Sunday, 16 March 2008 08:51

Peter Eisenman

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We asked Peter Eisenman to interview Michael Haneke, the Austrian director of Hidden (Caché) and Funny Games. They met in an Italian restaurant in New York.

Documents... Paul Smith

In a debate with Rem Koolhaas at the Architectural Association last year, Peter Eisenman said, “We should make architecture like Michael Haneke makes films.” Following up on that remark, icon asked Eisenman to interview the Austrian film director. They met in an Italian restaurant in New York a few days after a private screening of Haneke’s latest film, Funny Games, which is a shot-for-shot remake for a Hollywood studio of his original German-language version.

Portrait Chris Wiley



Peter
One more prosecco… Here’s to the success of your film.

Michael Thank you.

Peter I have to say, it’s the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen. (Laughs.) The two psychotic characters are incredible. These upper-middle-class psychotics in tennis whites, holding golf clubs, show up at the door, and you don’t know what’s going on until the scene when he drops the eggs and says, “Oh, well I have to have four more.” Suddenly you’re thinking, “Oh, my goodness!”

Michael It’s chilling. But, you know, I read in Der Spiegel about a case in Spain where two young guys put gloves on in order to torture someone just for their pleasure. And the methods of torture that they used… compared to that my film is harmless.

Waiter Can I tell you the specials?

Peter I’ll just have one course. The rigatoni for me. We have to talk!

Michael I’ll have the pumpkin ravioli.

Waiter Would you like something to start with, sir?

Peter I’ll have a little mozzarella. Now, I have a lot of questions! If we look at Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket for a minute, it’s about filming what doesn’t happen on the screen, in other words the actual point where the pickpocket gets the wallet at the racetrack is never shown on film. You see him go to the racetrack and the next thing he’s in a police car. It’s an anti-action film.

Michael The action is in the hand of the viewer.

Peter The viewer becomes not active, but not passive any longer. I call it non-passive passive. But you cannot just do what Bresson did today because it’s a different moment in time. The viewer today is more or less completely passive. So let me propose an idea. I like to make a distinction between what happens in the mind and what happens in the body sensually, because it’s part of what happens in architecture. In Funny Games there’s no violence on the screen – it’s all in the mind. But what’s different about Funny Games than say, Pickpocket, is that there’s a level of sensuality, of physical feeling that comes with the mind, which doesn’t happen in Bresson. What I see in your film is a shift from what I call the sensual to the conceptual. In other words, there are two categories: there’s a mental idea – that’s Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Bresson – and then there’s the sensual film of Bernardo Bertolucci, Luchino Visconti, etc. And what I think you have done, which is unique, is you’ve taken the sensual, which belongs to the body, and moved it into the conceptual realm. And that’s an entirely new idea for me.

Michael Yes, I tried. But if I achieved this I don’t know.

Peter But that gave me an idea for architecture. Because if my architecture used to be in the mental realm, what I tried to do in the Berlin Memorial [to the Murdered Jews of Europe] is precisely this: to move the sensual, physical experience into the mental domain. And so what I was trying to say in the Berlin Memorial was, “Is it possible, for a moment, to feel lost in space?” In other words, that moment of, “Oh my God, where am I?”

Michael Yeah.



Peter In Funny Games and in Caché there was that kind of horror that shifted from the purely physical into the mental, so what you had was a mental experience that was physical. I walked out of Funny Games and I was dripping wet, even though the experience was mental. And to me that’s what makes your films important for architecture, important for the arts. And I wanted you to think about that idea.

Michael I see it completely like you do. I attempt that. I mean, I’m not always so sure I’ve succeeded, but it is a matter of temperament as much as concept. You can’t even consider it a concept as such. On the one hand I tend to theorise, to abstract, and on the other hand, I like sensual matters. I am, of course, a fan of Bresson, as you know. I think he’s the ne plus ultra.

Peter Let me give you the moment that’s Bresson for me. When the camera pans and then watches the gate close, you don’t realise that the gate closing is the end for them. And in Pickpocket, there’s a moment where the hero leaves and Bresson sits on the shot and lets the door close where most filmmakers would cut away.

Michael Ah! (Laughs.)

