Michael Haneke interview

Time Out talks to the director about his cinematic masterpiece, 'Amour'

In the past he's shocked film lovers with arthouse scenes of torture and violence. Now Michael Haneke is shocking audiences in a totally new way. His latest film, 'Amour', is a story of ageing, love and death. Just don't go thinking that the director has mellowed. Dave Calhoun meets a tricky customer

Michael Haneke dissects life and report on the findings with the precision of a coroner. With films such as 'The White Ribbon' (2009) and 'Code Unknown' (2000), the Austrian writer-director asks tough questions about human nature and gives us uncomfortable answers, all the while teasing and prodding, ensuring that we engage at the highest level.

The 70-year-old looks the part of stern auteur. His neat flop of white hair, parted in the middle, blends into a tidy white beard, and behind his modest spectacles lie inquiring, mildly suspicious eyes. He always wears black. And when you ask him a question, he often assumes the worst ('Nein…') before admitting that maybe, just perhaps, it wasn't such a stupid question after all.

Characters have a hard time in Haneke films. In his first, 'The Seventh Continent' (1989), an unhappy Austrian family ritually commits suicide. In 'Funny Games' (1997), two strangers terrorise a couple and their child at a lakeside holiday home. In 'Hidden' (2005), a TV intellectual receives threatening videos through the front door.

In 'Amour', the aggressor is time. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a couple in their eighties. When Anne falls ill, Georges has to draw on all his reserves of compassion and energy to care for her as she slowly but unavoidably deteriorates. It's sometimes a hard film to bear, but it's also full of love and the endless possibilities of companionship and kindness.

I met Haneke at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, just days before a jury led by the Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti awarded him his second Palme d'Or in three years – he won the same prize in 2009 for 'The White Ribbon'.

'Amour' is a portrait of isolation, of two older people whose flat is becoming a fortress to the outside world. How important was it to set the film almost entirely within one apartment?

'First of all, it's the case that with old people, especially when they're sick, the world shrinks to the four walls they live within. They shut out the world: it's a challenge they can't cope with.

'Also, I wanted to avoid making my film a "social drama". There have been enough films that present these themes as a social drama, that deal with context and environment, with hospitals, ambulances and doctors. That's not what I was trying to do. I didn't want to make a social drama, but an existential drama that deals with the question: "How do I cope with the suffering of a loved one?".'

You show us threats from the outside world. There's an attempted burglary and Georges dreams of being attacked. Why include these dangers?

'It's a fact that people who are in a weakened position, whether physically or mentally, have this perception of the outer world as threatening. Everything that is unexpected or unknown is seen as a potential danger.'

Georges and Annes can afford nursing care and all the help they need. Why did you choose to make them comfortably off?

'It would have been possible to set the film in a social milieu where the people were poor, where they couldn't afford to keep Anne at home and would have had to send her to hospital. However, the audience would have concluded: if only they had more money; if only they could afford to keep her at home and have private nursing, it would have been easier for them. Which, of course, is totally false.'

You give us a man coping with his wife's illness. Why that way around – rather than the man being ill? Was it the easiest situation for you as a writer to imagine?

'Yes, I could have done a version the other way round. But in this case, I always wanted to work with Jean-Louis Trintignant, and in fact I wrote the script for him, and that determined how the story would go.

'You're right, it could have been done differently. The film in part was inspired by an experience in my own in my family, where it was the other way around. In general it is more frequently the other way around, because women live longer than men.'

When did you take the idea of Georges to Jean-Louis Trintignant?

'I met him for the first time before I wrote the script. He'd seen my previous film, "The White Ribbon", and liked it. I approached him and wanted to know if he was willing to work with me. And then I wrote the script for him.'

'Amour' is in French, and although you're Austrian, you've worked in France many times. Is that an artistic decision?

'In this case, I made the choice because I love the actors – I love French actors, but I also love German-speaking actors as well! It was because of Jean-Louis Trintignant. I don't know of any German actors who could have played the part as well as him, so it was clear from the start it was going to be with him and shot in French. "The White Ribbon" had to be in German because of the subject matter, that was clear. But in the case of "Amour", it could have taken place in any country.'

You draw two exceptional performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. It's Trintignant's first film in years.

'Yes, his last film was 14 years ago. In the case of Emmanuelle Riva, I was captivated – along with so many men – by her performance in Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" [1959]. After that film I'd lost sight of her.'

You don't shy away from showing the indignities of ageing, but it's not the only theme. Were you careful not to make the realities of illness the only subject?

'It would have been easy to exploit the sentimentality of the audience by showing certain things, by insisting on suffering. That would have ruined the film. It's important to be able to deal with the film while respecting the dignity of the characters you're showing.'

Your last film, 'The White Ribbon' had a big cast. Was is satisfying working intensely with just two lead actors on 'Amour'?

'My impression is that I worked deeply with the actors on "The White Ribbon" too! But, yes, when you're working with good actors, it's true that a smaller film is more enjoyable, because on a large film, there's so much going on, there are so many possibilities of things going wrong. With a smaller film, there's a different danger. If you make a mistake in casting, it's impossible to hide. Here, I had the luck of having the perfect actors for the parts.'

Georges and Anne's flat is a character itself. It tells us about their age and their background. It's part of them. What were you trying to achieve with this apartment in the design and lighting?

'When I was writing the script, I had in mind my parents' apartment in Vienna. The layout is identical. It's the flat I grew up in, and when I'm writing, I find it helpful to deal with a concrete location: it helps me to imagine how the characters are going to move, for example, between the kitchen and the bedroom, and what they'll do on the way. Obviously, I had to transpose the apartment from Vienna to France, and use French furniture and taste. I think you're right, the flat says a lot about what these people's lives have been.

And with the lighting?

'In terms of lighting, I was looking for realistic light. This film takes place, more or less, over the period of a year, and it's difficult to express that indirectly. You see it in Jean-Louis's clothes. You see it in the light, whether it's warmer or colder. That was difficult to achieve: we were shooting in a studio, so the view out of the windows was shot separately and added digitally. That required a lot of work in post-production. But we were seeking to make it as realistic as possible.'

This is a sad film in many ways. But it also contains reassuring ideas about love. You give us a very loving couple. You suggest that true love is more about our actions than feelings – that true love is, in a very real sense, intensely practical.

'Yes, of course. What we're doing for another person is more important than what we're feeling for them.'

'Amour' opens on Fri Nov 16.

More Michael Haneke films