Debates concerning filmmakers’ “intent” are a pastime that voyeurs both professionally and recreationally critical will, as long as films keep being made, continue to engage in. Like it or not, auteurism is here to stay, and while close reading a filmmaker’s body of work doesn’t fly in all circumstances, the exercise has its benefits. To understand great directors’ many contradictions, themes and patterns of meaning are better isolated and come to terms with than simply written off in general terms as “style” or “truth-seeking.” Right?
Enter Michael Haneke. Haneke is here to tell you that your analyses aren’t really all that. In fact, according to the radical Austrian writer-director, your interests in any specific aspects of his films are not only misguided, they’re flat out wrong. In Yves Montmayeur’s Michael H. Profession: Director, we observe Haneke take one question from a film journalist – he asked why The White Ribbon is the first film of Haneke’s to deal with a specific historical period – before hijacking the interview entirely, with protests of “No! Wrong!” To insert his own thoughts about the film’s “intent” into a public debate on the nature of his work, he explains, goes against his own set of ethics.
As Montmayeur’s treasure trove of candid access to Haneke and his work on the set of his productions will show, Haneke’s refusal to “analyze himself” doesn’t come out of laziness. Haneke is a master of provocateur cinema, and understands that his guardedness will provoke the people intent on uncovering his motives as much as the many frenzied and violent sequences in his canon serve to provoke audiences. However, much like Haneke’s own morally outraged critique of excessive violence-as-superficial-entertainment Funny Games, Michael H. Profession: Director is a test of endurance; for those familiar with or curious about the director’s work, Montmayeur’s film may well play out mostly as a documentary without a point of view.
More a piece of propaganda than a thorough engagement with Haneke’s films as texts, Michael H. Profession: Director feels like the kind of lionizing Haneke himself would detest, if not for its potential to expose future generations to his own brand of realism. Constantly repeated throughout the film by Haneke and his collaborators is the mantra that his sole duty is to “find the truth,” and while his films certainly don’t back down from that mission, Montmayeur’s documentary seems all too content to allow Haneke and his casts and crews to make these points without pressing them further, to get to the heart of their process. Granted, Haneke is intensely cautious when speaking about his work, but really – if the man has granted you this kind of access to his sets and his private life, aren’t you obligated to try? From a subject’s resistance to questioning comes friction, and, in turn, vitality. Why shy away from that?
Montmayeur’s access is something to behold, and the frequency with which we get to observe Haneke at work, particularly when playfully directing his actors, is a joy. One moment, in which Haneke explains a brief exchange with a Hollywood producer soliciting him to direct an American film, elicits big laughs. Inside his filmmaking classes with his students, we’re offered glimpses of Haneke the teacher, and Haneke the learner, and grower. Briefly, we get minor revelations about Haneke’s drive to project his unshakable fear of suffering onto the stories his films tell. We see happy warrior Haneke (laughing giddily as he shoots some of the The White Ribbon’s most daunting scenes), and testy Haneke (irate with Jean-Yves Chatelais [Shop Owner in Code Unknown], whose behavior during takes was deemed “not credible”). It’s probably safe to say you won’t find this footage anywhere else.
But such footage’s exceptional rarity doesn’t necessarily render it incisive, and while Montmayeur’s intention – that is, to break down the wall between spectator and director Haneke so willfully puts up – is admirable, his appeasement of Haneke’s demeanor deems him largely unfit for the task. All too often, Michael H. Profession: Director’s finest moments are instantly undercut by interviews with Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche and others, all of whom do little more than offer their adoration and endorsement of the cult of Haneke. For newcomers to this enigmatic master’s body of work, this doc may be sufficient. But for lovers of extreme and existential cinema already well versed in his bleak universe, this feels like Haneke 101.
– By Max Weinstein