Peter Now in Bresson, that’s purely mental because it has nothing to do with the idea of the film. But here, that long shot of the gate closing, you realise afterward, “Oh my God, they can’t get out!” And this is really something that’s different from Bresson, that shooting nothing meant something very frightening in your film as opposed to the door closing in Bresson.

Michael In Pickpocket the opening and closing of the door – the separation of one to the other – is a metaphor that goes through the entire film.

Peter Whereas when the gate closes in your film, it’s a metaphor of the trap. And you don’t know what it means until later. But here’s what I really wanted to ask you about. I believe that Bresson, Antonioni, Godard, Bertolucci, all these people represent what I call “high modernism” in film. I am very interested in Theodor Adorno’s essay Spätstil Beethovens [Beethoven’s Late Style]. And I believe what you are working on is late style.

Michael You mean where you reap what others have sewn? Yes, maybe.

Peter But you can’t do what they do. What you can do is take process to a level where it becomes not about intelligibility. In the typical modernist whodunnit murder movie you’re sitting there looking for clues. For me, and I’ve seen Caché several times, the first time I was looking for the killer, right? Who was the guy who shot the tape? And you sit there and try to figure it out. Of course, the scene at the end when the two boys meet is also titillating, and you think, well, maybe. But you realise the movie is not about this.

Michael Yes, exactly.

Peter It’s about something else. And then you have to see it again, and when you look at it again you become a different audience and you sit there and you say, “Wow, this
is great. I’m not worried about whodunnit.” Rather, I’m looking at the filmic quality. And that’s what I think you’re about. Not about solving murders. So, for me, I’m not about solving problems, I’m about asking “What is architecture about?” And to me your films are a quintessential filmic experience.

Michael I think it’s interesting what you’re saying about the late style. I don’t want to be preposterous but if you look at the music of Bach, at the time it’s written the music is already old fashioned. He has taken everything that was developed until then and brought it to flourish, and of course it’s the greatest achievement until that point in time. Bach is someone who takes from what happened before – he doesn’t really open new doors. He brings together everything that was done in the previous century. And
I think generally in art, there are such periods where people just reap the rewards of their [predecessors]. But this is, in a way, the blessing of the historical moment.

Peter No, no, I said to use the historical moment the way you do and produce something of difference. And to me that is why I look carefully at the film, because I use it analogously. A lot of my students are at the film tonight because I want them to understand the relationship between film and architecture. And the making of something that I consider late style. In other words, asking – whether in architecture or film – what does the discipline mean? And your work is a good example of this.

Michael One critic, in fact the director of the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, said I was a noble anachronism.

Peter Noble – that’s exactly what we’re talking about. How much do you follow architecture though? Do you know the work of Hans Hollein and other Austrians?

Michael “Know” is too much. I see it but I am not a specialist so I don’t know.

Peter Do you know Wolf Prix?

Michael Of Coop Himmelb(l)au? I appreciate him very much. But I am more… it is always a little bit ridiculous when a film director says this, but I am an acoustic man.

Peter Yes, your whole film is acoustic because you don’t see anything, it’s all sound.

Michael In music, I know what’s going on; in pictures, I am an amateur. I look at them, I like them, but I’m not very deeply into them.

Peter Let me tell you something interesting. About ten years ago, I got together with David Cronenberg and invented a project. We had a mutual appreciation and I was going to design a virtual museum of David Cronenberg. We had a fabulous idea: each room in the museum would be a different film. The idea was: how could we make a piece of work that we both agreed was by both of us?

Michael Uh huh? Interesting project. And why did it not realise? Money? (Laughs.)

Peter You know, you were right, the mozzarella is fabulous, really good.



Michael You know that Naomi Watts, after my film, she did the latest Cronenberg.

Peter Eastern Promises? I didn’t know that. And how did she like your film? What did she think?

Michael I think it was a little bit strange for her. Because it was a shot-for-shot remake, at the beginning she had a certain fear of being constricted. But once she accepted this it was ok for her.

Peter But is every camera angle the same in this?

Michael Yeah.

Peter Every camera angle, every shot?

Michael It was very difficult! (Laughs.)

Peter But this is an interesting idea, the idea of repetition. The return of the same, let’s say. Why did you want to do that?

