made, but if you’ve gained a larger audience by sacrificing your ideals, you’re not really showing them your work after all. Definitely an interesting concept.
In the same interview, Haneke claims that books and movies are boring if they don’t leave the viewer or reader with questions to wrestle with. Unsurprisingly, a lot of his answers in interviews seem to achieve just that.
5. Every Film Rapes the Viewer
“I believe that the purpose of drama is not to let you go home feeling reassured. That was never its purpose, even as far back as the Greek tragedies. Every film is manipulative, raping the viewer. So the question is: Why do I rape the viewer? I try to rape him into being reflective, and into being intellectually independent and seeing his role in the game of manipulation. I believe in his intelligence. At its best, film should be like a ski jump. It should give the viewer the option of taking flight, while the act of jumping is left up to him.”
Michael Haneke will grab you by the ears, and you will know something.
By now, his attitude toward the audience is obvious, but it raises a great question about how safely you’re playing it as a storyteller. When this interviewer asks about Haneke’s pride in seeing people walk out of his movies, he talks briefly about the dichotomy of viewers. The oversimplified breakdown is between those who want to be slapped and have their perceptions challenged, and those that see movies strictly to have their views and ideas reinforced. Are you afraid of people leaving the theater, or do you relish the idea of thinning the herd to those who accept the challenge you might give them?
6. Fearlessly Explore Big Ideas
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Michael Haneke is a crazy person.
But he’s a hell of a wonderful, creative, crazy person. Stubborn and confrontational, he has a lot to teach filmmakers who want to do something different with form and function and almost nothing to say for those wishing to work exclusively in the mainstream. What’s probably most fascinating is that he’s a living artifact of how safe being dangerous can be. After all of his work, how has he put himself at risk in any way?
That is to say, it’s often easy to forget that storytelling comes with a safety net because it isn’t reality. People may think Haneke is disturbed, and he may get some mindless interview questions from time to time, but for the most part, he’s built a great filmmaking success on ideas that come off as needing bravery (see tip #6), but at the end of the day, they’re only movies.
So the best lesson of all: It’s safe to jump off the deep end. Why limit yourself to the ideas and themes you want to work on? There’s no reason to fear going out on a limb.