The films of Michael Haneke are often so steeped in ambiguity and intrigue that the very idea of shedding light on the methods of the Austrian auteur is an intrinsically tantalising proposition. While the theories on the films themselves espoused by Yves Montmayeur’s portrait won’t be novel to those familiar with Haneke’s oeuvre, the on-set footage of the man at work is endlessly fascinating, revealing a typically meticulous artist, but also a supportive patriarch with an unexpected propensity for laughter and hugging. Montmayeur’s intimacy with Haneke is Michael H. Profession: Director’s (2013) greatest asset.
The director is predictably cagey about interpreting his own work, but he trusts Montmayeur enough to discuss the broader context of the films and, most importantly, to shoot him at work. The documentary is primarily interested in the professional life of Haneke. While we do get the occasional anecdote about his private life – including a revelation that the boy who asks his sister whether everyone he knows will die in The White Ribbon (2009) is based on a memory from the director’s childhood – the film goes backwards through Haneke’s catalogue, speaking to key actors along the way. Yet, the principal shortcoming of the film-by film structure is that it rarely allows for any evaluation of Haneke’s creative development.
A willingness to step back and consider the filmography as a whole would have helped craft a more rounded portrait of the director. For the Haneke devotees however, the behind-the scenes-footage really is unmissable. While Haneke has often been characterised as a mirthless taskmaster, Montmayeur shows us another side of the man, giving us the sense of Haneke as a human being, not just a cold craftsman. We see him giggling as he encourages one of The White Ribbon’s child actors to air guitar along to Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water as well as comforting a reticent Emanuelle Riva during a particularly gruelling sequence in Amour (2012) – “You have to have confidence in me” he tells her.
The director is renowned for some truly striking sequences, and the documentary shows how they were constructed, from the bravura eight-minute single take street argument in Code: Unknown (2000) to the disturbing dream sequence of Amour, there is immense pleasure in seeing these unforgettable scenes being shot by a true master. Haneke’s reluctance to elaborate on the meaning of his films may frustrate some viewers, but fans of the directors will be delighted just to see the method behind the immaculately conceived madness.