Plus ça devient vieux, Plus ça devient bête
by Jaap Verheul
The European Bourgeoisie in Michael Hanekes Amour
Austrian-German filmmaker Michael Haneke is often considered the most “European” of directors. Born in Munich, raised and educated in Vienna, and working in both of those countries as well as France (and the United States), Haneke is the first filmmaker who consistently transcends the ever-present boundaries between European nation states. Amour, which won Haneke his second Palme d’Orat the Cannes Film Festival this year, is no exception. Set in Paris, spoken in French, and featuring three icons of the French screen (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert), Amour was co-produced by France, Germany, and Austria, and it will be the latter’s official contender for the 85th Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Yet the cultural identity of both Haneke and Amour should be seen as “European” rather than the sum of its Austrian, French, or German elements. As the cinematic chronicler of the European bourgeoisie and the cosmopolitan auteur par excellence, Haneke positions the film in relation to his Austrian, German, and French oeuvre to solidify his identity as the flag-bearer of the continent’s art cinema.
Amour centers on Anne and Georges, an elderly couple in their 80s, who indulge, in that particular Hanekian fashion, in the petty bourgeois life of the Parisian beau monde. Two retired music teachers, Anne and Georges are soul mates, whose shared devotion to classical music dominates their life and, in fact, their family, for their daughter Eva, who now resides in London, receives less attention and affection than one of their former pupils, the celebrated pianist Alexandre. Georges and Anne are independent spirits, but when Anne has a stroke, her physical deterioration and subsequent dependency pose an increasing challenge to both her mental strength and the formerly inextricable bond between the two lovers. In Haneke’s relentlessly confrontational and unsentimental style, Amour brilliantly encapsulates the perils of aging while it simultaneously offers a profound celebration of a love that only death is able to conquer.
Perhaps. For Georges and Anne are, much like the Georges et Anne or Anna und Georg of Haneke’s other French and German films, ultimately trapped in the suffocating normativity of the European bourgeoisie. Apart from the opening scene in the opera house, in which Georges and Anne are but one anonymous couple in a predominantly white and heterosexual mass of conformity, Amour takes place in the claustrophobic setting of Georges’s and Anne’s Parisian apartment, which is itself marked by that bourgeois air of feigned sophistication. Their living room is dominated by massive wooden ornaments, cabinets full of books, and a monumental piano positioned on a properly vacuumed carpet. Obviously, a television, that icon of vulgarity and bad taste, is nowhere to be found. In between their banal conversations, Georges and Anne spend their time listening to classical music, reading novels, and discussing, albeit with one eye and one ear only, the newspaper. Their privileged daughter Eva, on the other hand, is concerned with the interest rate on her savings account and the decreasing value of her real estate rather than with the wellbeing of her parents. Although not as cynical as most of Haneke’s work, in particular due to Riva’s and Trintignant’s empathetic and captivating lead performances, his representation of the European bourgeoisie is subtle yet unforgiving, and it establishes Amour as an archetypal Hanekian proclamation.
The economic and political relationship between the Austrian, French, and German film industry and the pan-European audiovisual market contributes in no small part to the fashionable “Europeanness” of Amour and its auteur, for Haneke cannot be identified as specifically German, Austrian, or French, or as belonging to a particular moment or movement in filmmaking. Amour signifies this transcontinental identity, which originated in Haneke’s TV films from the 1970s and ’80s. These were co-produced by Austrian and German television stations and, subsequently, articulate a bi-cultural specificity and thematic commonality related to both German and Austrian national contexts. Likewise, The Seventh Continent, Haneke’s breakthrough in the world of art cinema, depicts the bourgeois life of an alienated family in what one might perceive as a typically Austrian setting, were it not for the fact that the film was based on a notorious story about a family from Hamburg, and were it not for the fact that the film was initially planned for German television and financed by transnational production companies.
