Michael Haneke has a reputation for having a frosty demeanour with interviewers and audiences. This isn’t because he’s unfriendly, or humourless, or resentful; it’s because he loathes interpreting or analysing his own work. This aspect of Haneke’s personality shows itself during a promotional scene during the press run of The White Ribbon, in which the poor interviewer just wants to ask a question to use as a jumping-off point for the interview. Each question is rebuffed as leading him towards interpreting his own work, or an analysis of fascism, which he doesn’t see as important or desirable. It’s an interesting companion piece to the film McCullin, the subject of which (Don McCullin) relentlessly and remorselessly analyses his own work. This, combined with his propensity for making films that seem to admonish the viewer (early on, anyway), often make him seem like a stern headmaster.
In fact, if Michael H. proves anything, the very opposite is true. On set he is a jovial figure, but one willing to put his foot down if anything goes awry. We see him charming the youngsters he works with – the treatment of children being a consistent theme throughout his work – and nothing if not polite and considerate. He’d have to be, to maintain the working relationship that he has with such figures as Isabelle Huppert, the sadly departed Ulrich Muhe, and Juliette Binoche (among others). The fawning adoration that Beatrice Dalle shows during one key scene, during which she speaks of him taming her famously bad behaviour (she’s earlier shown acting out during a photocall for Time of the Wolf, accusing the photographer of taking terrible pictures), which must have been no mean feat.
We also see him in the classroom, giving an acting class to a group of youngsters. The way he speaks and interacts with them is as you would expect from any teacher, with enthusiasm and genuine profundity, not necessarily a multiple Oscar and Palm d’Or winner. For fans, this level of access is thrilling, but the overall effect is more that of an especially in-depth DVD extra, rather than a stand-alone film. It doesn’t feel vital, or necessary. While it’s entertaining and informative, the lack of vitality combined with Haneke as a subject, unwilling to analyse or discuss his work in depth, makes for a good – not great – film.