Haneke’s operatic distraction

The Oscar-winning filmmaker has turned his hand to stage production for Madrid’s Teatro Real

Daniel Verdú
Michael Haneke in Madrid.
Michael Haneke in Madrid.jordi socías

One morning on All Saints' Day, during a trip to the cemetery with his family, a 10-year-old Michael Haneke heard something on the radio that changed his life forever. The sound of Handel's Messiah triggered an epiphany that awakened his devotion for music. First he wanted to be a pianist, then a composer, then a pastor, then a film critic, and finally a filmmaker.

There is nothing Haneke detests more than this: affording clues about his work on the basis of his own life experiences. He positively hates it. But his work is so obscure that any glimmer provided by his biography becomes an irresistible light for followers trying to reach port. The problem is, there is no port.

These days, the 70-year-old Michael Haneke is one of Europe's most respected intellectuals. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, the movie industry has just paid due honor at the Oscars where Amour, his latest heartrending piece of cinematography, was awarded Best Foreign Language Film. On this side of the Atlantic, Haneke has been working on a very different kind of project: a stage production of Così fan tutte at Madrid's Teatro Real, which premiered on Saturday.

He has been in Madrid working on the project since December, but he doesn't read the papers and he doesn't go to museums. No distractions or interferences are allowed when it comes to his work. His outdoor activities are restricted to trips to the opera house and to the supermarket.

For the hour and a half that the interview lasted, Haneke reviewed his way of looking at the world through film, his intellectual obsessions and his personal experience with opera. He also criticizes the endless moaning that seems to be the hallmark of these dark times.

"Old people are always saying that the past was better," he notes. Yet Haneke himself is in an excellent mood. Despite his 70 years and white beard, his posture and his gait remain attractively youthful, and nobody should imagine him as a wise, strict Lutheran pastor type.

Haneke would not discuss his new project. "Best not to talk about the eggs before they've been laid. Allow yourself to be surprised!" he says, using a German expression. But he offered plenty of other things to be surprised about. For instance, the revelation that he detests violence and its representation on film as a consumer product. He does not like the films of Quentin Tarantino. He also has no plans to go watch Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. He has no desire to see people get tortured.

Yet these days, many people are avoiding his own film, Amour, to prevent feeling devastated by a realistic story about human degradation as a result of illness that hits too close to home.

Haneke is pissed about that. "I have a reputation as a fearsome director. But I make realistic movies about serious issues. We are very used to watching lies that claim that everything is going to be all right. I am not a brutal man. People go watch violent films, but there is a contract that tells the audience that this is not reality. That is why American movies are so successful. The time people spend watching them will be intense, but afterwards everything will be fine, or else they will not be affected by it. I make movies that affect the audience. Otherwise it seems like a waste of time to me."

In fact, it would seem like a downright sin to him. Right now he is putting in eight hours a day with the singers at Teatro Real. The performance is being readied in complete secrecy. He does not allow any outsider to witness the rehearsals, no matter how important that person may be. Outside his own team, his only trusted aide (as it was for his Paris premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni in 2006) is Teatro Real director Gérard Mortier. Mortier was the only person able to convince Haneke to put his camera down for a while to direct another opera, even though he has had dozens of offers since his Don Giovanni production.

"He appreciates what we do and he understands it. He is a good partner," says Haneke, who would nevertheless not describe himself as "happy" about the production just yet. "A stage director's duty is to never be happy, that way he can see the defects."

A moment from 'Così fan tutte' with stage production by Michael Haneke.
A moment from 'Così fan tutte' with stage production by Michael Haneke.

Things are going well, he concedes, even as he tries to be less incredibly demanding with the singers than he is with his actors. But no matter. It would not be the first time that he changes a lead singer just 10 days before the premiere. The kind of effort he puts into one of these productions is as great as for any of his movies, he says. So unless there is a sudden change of plan or he somehow becomes immortal, Haneke's second opera will also be his last. "It is not my profession. If I live to be 100 like [still working Portuguese filmmaker] Manoel de Oliveira, maybe I'll change my mind."

What we do know about Così fan tutte is that events take place in an 18th-century palace during a night of revelry that lasts well into the morning. The party is set in our times, and reflects all the same comedies of error and fiancée swapping that Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote into his libretto. Overwhelmed by their mutual lack of commitment and faithfulness, the couples in the story stand on the brink of the abyss of mutual psychological destruction. In this version of events, Don Alfonso and Despina are a couple whose relationship is eroded by constant tension. Mozart's own melancholy sadness at the time that he wrote the opera permeates the entire work (his wife was having an affair with a student).

"These are stories that everyone can understand. It is a bourgeois setting, nearly pedestrian. That was Mozart's wish, to get away from a static mode and find something more accessible to the audience. Da Ponte understood him quite well," Haneke says.

The story could almost be viewed as the reverse of the radical commitment deployed by the main characters in Amour (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). "What is love?" asks Haneke. "We could subsume so many things in that one word. It is too broad for interpretation. I once had a philosophy teacher who used to say: 'If you want to destroy someone, let them make definitions.'"

But didn't he once define his own films as a "civil war?"

Sometimes violence is consumed with a certain degree of pleasure; I find that disturbing"

"Yes. It is a war between one person's selfishness and another's. But most dramatic authors could tell you the same thing. Drama feeds on that daily civil war. It's me against my friend, my boss, my girlfriend... Political civil war also feeds on those small wars."

Despite the air of comedy about it, Così fan tutte is another full-fledged civil conflict; a dangerous hallway between the limits of love and desire. The story is extendable to our own era, reflecting the impossibility of remaining faithful to something or someone and not fall prey to the dispersal offered by an overcommunicated world, to the fragmentation of relationships and the reach of the internet.