Michael Because I have nothing to add. I already did the first film for an American audience, for an audience consuming violence. And it only didn’t reach that audience because it was in German. And so when I got the offer of the remake I said sure. After all, the subject became only more up to date. I mean, the world is only more violent. I wanted to give myself a certain challenge, I wanted to make it a little bit more demanding for myself. And so, I decided to do it shot-by-shot again.

Peter If you see it in German with subtitles, as an American, there’s the distance of the subtitles and reading. But seeing it in English was quite extraordinary. I’ve never seen a film like it. My wife and I haven’t stopped talking about it since we saw it.
We talked a great deal about discipline. I’m interested in opening up the interior discipline of architecture, and, to me, you are interested in exploring filmic discipline – you know, what is possible in the medium. You say your films are tight, their storyboards are tight. It’s more difficult in architecture because film is more expressive, you can feel the tightness.

Michael Much more difficult! To create a touching room is really difficult. (Laughs.)

Peter It’s impossible to create a touching room.

Michael You achieve it in the Berlin Memorial.

Peter In an abstract way. What’s filmic about the memorial is when you’re standing on the street and you see the people going in and coming out. Suddenly people are appearing and disappearing, and I think, “Oh my goodness, I never though of that.”

Michael I don’t believe you! (Laughs.)

Peter I always think of my work without people, but the memorial is better with people. I was there once when a woman’s child ran off and she couldn’t find him, and they started to scream. You could hear the child and the mother screaming and they still couldn’t find each other! Once you move, you don’t know where the other person’s gone. There are places in the memorial that are more important than others – much more frightening, let’s say. To me that’s part of being lost in space. And, of course, the silence. Like you talk about, you like sound.

Michael Yeah.

Peter I’m interested in space without sound. In other words without meaning, without sound, just pure physical [makes a crunching noise]. Minimal, yeah, but it’s maximal minimal. My wife said that your interest in sound and my interest in space both deny the visual. That’s very good. We are both attempting to deny the visual. Because you’re not a visual person. Your films are filmic, but you don’t see anything happen. You don’t see anybody getting killed!

Michael To avoid the image of course means inciting your fantasy. Stimulating your fantasy.

Peter But you have to react. In an American horror film they go, “Boo!” and you go “Whoa!” But it’s stupid. I don’t think yours is horror, I think it’s terror. I felt terrorised by you. You’re using a visual medium to deny the visual – in an age when image is everything, where the eye is the dominant sense.

Michael It’s a result of the fact that I’m terrorised by the media. In a sort of way, it’s my defence.

Peter But let me ask you, you say that Hollywood is a purveyor of violence. Is the audience in Germany less… [accepting of violence]?

Michael No, because Germany is a cultural province of America.

Peter So how does your film play in Germany or Austria?

Michael In Austria, actually, I have the worst audience numbers. Maybe it’s changing now that I’m having success abroad, but normally they hate me. And I am proud of this.

Peter I know what that feels like! I do most of my work in Europe – though I don’t like to be paranoid. (Laughs.) I think the really beautiful thing is to take a visual medium and turn it against itself. It’s really incredible to do that.

Michael You know, today I had an interview with a journalist who said, “Is it not a bit subversive to do an anti-Hollywood film in Hollywood?” And I said yes.

Peter Of course. But would you call your film a Hollywood film?

Michael No, not at all. The only Hollywood touch is that they are American actors and Naomi is a Hollywood star.

Peter But tell me, how do you think you will be able to retain focus with success? I mean, look what happened to Antonioni and Godard when they made Hollywood films. There was a certain loss of focus.

Michael Yes. But I didn’t make a new film. I made the same film. I don’t know, I’ve had some propositions for films here and mostly they were either stupid or they weren’t interesting for me. Because I always write my own scripts. And I don’t really know American society so it’s difficult for me to find an idea that I can realise here.

Peter I would think you’re correct.

Michael The danger [of losing focus] is not very great. We will see when the film comes out in February if it’s a success. Then I will get a lot of offers. If it’s not a success nobody will ask me, so I am very wired! (Laughs.)

Peter But how would you define the difference between the work that you do and let’s say, David Cronenberg?

Michael It’s very different. Cronenberg is… it’s difficult to say. I find his work very impressive, but it is so personal. The transmission from his own obsessions – in my opinion, but I don’t know him personally. It’s like David Lynch.

