Tag: Michael Haneke

Amour (2012)

Amour (2012)

A couple struggle with an unbearable burden in Haneke’s extraordinary and moving film

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges Laurent), Emmanuelle Riva (Anne Laurent), Isabelle Huppert (Eva Laurent), Alexandre Tharaud (Alexandre), Rita Blanco (Concierge), Carole Franck (Nurse), Dinara Droukarova (Nurse), William Shimell (Geoff)

Think of Haneke, and you tend to a picture a rather cold philosopher, starring at humanity through a microscope. Some of his best works are chilling explorations of man’s capacity for inhumanity and cruelty. But Haneke’s work is based on a brilliant understanding of what makes people tick, and that insight applies as much to love as it does to cruelty. Amour is Haneke’s searching exploration of what love can be like, and how it can make us behave, in the worst situation possible: one where we are helpless to ease the suffering of someone we love.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) an Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired piano teachers, married for almost forty years. The life is one of relaxing calm, enjoying the success of former pupils. All that changes when Anne has a silent stroke, the effects of which leave her paralysed on her left side. Georges resolves to care for her, dedicating himself to seeing to her every need, even as Anne’s body and mind (and desire to keep living) swiftly decline and a second stroke brings on even greater helplessness and dementia.

We know it won’t have a happy ending. It’s told in flashback, the film opening with the door to Georges and Anne’s apartment being broken down by the police, discovering Anne’s body laid out on the bed, surrounded by flowers. We know from the moment of Anne’s first stroke, where this story is heading. And none of it should be a surprise. Haneke based the story on an experience in his own family, where he was left helplessly watching a person he loved suffer, powerless to do anything other than offer brief comforts. Amour asks if there can be anything harder for to bear than being unable to help (or even, in the end, really communicate) with someone we love?

Georges devotion to Anne is clear. He obeys to the letter one of her first wishes when returning from the hospital: she does not wish to leave her home. So, they stay in their apartment (the film leaves this apartment only once, in our introduction to the leads) and Georges cuts up her food, helps her in and out of bed, fetches and carries and helps her get dressed. Steadily Anne’s ability to do things independently declines; and after her second stroke evaporates entirely. She’s incontinent (reliant on a nappy), delirious and incapable of coherent speech, unable to leave the bed and getting her to eat her mashed-up food and water is a daily struggle. Slowly, any trace of the real Anne only exists in Georges memories, which he clings to tightly.

In some ways, this is a horror film: the horror of powerlessness as someone literally wilts away in front of us, a new part of their personality disappearing every day. It frequently plays out in an austere silence – tellingly for two people whose whole life has been music, there is precious little of it in the film. The Anne at the film’s end – frightened, childlike, tempestuous and able to utter only a few words (like “Hurts”) over and over again in an incoherent refrain – bares no resemblance to the intelligent, witty and engaging woman at the film’s start. In every line of Trintignant’s face there is the weary, numbed pain of a man unable to do anything other than gently try to apply the brakes.

But it’s love that keeps him refusing to give-up, and the film is an exploration of the never-ending lengths we will go to for those who mean the most to us. Georges entire life becomes Anne – by the end there is a barely a waking hour that isn’t consumed with her needs. From the start, even the smallest tasks are challenging for Anne: we see her struggle to put on her glasses and turn the pages of a heavy book one-handed in bed. This only gets worse – and the loss of dignity a person feels as they become incapable of controlling any part of their body, including their bladder, is presented by Haneke with a horrific matter-of-factness.

But, what I think is particularly interesting about Amour– and I think Haneke’s stroke of genius – is the flip side of love. Because it also makes us selfish: and you can argue it makes both Anne and Georges selfish. Georges, in particular, begins to horde Anne, as if he was so desperate to keep some vestige of his life with her alive, that he wants to keep her all to himself. He consistently turns down offers of help. He reacts with anger to their daughter Eva (a sensitive Isabella Huppert), telling her that he and Anne should be left to their own privacy. He takes a perverse pride of taking on an impossible burden and refuses to consider any suggestions to reduce his burden (with only great reluctance does he hire a day nurse). Love has made him greedy, to keep Anne to himself.

Part of this comes from his desire to preserve Anne’s dignity: he even locks Anne’s bedroom during one of Eva’s visits as he feels Anne wouldn’t want her daughter to see her like this. Georges dismisses one nurse as he feels she is mistreating Anne. This is fascinating scene: we see no evidence of this – all we see is the nurse showering Anne like a child and later combing her hair and showing Anne her reflection (and she’s furious at Georges accusation). The film suggests, perhaps what Georges can’t bear is the nurse’s infantilising of Anne in her dementia. It can’t be squared with his own desperate attempt to keep some of his memory of her unaffected by what she has become.

