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Watch: Michael Haneke Calls 'Downfall' "Repulsive & Dumb" & Explains His Issues With 'Schindler's List'

by Kevin Jagernauth
November 14, 2012 3:27 PM
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Downfall Schindler's List Michael Haneke

The Oscar season is in full effect, with all kinds of talent out and about, talking to press, and stumping for their films. And as Joaquin Phoenix has learned, if you're not careful, fiery comments can come back to haunt you. Michael Haneke recently sat in on a discussion panel at THR with filmmakers and writers Judd Apatow, Mark Boal, David Magee, Chris Terrio and John Krasinski, and dropped some interesting criticisms of two celebrated films: "Downfall" and "Schindler's List." 

Asked about the dangers of humanizing someone like Osama Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler on film, Haneke made his position very clear. "First of all I have to say that I argued with [screenwriter] Bernd Eichinger about the film. I found it both repulsive and dumb," he said. But Haneke's dismissal is deeply reasoned on a larger philosophical query on how this material should be approached. "...when you're dealing with a figure of such a deep and broad historical context, the question is, who are you humanizing, what are you doing with him? You're creating melodrama, you're trying to reach your spectators, to move your spectators, but what emotions are you calling on?"

"Responsibility entails enabling your audience to remain independent and free of manipulation," he continued, adding: "The question is how seriously do I take my viewer, to what extent do I provide him with the opportunity of creating his own opinion, [and] confront the historical context on their own?" But is there any movie that gets the Holocaust right? "For me, the only film about the Holocaust that, for me, is responsible as a filmmaker is Alain Resnais' 'Night and Fog,' " he declared.

In a room full of writers taking on historical moments like "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," Haneke is ballsy but also doesn't pick on their projects in particular. He's speaking calmly on a broader context and his own thoughts, and they are undeniably fascinating. But why the moderator chooses to throw to John Krasinski to respond afterward is beyond us (though he handled it like a champ).

Watch the discussion below (Haneke's quotes start around the 8-minute mark) followed by the (NSFW) scene from "Schindler's List" and "Night and Fog" in full. 

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  • Collin | November 15, 2012 9:57 AMReply

    Because there's nothing at all emotionally manipulative about killing off animals in nearly all of your movies.

  • T.A. | November 15, 2012 3:21 PM

    Collin: Yes, you are absolutely right. There are different levels of manipulation (I may have stated it better in another comment. (scroll down if interested)). All films are basically a manipulation from the instance a word is written on a page. Every line, every action serves a purpose and seeks an audience to reflect upon. It's merely here a question of how you do it, and as a filmmaker you can respect your audience and allow them to use their own heads. Haneke seems to refuse those cinematic tricks, while of course like you say, the whole medium screams for framing, lens selection, color correction, sound design, blocking, casting etc. It is a construct afterall. Objectiveness always evades, you can't even make a documentary completely objective. I am not sure anymore if it is the medium that lacks, or we the rational people.

    Simultaneously Spielberg's movies evade different interpretations and that is (for me) exactly the pinpoint where the value of those two different approaches of filmmaking should be measured. Haneke is for me like good literature, there's as many 'versions' of the films as there are viewers.

    Oh, and the word 'predictable' meant, that every sane person reacts in an ill manner towards animal torture or death. You did, I did as well when viewing those films. I do not know why Haneke keeps bringing the animals to his stories, but it certainly played with my expectations in Amour. Maybe someone who knows more about him could fill in?

    Only thing that comes to my mind now is that, if we think of the animal killings from the point of ethical spectatorship, is it not strange, that those scenes are often more memorable and shocking than when in the next scene or preceding scene a human being is killed? It is just that people dying is such a commodity in film. In a sense, I do see it serving a purpose, if people do that exact comparison (which does not need much thought to come up to). Oh, and no, I don't eat animals.

  • Collin | November 15, 2012 2:42 PM

    Objective like the John Zorn music in "Funny Games".

  • Collin | November 15, 2012 2:22 PM


    I think I just take issue with the word "manipulation", because ALL filmmaking is emotionally manipulative. I concede that there are varying levels of manipulation, but Haneke is a manipulator just like Spielberg. He may not utilize a musical score to do it, but he does it just the same through framing, lens selection, color correction, sound design, blocking of actors, casting, etc. Is it possible for a film to remain objective? You say that my reaction to Haneke's choice of killing animals in his movies is "predictable", which I don't quite understand, but I think my knee-jerk reaction is probably the same one that a vast number of people would have. You don't think that Haneke knows the emotional strings he's pulling when he kills off a defenseless animal in a scene. The family dog in "Funny Games", the goldfish in "The Seventh Continent", the horse in "Time of the Wolf", the chicken in "Cache", the pig in "Benny's Video". The guy just "objectively" kills off animals in all of these movies, but is totally oblivious to the loaded emotional reaction that an audience might have to it?

  • T.A. | November 15, 2012 10:49 AM

    Therein lies the false conception about manipulation and what it means in this context. The act of killing an animal is not manipulative, it is merely the act of killing an animal. What is your own reaction as a spectator, what is your own judgement, is what may cause your emotional distraught. Of course, the reaction of yours is rather predictable, but that is another topic.

    As a very simple example of this: Manipulation in this context can be f.ex. showing a reaction to the act where a child cries, the camera zooms in and suddenly you start hearing a melancholy score composed by John Williams. In a way, the film then takes a standpoint for you, chews it ready for you and all you have to do is swallow.