On a thematic level, Haneke’s earlier films analyze Austro-Germany’s multicultural and imperial history from a broader European perspective, and this supra-national approach refutes any notion of nationalism so characteristic of the European continent since the 18th century. Haneke’s films not only approve of a unified Europe, they also uphold it as a utopia that emanates from the successes and failures of European unification since the Second World War. In his 1997 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Castle, for example, a parochial community’s anxiety for the lack of transparency and accountability of a higher administration, which its citizens support nonetheless, resembles Austria’s concern about its relation to a centralized European authority. The Castle does not criticize the governmental superstructure but rather interrogates the villagers’ provincial fear of the other and the outside, which, on a social-political level, constitutes a critique of the surge in Austrian nationalism at the turn of the 21st century. Amour articulates a similar parochialism, as Georges and Anne spend most of their time reading and listening to classical music in their ravishing apartment, where they are completely disconnected from the realities of a multicultural and socially stratified Parisian society.
This fascination with the often nationalist parochialism of Europe’s petite bourgeoisie also defines Haneke’s infamous Glaciation Trilogy, comprised of The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, as well as his French oeuvre and, of course, his critically acclaimed The White Ribbon, which won him his first Palme d’Or in 2009. Most of these films address the dynamics by which guilt and denial are passed on from one generation to the next, and they reveal once more a European rather than a national attitude toward the process of historical amnesia within the private sphere of the family. Although guilt in Amour is enacted on a personal rather than social level, politics does enter the apartment through Le Monde, France’s popular evening newspaper, in a manner reminiscent of the ambient yet ever-present television screen in Caché. And similar to Haneke’s earlier work, Amour also criticizes the irrelevance of high culture, and literature and classical music in particular, through its representation of the alienating nature of this bourgeois facade of indifference and social segregation.
It is through his bourgeois protagonists that Haneke consistently interrogates the continent’s multicultural society, which has defined the European project since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Code Unknown, for example, both replicates and criticizes the hypotheses of the contemporary French and West European anti-immigrant rhetoric of insecurity, which presents immigration as a threat to national cohesion, national identity, and the security of a nation’s borders. In like manner, Caché represents this confrontation as an antagonism between the European bourgeois, which is increasingly traumatized by the loss of its (post-)colonial rights and privileges, and the immigrant and minority characters, who are perceived by these bourgeois protagonists as isolated and separated from their cultural habitat. In addition, Caché examines the Paris Massacre of October 1961, during which the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, ordered a deadly attack on peaceful demonstrators who supported Algeria’s independence from France. It is through the figure of Papon, who was not only responsible for the Paris Massacre but also collaborated with the German occupiers during the Second World War, that Caché connects the Paris Massacre of October 1961 to the Vichy regime’s sympathies for the Nazis and its role in the deportation of the Jews during the Occupation. In doing so, Haneke connects France’s war in Algeria to its participation in the Holocaust, and this preoccupation with guilt and memory is also emblematic of those films in Haneke’s oeuvre that do not concern a specifically French or sociopolitical context. Indeed, if Anne’s Alzheimer’s in Amour reiterates this process of remembering and forgetting on a very personal level, its social-political relation to a society’s guilt is also at the heart of the Austro-German setting of Benny’s Video and of the specifically German backdrop to The White Ribbon. Haneke’s work thus interrogates specific national traumas through a cross-examination of memory and guilt in a pan-European context.
In addition to this European specificity of his oeuvre, Haneke himself also embodies the discursive concept of the European auteur as a genius, whose own personality is expressed through a distinctive artistic vision that articulates a transcontinental sensitivity superior to Hollywood’s. His transnational subject matter and authorial persona exploit a European artistic and intellectual heritage that neatly corresponds to the cultural policies of the European Union and its member states, which eagerly support the production and distribution of his films. At a time when the European continent and its cinema are experiencing existential and material angst, it is thus not surprising that Amour won Haneke his second Palme d’Or. Although he has worked in multiple European countries, his output has not been affected by these changes in the location of production. Indeed, while most filmmakers from the continent are often confined by their national and cultural citizenship, Haneke’s films transcend specific national identities, and Amour is no exception. Unlike Georges and Anne, Haneke the filmmaker is never trapped in the normative framework of the Parisian bourgeoisie, for even as an Austrian, he has the privilege to successfully participate in the French and German (and even American) film industries without having to subscribe to any identity other than that of a brilliant auteur who is, above all, European.
JAAP VERHEUL is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University, where his research focuses on popular European cinema.