"You shouldn’t ever ask a shoemaker to make hats,” says Michael Haneke. It’s the only piece of sartorial advice we glean from the Austrian filmmaker, and an honest assessment of his style. He’ll never make a broad comedy. His films are beautifully crafted and often shocking studies of the human condition that leave nails bitten and guts wrenched.
In short, Haneke wins Palmes d’Ors, not Teen Choice Awards. In fact, he’s won two Palmes d’Ors (nobody has won more), a remarkable feat when you consider the first was for German-language epic The White Ribbon and the second for his latest film Amour, which is in French. The latter is a masterclass in cinema, tracking an elderly Parisian couple’s struggles following the wife’s stroke, and it’s why we’re talking to him.
What made you choose this subject for the film?
Like most of us, I have an experience in my own family with someone who suffered and I was confronted with that, but my personal story doesn’t have anything specifically to do with the film.
Is there a case being made for euthanasia?
No, as [Fifties director] Samuel Fuller said, “If I’ve got a message, I’ll put it in a post box.”
How do you avoid over-sentimentality?
I’m against sentimentality – it’s as simple as that. There are obviously two dangers when you approach this kind of thing – on the one hand is sentimentality and the other is miserablism. The key thing here was to avoid them, and whether it worked depends on how well I did my job.
Do you ever aim to shock people with your films?
Yes, happily with Funny Games. I have this label that’s been attached to me that I’m ‘the shocker’, but other than Funny Games, that’s not been a primary intention. Obviously there are things you can talk about that will shock people. Shock is not necessarily [important], but surprise certainly is. What matters, of course, is what kind of surprise it is.
What kind of atmosphere do you like to keep on your film sets? Does the atmosphere fit the mood of the film or do you try to make it lighter?
Oh God, well, my films are obviously not particularly hilarious. But I do try to keep it a bit more fun at the shooting stage.
If someone hasn’t seen your films, which three would you suggest they watch?
No, no, I don’t want to do that. A good father loves all their children. Or rather, has to love them all [laughs].
Have you ever craved a more mainstream audience for your films?
Every director wants as many spectators as possible, but the question is how much are you willing to sacrifice for that? I won’t sacrifice something I think is right in order to get more spectators.
Have you ever been asked to take on a big Hollywood blockbuster?
I’ve been sent various scripts from the US, which have usually rather amused me more than anything else. When I won my first prize in Cannes, for example, I was sent a script by a US production company who said I would be ideal for it. I read it and discovered that it was about the aerial warfare between Japan and the US, so I sort of lost my trust in these people a bit at that point.
You were a critic before you made films. When you started to be the creator instead, were you worried?
I’m always worried, every morning, as to whether what I’m doing is going to work. I heard that [Swedish director] Ingmar Bergman only ever shot when he had a toilet nearby because he was so afraid.
But does your background in criticism make you more understanding of critics and their reviews?
I don’t have to be understanding towards them, they have to be understanding towards me [laughs].
You‘re associated with serious subjects and arthouse cinema. Are you a fan of any films that might surprise us?
Historically speaking, obviously there are many important mainstream films, the question is what counts as a mainstream film? What about [Sergio Leone’s] Once Upon A Time In The West, for example? Isn’t that a mainstream film?
So nothing like Police Academy or Rocky, then?
No, that’s not my kind of thing.
Amour is at cinemas nationwide from 16 November