"It's true there is a lack of focus. In fact, there is a new word in German that means 'partner for one stretch of life' [lebensabschnittspartner ]. It's madness," he says, laughing his head off. "In any case, I don't think that this generation is less well endowed than others. In order to go deeper into things, one needs an education. Someone has to teach you how to look at things, and these days, nobody shows us how to read the images we see on television. And that's as important as literacy skills. It's a disgrace in all countries. They don't realize how important it is, to be able to distinguish between reality and fiction. The only thing I believe about the newscast is the weather report, because I can check it out the next day. There is a lot of illiteracy on this issue."

Interestingly, The Marriage of Figaro, the missing leg of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy on Haneke's resume, is actually his favorite. But he is not planning to stage it any time soon.

"I wouldn't dare. It leaves no room for interpretation. The setting is so perfect that all you can do is follow the original, and I'm not interested in that. It is also the only one out of the three that needs to be kept in its own time. If you move it to our times, it doesn't work. I don't see a way into it. In fact, I already overestimated the possibilities of Così," he jokes.

And here's another surprising revelation: Haneke typically never likes any stage production of any opera whatsoever. It would be hard to find him at an opera house or a concert hall. "It sounds arrogant, but I would rather listen to the music at home or buy myself a good DVD than go to the opera and not believe a thing I'm seeing. I have seen some formidable things, but splendid moments in life are rare. The same goes for film and theater. I worked in theater for 20 years, yet I practically never go see anything. I'm a bit scared. Concerts are another story, though. I have very little time and I don't like the whole production around it, but every year I go see the Saint Matthew Passion. " Bach, just like Mozart and Schubert, are his three staple composers. Though the first two are untouchable, the third could be a matter for debate. "Not for an Austrian," he asserts conclusively.

Brutality -- either explicitly like in Funny Games, or latently like in The White Ribbon or Hidden -- permeates his entire work, which could be described as a documentary investigation into selfishness, pain, guilt and evil, and in the end, into the impossibility of normal people to be able to defend themselves from it, as the family in Funny Games finds out.

"Of course evil exists. You can look at it from the Catholic viewpoint, but also without any ideology. Every human being knows when they are being evil. But every violent action is the result of a wound. Nobody wants to hurt anybody just for their own sake. Only children, when they fight over selfish things. Look, in order to exist in a community, rules are necessary. And a human being's basic duty is to reduce his or her selfishness in order to exist in that community. You don't need to be very intelligent to understand it. Laws are necessary because they place limits on our selfishness, although that doesn't mean that the laws we have help to preserve good and eliminate evil. Lawyers are masters at changing all that. Evil is what takes away from someone else the possibility of living like me. That is the frontier; that is evil. Voilà! It doesn't matter in which religion or in which kind of state it takes place."

My problem with 'Funny Games' was the same as Kubrick's after 'A Clockwork Orange'"

At age 14, perhaps already concerned about the limits of morality, Haneke decided he wanted to be a pastor. We do not know when he ruled out the idea. He also embraced the piano as an initial artistic drive, and took some first steps as a composer, until his stepfather, an orchestra conductor, "fortunately" talked him out of it. But music has never left him. What nobody knows is whether he stopped believing in God somewhere along the way.

"I do not talk about my sexual or religious habits. That is too personal. I refuse to talk about myself because I have always tried to eliminate any possible instructions on how to read my work. It's the same with this opera. If I give out clues, I am robbing the audience of the possibility of coming up with their own interpretation. I systematically reject questions that can serve to explain what I do. And religion, of course, would serve that purpose. You have to watch the performance and confront yourself with it, not with its creator. That would be idiotic. When I read a book or watch a movie I don't want to know anything about the author. That way I can remain independent."

We do know that Haneke's three favorite movies are Au hasard Balthazar and Lancelot du Lac, by his admired Robert Bresson (from whom he borrowed a Spartan visual style and a strict use of diegetic sound only) and Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first two he has seen dozens of times. The third just once. It was the first and only interpretation of evil and violence where he did not appreciate a crude pornographic manipulation. It was too much for him. He still has the unopened DVD at home.

"It is the movie that left the greatest impression on me. It was fundamental to the making of Funny Games. It is the only film that managed to convey to audiences the real impression of violence without turning it into a consumer product. And that is very difficult. Sometimes violence is consumed with a certain degree of pleasure, and I find that disgusting. I don't really like Tarantino's movies very much; he's very good at what he does, I'm not talking about the quality of his movies. It's his cynicism with regard to audiences. I find it inhuman."

After 20 years making theater, television, radio programs and several movies, Haneke became a household name in 1997 precisely through Funny Games, a litany of torture and humiliation that two sadistic teenagers impose on a middle-class family. The film was meant as a denunciation of the way violence has been trivialized, especially by Hollywood (for whom he later directed a scene-by-scene remake, which tanked at the box office). Many people walked out of the movie theater. But for many others, it became a cult film that had the opposite effect to the one Haneke intended. Along the way, it also became a burden for him. "It's the same problem Kubrick had with A Clockwork Orange. He was very shocked to find that audiences loved that film. There are people out there who are a bit perverse. The movie was made to shock and take away the pleasure of consuming violence. But in some people it had the opposite effect. In the end, the alternative is not to talk about violence."

But these days violence takes on other shapes, and in these destructive times for the middle class, Haneke shows no compassion for the wounds of the bourgeois way of life. It is a pattern that he himself is openly nurturing.

"The internet has slowly destroyed all those companies [Virgin Megastore, FNAC...]. In music and in film, intellectual property rights are a vague thing. If everything gets stolen, people will stop producing. Whether that has an influence on the bourgeois way of life is less interesting to me." But that is hard to believe.

Così fan tutte will run until March 17 at Madrid's Teatro Real.

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