‘Do you promise?’
An empty apartment broken into by the police. The dead body of an old woman lies behind a door sealed off with tape. Flashback: Anne and Georges are a couple in their 70s living life to the full. Their retirement is spent happily in a spacious old apartment and they lead a busy social life, going to concerts and meeting friends. One day, their world is suddenly thrown out of joint when Anne suffers a stroke. Her husband reacts by taking care of her with selfless devotion, and both try to come to terms with their new reality. As time goes on, however, the couple isolate themselves from the rest of society. When Anne’s condition worsens, she asks her husband for help. For Georges, life’s fragile set of certainties begins to falter.
Dissecting the last days of a married couple with static shots and a cold gaze, Michael Haneke asks how the suffering of a loved one can be endured. He portrays his characters with characteristically cool detachment, allowing us to experience them without explaining them. Haneke has remarked about Amour that he didn’t know any more about his characters than what was in the screenplay. In this spirit, he examines how illness and the need for care disrupt a bourgeois family, and confronts viewers with scenes from the end of a life that veer between love and violence, murder and assisted dying.
The Austrian director Michael Haneke, born in Munich in 1942, is considered one of the most important film auteurs in Europe. As the film theorist Georg Seeßlen has commented, a sense of ‘inner glaciation — an illiteracy of feelings’ runs through Haneke’s cinematic oeuvre, and with it the question of how violence lurks behind the facade of bourgeois life. Many of his films have enjoyed great international success; these include Funny Games (1997), Caché (2005) and Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, 2009). Ever since his first feature film, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), which depicts the collective suicide of a family, Haneke has been interested in how people react when confronted with the suicidal wishes of loved ones, inspired in part by experiences within his own family. Twenty years later, Haneke had his parents’ apartment rebuilt as a film set to direct Amour, arguably his most intimate film, which earned him five Oscar nominations and the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2013.
How should we as a society deal with ageing, vulnerability, dying and death? It is quite apparent that this issue has been discussed more vehemently in recent years. In several European countries, legislation on passive euthanasia and assisted suicide finds itself in flux and is being addressed by the highest courts in the land. The German Federal Constitutional Court overturned a ban on assisted suicide in 2020. On 1 January 2022, assisted suicide also became legal in Austria; in April 2022, the death of disability rights activist Andrea Mielke was the first case of assisted suicide in Salzburg. In Amour, Haneke goes right to the ethical heart of this debate.
Co-produced by the Salzburg Festival and the Münchner Kammerspiele, this staging marks the first theatrical adaptation of a Michael Haneke film to be shown in Austria. Karin Henkel, one of the leading directors in German-speaking theatre and a fixture in Salzburg with productions such as Richard the Kid & the King (2021), takes a very free approach to Haneke’s masterpiece and resists a naturalistic treatment of this claustrophobic chamber piece. Instead, a kind of choreographed fragility emerges, inspired by Haneke’s subject matter: far from making a psychological study of the characters, Henkel stages their acutely vulnerable physicality. Working with a large ensemble of acting professionals and non-actors, she aims to translate the stressful demands of caregiving into a sensory experience and makes a ritual out of poetic images, though which she explores a self-determined way of dealing with sickness and death.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw
The text version contains excerpts from Das Leben ist ein vorübergehender Zustand by Gabriele von Arnim, © Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag 2021.