  • Sara | November 15, 2012 7:43 AMReply

    So,... he is slaying all the Holocoust films. That's funny because Hollywood love to make films about this.
    I don't know why Krasinski and Judd Appatow are in the same room of Haneke. -_-"

  • Jeff | November 16, 2012 1:58 AM

    Sounds to me like Haneke is one of those folks who'd like to imagine Hitler as a robot, or demon, or alien. Sorry, Mike, but Ian Kershaw, probably the world expert on Hitler, has said that the film is incredibly accurate. Maybe you need to spend less time behind the camera and more time in the library.
    He asks what feelings Downfall is supposed to call on from the audience. That's the question. We are meant to feel very uncomfortable. What should we feel regarding the minor characters, those who didn't order or plan the Holocaust or World War 2. What we do in their shoes? and what of Hitler? Hitler is in the film (and was in real life) a man who loved his german Shepard and who was very kind to his secretaries. He was a human being. And that is what is terrifying.

  • Sara | November 15, 2012 7:56 AM

    Caché is amazing film,... I don't know... but it's soooo disturbing and amazing at the same time.
    The people that don't know the work of Haneke should watch Caché and White Ribbon.

    I still didn't watch Funny Games, I don't have the courage.

  • droopy | November 15, 2012 6:44 AMReply

    everyone, especially krasinkski, needs to shut up and let haneke do the talking. the reason krasinski in particular bugs me is because his movie is obviously the kind of manipulative crap that tells your audience exactly how to feel

  • jingmei | November 15, 2012 10:14 AM


  • jingmei | November 15, 2012 12:25 AMReply

    Looks like THR had limited time to organize seperately writers and directors, or actors. In that room only Chris Terrio is a purely awesome writer.

  • jingmei | November 15, 2012 4:14 AM

    Haneke's words is apparently awesome since the operator's questions are weird and farfetched.

  • jimmiescoffee | November 14, 2012 8:46 PMReply

    Michael Haneke is great. im' pretty sure 'the white ribbon' is the best film of the last 5 years.

  • nightgoat72 | November 14, 2012 8:18 PMReply

    I just want Mark Boal to shut up and Haneke to talk. Haneke is awesome.

  • 5555 | November 14, 2012 7:51 PMReply

    That was a boring talk. Almost no conversation, just bad questions and long monologues from people with little to say. I love Judd, but he monopolized too much time and said little. It's a shame Haneke was stuck in the writers' ghetto and won't get to engage with the directors

  • Sara | November 15, 2012 7:49 AM

    Yes.. Paul Thomas Anderson should be there

  • zatopek | November 14, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    "Michael, is it ok for entertainment to make people feel terrible?"

  • jingmei | November 15, 2012 4:11 AM

    I guess Haneke's point of his answer in the video is right on the opposit of this sentence.

  • daniel | November 14, 2012 5:48 PMReply

    Please, internet, make a Hitler Reacts to Michael Haneke video.

  • ben armington | November 14, 2012 5:36 PMReply

    Judging from stuff like the PIANO TEACHER and THE WHITE RIBBON, Haneke doesn't seem above a little audience manipulation himself, although it is enjoyable to watch his severe nature take the air out of the room here. Kind of a missed opportunity not to have Tony Kushner and Quentin Tarantino in on this discussion

  • jingmei | November 15, 2012 10:15 AM

    @T.A.: Awesome comment.

  • T.A. | November 15, 2012 4:32 AM

    I didn't have time to watch the video yet, but could you elaborate a bit more on the Piano Teacher / The White Ribbon comment of yours? There's lightyears between something like Downfall and Schindler's List and of Haneke's films you mentioned. Maybe you didn't compare them in per se, but I shall comment on it anyways.

    We do not talk of genres of filmmaking here, but the way how people talk, the way people act and gesture in the films, how much is done with cinematic tricks to influence the audience. Haneke uses no music, the camera barely moves, no sudden closeup shots of teary eyed suffering. In fact, he relies very little on trickery what people often consider 'cinematic'. There's no judgement or pointing fingers. He is yet not as simple in his expression as Bresson or someone alike, but that probably makes him this little bit more approachable (= commercial) for getting to this round table here, or maybe it is finally a sign of waking up of audiences from the Hollywood comatose.

    Something like Schindler's List is a very very manipulative piece in comparison. I am not saying, I do not enjoy watching it, but I do feel watching something like The Piano Teacher or The White Ribbon, I am much more independent as a viewer. No-one tells me when to cry, when to feel sick, when to look into a certain place. Things just happen in the front of you, and the judgement is left to you. You may like the characters or you may not. Something might reflect on your own life, something might not.

    Of course, film is always a manipulation and some things are unescapable, but from a very simple basic standing point, these examples are just complete different worlds.

  • Sara | November 14, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    wthell Judd Apatow is there???????? he is sooooooo overrated.

  • El Hanso | November 14, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    Holy crap! Haneke at the THR awards season roundtable? Now that's something I thought would never happen. I am not surprised however that he dislikes "Downfall" and "Schindler's List." And "Night & Fog," for him, really seems like the only logical answer to the question how to do the Holocaust on film if not like those other two films.
    I like these roundtables. Will check the full thing out later.

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