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"Cowardly and comfortable"

Michael Haneke's new film "Cache" on France's colonial history investigates the point where private and collective guilt spill over into each other.

Die Tageszeitung: Mr. Haneke, "Cache" is about a threat from the outside. A family is stalked by an anonymous observer. The film describes an all-too contemporary dynamic of fear.

all photos courtesy of the official film websiteAll photos courtesy of the official film website

Michael Haneke
: It basically develops like a classic thriller. Thrillers always work with fear. You have a cell. Then a letter arrives, a cassette or even a packet with a head in it and it all takes off from there. In the process, you learn a lot of things about the inner world of this cell and its social infrastructure. I used this format principally to ask one question: how do we deal with our guilty consciences? "What we wouldn't do not to lose a thing," the Algerian-born character Majid says to Georges in a key scene...

the protagonist, an established Parisian intellectual ...

... who thinks Majid is the man threatening him. How do you behave when confronted with something that you should actually admit responsibility for? These are the sort of strategies that interest me, talking yourself out of guilt. It's like this: we all believe we're so fantastically liberal. None of us want to see immigration laws tightened. Yet when someone comes to me and asks if I could take in a foreign family, then I say, well, not really. Charity begins at home with the door firmly shut. Most people are as cowardly and comfortable as I am.

Your films have always focussed on the mechanisms of violence, combined with a critique of the media. But "Cache" is more a depiction of social tensions. And the film gained in topicality through the riots in the Paris suburbs last autumn.

I see nothing new in those. We were presented with the same images and the same media hype about social riots donkey's years ago – and we'll see them again before too long, because this a completely unsolved problem which is simmering away. The politicians are avoiding the issue because they don't know how to deal with it.

I'm always amazed when people talk about problems like this as if they were something new. I was amazed when everybody started saying that the world was different after September 11. People with views like this must be incredibly naive. To my eyes, the world looked remarkably similar before. It's the same with the riots. What this is really about is the primal legacy of colonialism and the nations involved labouring with the consequences. And there is no one solution to this.

But people's state of mind and state security measures have changed.

And of course this is taking us in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of addressing the problem, we ask ourselves how best to stave it off, in order not to have to confront it. Which then increasingly leads to an attempt at a totalitarian state.

Back to "Cache": The threat from outside brings one's own guilt to the surface. Georges cannot cope with this.

I believe that's how we function. There's such a thing as a sort of emotional memory for evil deeds. When a Proustian Madeleine appears by coincidence, then it all re-emerges. And anyway, I can't pretend I don't come from this Judeo-Christian tradition. The issue of guilt is always in the air at such latitudes. Which is why I always come back to it. One of the thoughts which inspired the film was to confront someone with something that he'd done as a child. In cases like this we find it particularly comfortable to talk ourselves out of the problem. In "Code Inconnu" the black guy helps a beggar woman and as a result he is thrown into prison and she is expelled from the country. Is he guilty? Difficult to say, because guilt is not a simple issue – and we have a variety of repression strategies to cope with a guilty conscience. Like Georges, who takes a couple of tablets to help himself sleep. This is the sort of awkward situation I find fascinating.

But "Cache" moves on from individual to collective guilt and the political unconscious of the Algerian war

The film's main theme is not Algeria. But I was fascinated by the issue of where private spills over into collective guilt. There are black stains of this sort in every country, and in Austria and Germany they are brown. I took part in a discussion in Paris, in which a specialist on Algerian questions was also involved. He said the film was a expression of the fact that the suffering of the Algerian people had never been recognised. This was something that never even crossed my mind while I was writing the film... I based Majid's story on a TV documentary I'd seen. It mentioned the events in 1961 in Paris when 200 Algerian demonstrators were beaten to death by the police and their bodies thrown into the Seine. No one wrote about it although France has a liberal press. This is a phenomenon I still can't get to grips with to this day.

In the film, video footage and film images often roll seamlessly into another. What is this meant to provoke?

In all of my films, I try to fuel mistrust in our faith in reality. We know nothing about the world, except the things we have experienced directly. And we can examine these things. But everything else we experience through the media. And this functions like Chinese whispers, a piece of information is related from one person to the next. You only have to look at what Bush does with that. I see it as my aesthetic duty to reflect this. It's no coincidence that post-War literature signalled the end of classical narrative literature. It came from the experience of fascism, and the same applies to film.

What I'm really trying to do is point out to the viewer that he is only being confronted by an artefact. I challenge him to think for himself – like in "Funny Games", where he is targeted directly. This is a basic condition for me, so that I can deal with the viewer seriously. I want to let him see through the things he sees.

Unlike with "Funny Games", you don't set the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster. Georges is observed from a distance. You ask yourself how he's coping with the threat.

That too ... But the viewer is also being permanently unsettled. The static opening image of the house is initially perplexing. This turns to mistrust after a series of scenes where you ask yourself if this is a video image again. I really like this kind of mistrust which emerges from the images. This is something cinema should focus on more.

Do you mean a mistrust of certain images? Does film, by delivering insights, not do more than video which merely records?

No, rather a mistrust of every image because every image is manipulative. In terms of aesthetic imagery, film and video are similar. I wouldn't say there was a significant difference or play two images off against each other. I've tried to create as many similarities as possible, to arrive at this indistinguishableness. Even the scenes between Majid and Georges, which come in two variations, are virtually identical. But then one of them is slightly angled to give it more of a security-camera perspective. We filmed the scene with three cameras, which wasn't easy because you always have to keep two cameras hidden from the third. All just to create this alienating effect. But now I'm also very happy because there are so many differing interpretations.

Georges will never reflect on his guilt. It also remains open if he's wrong ...

Georges should really question his whole way of life. But people never want to face up to that sort of thing. Not because it'd be so difficult in itself, but because the consequences are so severe. Although we know about other people's wretchedness, it's only in the rarest cases that we draw any consequences from it. This has what dramatic art has done since its origins. Just think of Oedipus. That's not a bunch of laughs either.

Rumour has it you've already had offers for a Hollywood remake?

We've had four offers, but I'm pretty laid back about it. We've been in talks for three years about a remake of "Funny Games" and finally a contract has been drawn up. It remains to be seen if I will direct it, or someone else. It's not in my hands.


"Cache", Starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, is a French / Austrian / Italian / German co-production, 2005, 115 Min.


The article originally appeared in Die Tageszeitung on January 26, 2006. The interview was conducted by Dominik Kamalzadeh.

Michael Haneke was born in Munich in 1942 and grew up in Austria. He has worked as a film and theatre director as well as a film and literature critic (filmography here).

Translation: lp - let's talk european