Peter I was going to ask you about him!

Michael I like him very much. Cronenberg and Lynch create their own world with their own obsessions. And maybe I am also obsessed but not in this private way. Both are very impressive for me – it’s like a view into an alien world, fascinating. But the world that I would like to describe is not as interesting. I like to stick to the reality that I see. I’m more an exploiter of what I see than someone who watches his own obsessions.

Peter And you think that their work is a mirror into their private obsessions.

Michael Yes. Of course, in their private obsessions you see a reflection of their society as a whole. But it’s a very personal, psychological world. And I am not interested in psychology. I always say that my films are anti-psychological. In cinema, psychology and sociology are always an explanation to calm people down. It allows you to say that because mama was not nice to the little boy then the big boy is a bad person, right? That is generally the main structure.

Peter But the audience can be looking at a psycho on screen and saying, “I don’t understand how a human being can be that cold, that brutal.” It’s almost confusing.

Michael It is as confusing as life.

Peter So, are you a realist?

Michael I try to be. But it’s dangerous – all the isms are very dangerous. I am a realist but I am also not.

Peter I would argue that Funny Games is brutally real. That’s what makes it. I mean, it’s not pretending to be real. It is so laconic, so terse. And what makes it awful is that it’s so… unawful.

Michael It’s very real, how you feel [if you feel that these characters are emotionally cold]. I always try to create a model situation, but with a clash. Because a model is very abstract, it’s just a structure. And you give it some flesh, you fill it out. But it is not realistic. It is not naturalistic. The characters in Greek tragedy often walk on these stilts. So my characters are always on a higher platform.

Peter But you don’t shoot low angles, like, for example, Yazujiro Ozu does.

Michael He’s one of my great favourites. The first films I always show new students at film school are Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Ozu’s Tokyo Story. And they’re always completely shocked because they’ve never seen films like this.

Peter I don’t know that Tarkovsky.

Michael It’s a masterpiece. The Mirror is his most complex film – his most difficult film and the most complex.

Peter But let me ask you just about the structure of Caché for a minute. To me, seeing it several times, it seemed that when we were watching the tape being shot, the camera was always looking frontally. And when we were watching the tape being shown in the film we were watching from another angle. In other words, reality was always from an angle, no?

Michael No, not always. For example, the discussion between Daniel Auteuil and the Arab guy, you’re supposed to see two times. Once in reality and once in film. And they were both shot from the same point of view but one was slightly crooked.

Peter Aha. That’s what I meant.

Michael Yeah, but you have to have good eyes to see it. (Laughs.) The normal public would have missed it. Maybe they’d feel something wrong, but they don’t know what it is. They can’t pinpoint it. But, you’re an architect – you should have a good eye.

Peter A lot of the things I think about, I see and think about first in film. Basically, architecture is boring compared to film.

Michael It’s boring? Ha. I have to say Antonioni is the master of filming architecture.

Peter Yes, but he trained as an architect!

Michael Ah, really?

Peter He was an architect. And in L’Avventura, the shots of those Sicilian towns Avola and Noto are purely architectural – the stillness of them. I would say he’s not filming architecture, he is making architecture in film. There’s a difference because filming architecture is like making a documentary. He makes architecture. And Antonioni was a master. But you know who I love in terms of space is Rainer Fassbinder. When you’re looking through a door or a window into a space and there’s always a blockage. You’re not seeing the whole thing, you’re seeing part of the scene.

Michael At the beginning his work was very theatrical – like on a stage – but after he changed a lot.

Peter But, what do you think of him?

Michael I loved his first film but I had problems with the others. The one thing
I can’t stand is sentimentality, or the melodramatic. He is a great master, but I don’t like his sentimentality. And I don’t like bad actors, and his films have a lot of bad actors!

Peter What about another Austrian filmmaker who I like: Peter Kubelka?

Michael He is a master.

Peter Of the flicker film. I made a flicker film once in homage to Peter Kubelka and then I realised I should stick to architecture!

images Scene from Caché (Hidden), by Michael Haneke, 2005. Scenes from Funny Games (US), by Michael Haneke, 2007. Portrait by Elise Jaffe


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