LOLs with Haneke: I confess to the director about creating his cat-lover Twitter parody

Oscar-winner Michael Haneke can be as tough to interview as his films can be to watch. So what happened when our writer admitted to being the creator of a parody Twitter account that turned him into a tween-talking cat-lover?

‘Audiences today are being force-fed’ … Michael Haneke, director of new Calais refugee satire Happy End.
‘Congratulations!’ … Michael Haneke, director of new Calais refugee satire Happy End. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
‘Congratulations!’ … Michael Haneke, director of new Calais refugee satire Happy End. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Benjamin Lee

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 16.06 EST

There are a number of reasons to be nervous about interviewing Michael Haneke. The 75-year-old Oscar-winner has carved out a career filled with severity, from the cold-blooded torture of Funny Games to the sadomasochistic psychology of The Piano Teacher, to the bleak account of fascism in The White Ribbon. The Austrian’s off-screen persona has often been similarly austere: he’s painted as evasive, difficult and uncooperative.

But there was an added reason for my trepidation. In 2012, I launched a parody Twitter account in Haneke’s name. It was an extended joke that reimagined the director as a tween-talking, cat-loving, remarkably petty figure, who spent his time insulting Terrence Malick and bragging about his two Palmes d’Or. He ended every tweet with “lol.” It attracted tens of thousands of followers and Haneke was even interviewed about it. “I tried to read some of the posts, but my English isn’t good enough,” he said. “I’m really not interested in what he’s writing, but I’m fascinated by the fact that 25,000 people have subscribed to this feed of nonsense!”

So it is something of a surprise that, as we meet in Toronto during the recent film festival, he’s friendly and in good spirits, beaming even – and unaware of my alter ego. He compliments my watch, is bowled over by the quality of his Starbucks (“very interesting!”) and has a devilish laugh.

the cast of Happy End, from left, Fantine Harduin, Jean-Louis Tringtignant, Isabelle Huppert, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones, and Mathieu Kassovitz.
Staggeringly cruel … the cast of Happy End, from left, Fantine Harduin, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones and Mathieu Kassovitz. Photograph: Allstar/Artificial Eye

While Haneke’s 2012 drama Amour, a devastating chamber piece about an elderly couple dealing with mortality, showcased a previously unseen compassion, his follow-up offers up arguably his most hopeless worldview yet. Happy End is a staggeringly cruel film focusing on a bourgeois Calais family who seem entirely unconcerned by the refugee crisis on their doorstep. The film revisits many of the director’s favourite themes: inequality, repression, shame – a fact that landed him some of the most negative reviews of his career after it premiered at Cannes. He doesn’t seem too put out, though.

“It’s always the same mind, the same film-maker who’s making these films,” he says, through a translator. “So it’s normal these things should be repeated. It is a reproach that’s been made of all the great film-makers. Bergman, Cassavetes, Kubrick – all have been accused of dealing with similar themes again and again. As an author, you have to deal with the horizon you know, otherwise you only produce cliches.”

The film was shot last year in Calais with the migration crisis integrated into the plot. That is not its primary focus, but Haneke does use it to reflect on the apathy of the well-off. “As long as I can remember,” he says, “I’ve seen this lack of compassion towards suffering and misery that we in the west are partially responsible for, due to colonisation. It’s a form of autism. I don’t exclude myself from this.”

Happy End is almost farcical in its avoidance of convention. Scenes frequently end without any resolution, warmth is hinted at but never arrives. “If you take film seriously as an art form,” explains Haneke, “you can’t be satisfied with the cliches that are served up by mainstream cinema. These allow yourself an easier way out. You mentioned the word spoon-fed. I use the term force-feeding. The audience are simply given things. Their role is to accept it, to open their mouths and let it in.”

Does he watch any mainstream Hollywood films? “No!” he laughs, then relents – and reveals that the Academy gives him films to watch. He allows each one 10 minutes. “There are directors, colleagues of mine, who I admire, whose work I’m going to follow. But the only time that I look at mainstream films a lot is when I’m casting and looking for actors.”

We touch upon his style briefly: the Haneke-esque chill that seems to have inspired a generation of independent film-makers. In October, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody lamented “the unfortunate influence of Michael Haneke” on the similarly frigid new films by Ruben Östlund and Yorgos Lanthimos that “offer a constipated realism that rubs others in their filth while keeping their own hands rigorously pristine”.

Haneke rejects the idea. He believes the films look so different to each other that a common style simply doesn’t exist. He says he finds Lanthimos – whose The Killing of a Sacred Deer plays like horror-heavy Haneke – “an unusually talented director”.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth in Haneke’s 1997 film Funny Games.
‘I love actors – that’s why they like working with me’ … Naomi Watts and Tim Roth in Haneke’s 2007 film Funny Games. Photograph: Wega Film

Haneke can be a difficult director for some actors to work with. Naomi Watts says she “struggled” during the shoot of the Funny Games remake. But frequent collaborations with Juliette Binoche, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert (the last two both star in Happy End) suggest a happier experience. “If there’s conflict,” he says, “it’s more likely to be with crew members who – because they haven’t prepared properly, out of stupidity or laziness – impede the work, keep me from attaining the results I want. But I love actors and I think that’s why they like working with me so much.”

Is his fascination with the dark side of humanity the result of any traumatic experiences in his own life? Far from it – and he applies the phrase “cheap psychologising” to any attempt to make such a link. “Not only did I have a happy childhood, but I’m a happy person. If you look around us, the world isn’t such a funny place, and all of us are capable of everything – the most horrific acts as well as acts of extraordinary beauty. It’s my responsibility to present this contradiction.”

I’m given the “wrap it up” gesture by the publicist, and I’m aware that the friendly mood might be ruined by my confession that I was behind the Twitter parody. (I did, after all, get Haneke blocked by Faye Dunaway after “he” tweeted that she had broken his toilet.) But I decide to blurt out that it was me, describing it as an affectionate homage. The translator’s jaw drops. He explains to Haneke, who bursts out laughing. “It’s true?” he asks. “Congratulations! I laughed a lot about it. I found it very clever.”

His translator insists on a photograph to capture this “historic” moment, and we’re suddenly posing, fake and real Haneke together. It’s not quite the reaction I expected, but it’s an uncharacteristically satisfying finale for a director so reluctant to provide a happy ending.

  • Happy End is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 1 December and in the US on 22 December.

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