Michael Haneke fits the reputation that the international film community has assigned him—a stern taskmaster who uses well-deployed shock value to deliver intensely focused lessons that demand much of his audience. Caché (Hidden) is the latest of the Austrian filmmaker’s provocations: a meticulously constructed puzzle of past sins and future unease, wherein an upper-middle-class couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) find themselves under surveillance by a mysterious other—or others.
Without giving too much away, the occurrence exposes long-buried secrets, including ties to the 1961 massacre of Algerian protesters by the French police. Even in past films like the S&M psychodrama The Piano Teacher and the SUV apocalypse Time of the Wolf, Haneke has brought a glacial sense of purpose to the proceedings. With Caché, for which he won Best Director honors last year at Cannes, the viewer gets the full impact of what Haneke calls “the intersection of personal and collective guilt.” He spoke to the Scene last fall at the New York Film Festival, with the assistance of his translator, Robert Grey.
Your films have always had a fascination with video and the reliability of the visual record. Is this a reaction to the culture of surveillance that much of the world lives in?
Not so much because of surveillance specifically, but rather the role that video and media play in our lives. We take in information almost entirely through the media, and this is something that I try to reflect in my films. I like to use my films to nourish mistrust in the way we take in reality, the way we see it in the cinema. What we really know, we experience personally, either physically or mentally, and that has been true since the beginning of humanity. With the rise of the media, we have the rise of the impression and the illusion that lets us think we know more than we really do; that is a very dangerous illusion, because it leaves us open to manipulation. If film truly aspires to be an art form, then its role is to reflect that danger.
This is in keeping with the way the viewer is brought into (Auteuil’s character) Georges’ past, as his confusion and curiosity expose the secrets both in his own history and in France’s. What made you decide to use the Algerian massacre in this way?
I wanted to present the reality of what happened in Paris in October of 1961, because I had seen a documentary about it and was very shaken up by it. I was stunned that in a country like France, with a free press, such an event could have been swept under the carpet and kept secret for 40 years. So the starting point of this film was a character coming to terms with an act committed when he was a young child, and the time frame corresponded with the Algerian war.
And yet, because the film is grounded in the mystery of Georges’ situation, it remains accessible even to audiences unfamiliar with that aspect of French history.
I hope that the film will not be seen as specifically dealing with French problems. I think that every nation has its stains and dark corners.
You’ve cited the French director Robert Bresson as one of your preeminent cinematic influences, which is readily apparent in the way you depict human nature—rather pitilessly. How else has Bresson’s work affected on your own?
What I take from Bresson is the force that comes from purifying things, reducing them to the simplest elements. The contemporary master of that is [Iranian director] Abbas Kiarostami, who has attained a level of art and craftsmanship about which the rest of us can only dream.
Is there a specific reason why so many of your films deal with interfamily relationships?
I always hope to increase the level of identification between the audience and what they see on the screen, so I choose the bourgeois nuclear family—first of all because that is what I am most familiar with, but also because I think the audience can best identify with that group and with the problems that they face.
How do you feel about the widespread speculation about the film’s motives and its ending?
In all of my films, I try to leave the endings open—I try to leave as much room for the audience as possible. I am aware of the frustration this causes, but I am trying to involve the audience in my films, to create a dramaturgy that forces them to wrestle with the themes in their own heads. I have heard, regarding the end of this film, five different interpretations, and I think it wonderful—it shows that the method works and that the audience really does become involved. But I do not want to provide answers to the questions in my films. Any film that answers the questions that it raises, people will forget immediately; it gets consumed and forgotten. Literature always does that—literature always works with an open structure, leaving the reader to create images for him- or herself. Cinema steals those images from the viewer. What I try to do with my films is to restore that kind of freedom.