Anne knows early where this is going. When Georges returns early from a funeral, he finds her sitting outside an open window. Nothing is said in the following conversation, but it’s clear that Anne was in the midst of attempting suicide. Later she talks bitterly about the point of carrying on. In her later dementia state, she frequently refuses food and water as if determined to try and bring her own life to an end. It’s a cry Georges isn’t interested in hearing: he bolts it away in his mind and battles to the end to try and preserve what life she is, even once striking her with frustration after she spits out her food once again.

Amour can be seen as a pro-Euthanasia film. But I think it’s more complex than that. It’s about love, and how it can drive us to undertake super-human efforts for another person that are also, in a way, about ourselves. That’s what Georges does: a burden that damages his own health and well-being, which he takes on because he will not let go and whatever small parts of Anne are left, he doesn’t want to share with anyone else (not even their daughter). When he takes his fateful decision – and one we’ve been expecting from the film’s first frame – it’s as horrifying as anything Haneke has filmed, both on Georges’ despair and Anne’s instinctive terror.

Amour is blessed with two stunning performances. Emmanuelle Riva won a BAFTA and an Oscar-nomination for her superb performance, a technical masterclass combined with huge emotional depth as Anne moves through fear, anger, self-loathing and finally into a deep, dark well where her understanding of what is happening to her slowly fades away in a babble of incoherent words. Jean-Louis Trintignant, lured out of semi-retirement, is sensational: a shambling, devoted, cantankerous, heart-broken, stubborn man dealing with a profound, never-ending grief and loss.

Haneke films it with a stately calmness and leaves a myriad of possible interpretations open to the viewer. But above all, he invests the film with a humanity, warmth and compassion that will speak to anyone who has had a loved one succumb to the infirmity and fear of old age. Amour is deeply moving, profoundly insightful and achingly beautiful.

The White Ribbon (2009)

The kids are not all right in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Christian Friedel (Teacher), Ernst Jacobi (Narrator), Burghart Klaußner (Pastor), Steffi Kühnert (Pastor’s wife), Rainer Bock (Doctor), Susanne Lothar (Midwife), Roane Duran (Anna), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Ulrich Tukur (Baron), Ursina Lardi (Baroness), Maria-Victoria Dragus (Klara), Leonard Proxauf (Martin), Josef Bierbichler (Baron’s steward)

I think it’s fair to say Michael Haneke has a mixed view of humanity. His films look at the dark side of human nature, and the hypocrisies and cruelty underpinning much of our society. The White Ribbon explores these ideas further, a parable focusing on a small German village in the months before World War One, looking at how the life in one village perhaps helped lay the moral and societal groundwork for the younger generation to grow up and embrace Nazism.

In the fictional village of Eichwald, tradition is strong. The town, and its morals, are governed by traditional authority figures. However, each of these figures fails to live up to the values they – often brutally – enforce on the village and, most especially, its children. The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) is a distant autocrat, who talks of a duty of care but treats the villagers like property. The pastor (Burghart Klaußner) preaches morality and abstinence, but bullies his (many) children and condemns utterly even the slightest deviation from his own rules. The doctor (Rainer Bock) is a studious clinician, who humiliates and devalues his lover, the town’s midwife (Susanne Lothar), and sexually abuses his teenage daughter Anna (Roane Duran). In late 1913, a series of unexplained and increasingly violent events occur, from an attempt to cripple the doctor to arson, kidnap, theft and the beating of the midwife’s handicapped son. The perpetrators remain a mystery – one which the decent but ineffectual teacher (Christian Friedel) attempts to uncover – his older self (Ernst Jacobi) providing an, at times, naïve narration.

Haneke’s aim is to explore the conditions that led a generation to embrace a regime that promotes the unthinkable. While it’s clear that a future of Hitler and fascism – neither mentioned once in the film – hover over everything, this parable could serve for any totalitarian regime. Haneke is not interested in specifics. What fascinates the director is the creation of a mind-set that enables people to willingly align themselves with horrific actions. The brilliance of The White Ribbon is that could be as easily applied to Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge as it can to Nazism.

