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Last Gasp

'Amour' owes its existence to an industry under siege

Darius Khondji/Films du Losange/Sony Pictures Classics

The word that comes up again and again in discussions about Michael Haneke, the Austrian director of Oscar nominee Amour, is “austere.” His films are so precisely crafted, with such rigorous camerawork and editing, that you feel you might suffocate halfway through. Minutes-long takes are not uncommon. There is no music, except for what the characters hear, and music is often more of an agony than a mercy. And then there’s the violence—it’s depicted unflinchingly and without warning. It says a lot about Haneke’s career that Amour, which portrays an elderly Parisian couple’s declining health, is seen as his happiest picture yet. 

But “austerity” has another meaning in Europe these days. Things don’t look good for culture across permacrisis Europe, and with no apparent alternative to the cruel and counterproductive logic of austerity economics, the continent’s film industry faces a bleak future.1

The European film industry, unlike its American counterpart, has long been sustained through public funds. As recently as 2009, an estimated €2.1 billion of taxpayers’ money was being spent on production and distribution of continental cinema; of the 47 countries in Europe, 43 have national film funding institutes. But now France has imposed deeper-than-expected cuts to its heavily subsidized film sector, and a recent broadside in Le Monde about the unfair distribution of public funds, with a few star figures sucking up most of the cash, set off weeks of raging debate. Portugal has shut down its culture ministry, while the economic suicide cult known as the Cameron government has abolished the UK Film Council. At last weekend’s Goya awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, actors and directors angrily decried how the country’s brutal austerity program has left the Spanish cinema “on its deathbed.” A generation of filmmakers nurtured by generous cultural subsidies faces a very uncertain future.

While he can sometimes seem like a lone wolf, intensely focused and unwilling to compromise, Michael Haneke is actually a paragon of the benefits of a generous state-funded film industry, and Amour a prime example of a film only such a system can produce. It took him a while to get to that point, though. Haneke began his career in Austrian television, and both his early TV series and his films from the 1990s—notably the terrifying Benny’s Video, whose opening sequence features a pig being shot in the head—were smaller-scale time bombs. Though he enjoyed the support of Austrian public bodies, funding was always hard to come by. For all their power, the ambitions of these early works were relatively modest, and today they look less like fully formed cinema than like acts of specific resistance to the banality of Austrian television and mass culture.

It wasn’t until 2000, when he began making films in French, that Haneke’s purview expanded and he was able to win the global audience he now enjoys. He didn’t go to Paris just for a change of pace; he went because France offers much more generous film funding opportunities than Austria does.2 Since 2000, Haneke has produced five films in French—and that includes The Piano Teacher, which was based on an Austrian novel and filmed in Vienna. He now cobbles together funding from both France and Austria, and from others too: the Romanian film board stepped up for Code Unknown, while Germany and Italy helped out for Caché.3 He also receives significant support from Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s film funding arm.

This pan-European funding has done more than help an Austrian filmmaker reach a wider audience. It’s changed the films as well, changed them for the better; his Schengenesque positioning has made his work both substantially more sophisticated and also more open to the world. Amour, like almost every one of Haneke’s pictures, is a film about the Bildungsbürgertum: “educated bourgeois” Europeans whose lives are overturned by forces out of their control.4 Yet there’s a universality to its depiction of death and love that I don’t think we’d have seen from an earlier, more Austrian Haneke. (Cinemascope called the film a “universal story of Love and Death after years of political parables and scholarly shocks,” and writers ranging from Francine Prose to Teju Cole have praised it for its applicability to all our lives.) I don’t advise looking to the Oscars for measures of cinematic quality, but, all the same, there’s something astonishing about what Haneke has managed in Amour: without letting go of any of his austere filmic tropes—the same long takes, the same claustrophobic settings, the same intense sound editing—he’s produced a bona fide crowd-pleaser.

He might now get Hollywood’s top accolade even though he still rejects much of what Hollywood stands for. But without the European state-funded programs that are now being slashed, and the possibility of pooling those state resources across borders, it might never have happened. In 2005, while promoting Caché, Haneke observed that in the face of Hollywood’s might “co-production represents the only chance that Europe has in film.” Even with all the prizes he won for The Piano Teacher, Caché was delayed for a year while Haneke scrambled for funding. The script of The White Ribbon, his masterpiece from 2009, sat in a desk drawer for over a decade. And those were made before the crash.

Amour, in this context, seems like an emblem of a system that’s not long for this world. Haneke is 70 and among the most well-regarded filmmakers of his age; he’ll surely be OK. He even called himself, with typical deadpan irony, “a poster boy for the success of the European financing system.” But the next generation of European directors face much more strained circumstances. Optimistic talk about crowdfunding or cheap digital techniques may amuse for a while, but just as you can’t be Michael Haneke under the pressures of a Hollywood studio, you can’t be him without any money either.

It’s now been more than four years since the crash, and the European crisis is finally finding its way to the big screen. Yesterday Never Ends, by the Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet, follows two lovers whose relationship has been upended by Spain’s economic collapse. In Greece, where support for filmmaking has been cut to nothing, the new film To the Wolf portrays a semiapocalyptic country where rural families scrounge for food when they’re not counting up their debts. There will be more. I suspect, though, that we’ll look back at Amour as a crisis film as well, and that in ten years’ time it will stand as a tragic monument to a cultural apparatus now being dismantled. Its loving portrayal of the expiration of two old Europeans may have universal appeal, enough probably to pick up a gold statue or two this Sunday. But Amour is also an allegory of demise, and in his own austere way, Haneke may have read the very system that enabled his career its last rites.

Jason Farago is a writer and critic living in New York.

  1. Austria, it has to be noted, is something of an exception; the Österreichische Filminstitut saw a small funding increase for 2013, though its total budget is only about €20 million.

  2. There was also the small matter of the 1999 Austrian election, which saw Jörg Heider’s far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs enter into government; the climate for artists was not ideal.

  3. The open borders in European film funding haven’t rationalized the Oscar nominating procedures. In 2005, Austria tried to nominate Caché for the best foreign film category, but the Academy rejected it on the grounds that Austrians don’t speak French. The rules have since been changed; Amour, despite being filmed in France and featuring two famous French actors, is the Austrian nominee.

  4. Even the names of the characters in Amour are the same as before: Georges and Anne, or Georg and Anna, are the protagonists’ names in The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, both versions of Funny Games, Code Unknown, Time of the Wolf (though Georges gets knocked off in the first scene of that one), and Caché.