Shot in a beautiful black-and-white, the film presents a series of striking images, imbued with an immense psychological depth and haunting sense of dread. Haneke’s mastery of visual imagery is sublime, and he paces the film perfectly. While it is easy to claim the film is slow – and it does take its time – the deliberation of the pacing, and the precision of each shot, is all part of giving the film its thematic weight. It’s like a medieval passion play, with every moment giving depth to the whole.

The film’s focus is on the children – tellingly, only characters below the age of about 20 are named. It’s their faces the camera returns to time and again – and the film is set in a key moment of many of their lives, where disillusionment with adults begin. The age when they begin to realise their parents are far from perfect and even hypocritical. The film more than suggests that it is the children – working in some combination or alone – responsible for the crimes that take place in the village. Their motivations range from anger and resentment to despair and a longing for escape.

Many of these events centre around the pastor’s family. Played with a perfect emotional austerity by Burghart Klaußner, the pastor judges all around him as unworthy, with his children suffering the brunt of his discipline. It’s easy to see he is overly harsh, hypocritical (the sheer number of his children suggests he hasn’t worked hard to suppress his own sexual feelings) and unjust. His son is tied to his bed while he sleeps to prevent “impure touching” and his daughter is blamed, and publicly humiliated by him, for a school disturbance she is trying to stop. He’s a father who demands respect but cannot inspire love.

Almost worst of all, he requires his children to wear a white ribbon, to constantly remind them of moral standards they have failed to live up to. These acts of stigmatisation and bullying are not balanced with any outward affection – whatever he may actually feel, the pastor is far too restrained to show any warmth – and Haneke demonstrates his children are taking all the wrong lessons from him. The learn to be cold, distant and judgemental, and that strength is vital and weaknesses are not to be tolerated: they beat out individual thinking, and replace it with cold conformity. A basically good man – and the pastor clearly believes he is doing his best to protect his children – rears children who see others as inferior and different, and stigmatisation as an essential part of life.

The whole village lives in medieval thrall to the baron. You could be believe this village was hundreds of years in the past, not a single century. The villagers slave on the baron’s fields, meekly tugging their forelocks to him in church. The baron takes unilateral decisions affecting everyone’s lives. His own family life is cold – his wife doesn’t love him (and her sexual, not romantic, faithfulness is the only thing that matters to him), while his weak young son is the victim of at least two crimes. It’s a pattern of distant, selfish authorities who believe they work for the good of the community, while taking everything they can from it.

But then corruption is also endemic at the home. Rainer Bock gives a chilling performance as the local doctor, respected by the community for his dedication, who treats those closest to him with disdain at best, and abusive cruelty at worst. A controlling, cruel man, the doctor is the clearest example in the film of the hypocrisy of the older generation, demanding respect, decency and obedience from the younger, while treating them with selfish vileness.

Haneke’s film is a grim – and disturbing – study of this sort of everyday horror and it effect on the psyche. The dehumanisation of the young is clear, and the growing casual cruelty they begin to dish out to others becomes more and more striking. The film taps into a Wyndhamish fear of the young, the children moving in packs, their respectful words not matching their air of menace. This unsettling feeling only grows because, for many of the crimes, we are never given a firm answer to who carries them out (although we can guess). Saying that, at least three acts of violence and sabotage are explicitly shown, all of them carried out by the young – enough for the viewer to suspect the others can be tied to the same generation.

The film does pepper itself with touches of hope – enough to suggest not everyone is destined to succumb to malevolent forces. The schoolteacher – sweetly played by Christian Friedel – is well-meaning, if ineffectual, and his courtship of the baron’s dismissed nanny Eva (an endearing Leonie Benesch) has a charming bashfulness. (Although the fact the couple are brow-beaten into postponing their marriage by her domineering father reminds us of the dominance of the older generation). After the pastor’s pet bird is killed (by his daughter, who crucifies the creature on his desk), he is moved to tears when his youngest son offers him his own pet bird to make him feel better (although inevitably the offer only promotes a curt “thank you” from the Pastor while his son is in the room). The women of the older generation all show signs for reluctance or discontent with the behaviour of the patriarchs, although any protest is of course in vain.

It’s touches like this that prevent Haneke’s film from being a lecture. The village isn’t inherently bad, just terribly misguided. This all enforces the universality of the film. You’re kidding yourself if you think this could only happen in Germany. These generational clashes and the twisting of an entire generation could happen anywhere. The world is what we make it, and the white ribbons that help us remember our innocence can just as easily be used to categorise us as the worthy and the unworthy. Haneke’s film is a brilliant, profound and challenging piece of work that rewards thought, analysis and rewatching. Quite possibly his masterpiece.