THE WHITE RIBBON
AUTEUREGO Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has scored another critical success with his complex whodunnit The White Ribbon. Kaleem Aftab talks to him about his favourite themes: terror, guilt and violence
‘I ’m a control freak,’ says Michael Haneke. The current holder of the Palme d’Or cuts a striking figure as he sits in a London hotel room, dressed in a black shirt and trousers, his face framed by white hair and a beard.
The juxtaposition of darkness and light in his appearance is fitting. The 67-year-old writer and director is famous for bleak, unnerving and violent films such as Benny’s Video, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. Yet, amidst all the violence, it’s easy to overlook the good that surfaces in many of his characters. It’s a point the director himself makes when discussing the children who form the focus of The White Ribbon, his black and white film set in a German village in 1913. ‘I think that children are people just like you and me, no better and no worse,’ he explains. ‘I don’t think the film shows them as being bad at all. But if you want to approach the complexity and realities of life, you have to dig deeper.’
Haneke’s filmmaking is preoccupied by the desire to find reasons behind violence. The schoolgirl shot dead in Benny’s Video, the self- mutilation in The Piano Teacher, the terrorist acts featured in Hidden are all incidents that fascinate the Austrian filmmaker. In The White Ribbon, Haneke uses characters identified only by their occupation (baron, pastor, steward, school teacher, midwife and farmhand) to try and unearth the aspects of German society on the eve of World War I that made it possible for the Nazis to take power a generation later. Random acts of violence frequently occur in this village and it doesn’t take long before the focus of suspicion turns to the children.
‘What the film is trying to do is show the conditions in which people are prepared to follow an ideological position and it doesn’t really matter in the first place whether it’s a religious ideology, an ideology of the left or the right – that is not what is the important question,’ says Haneke. ‘The starting point for all of this is some hopeless and humiliating position that people find themselves in, and then along comes a ratcatcher who offers them a way out, whether it is a German fascist or a Stalinist that is another question entirely. The example of German fascism is simply the most obvious example and that is why I chose it.’ Haneke’s past films explore the notion that violence in society is caused by humans not learning from past mistakes. While his work is populated by mean, manipulative characters, Haneke is ambivalent about his evident
‘IF YOU WANT TO APPROACH THE COMPLEXITY AND REALITIES OF LIFE, YOU HAVE TO DIG DEEPER’
Clockwise from left: The White Ribbon, Hidden, Funny Games (2007)
fascination with cruelty. ‘You don’t have to be personally affected by something to be interested in it, to want to find out more about it and get explanations. There isn’t some sort of simple psychosocial explanation that can be used for these things. I’m often asked, for example, why my films are so dark and I don’t really have an explanation for that.’ He then adds with a mischievousness that surfaces at various moments throughout the conversation: ‘Only the devil knows!’ He is, though, far more certain about his own controlling nature. Satisfying this need was one of the reasons why he found the experience of making The White Ribbon so much more comfortable than his last film, the misconceived shot-by-shot Hollywood remake of Funny
Games, perhaps the only real blemish on what is otherwise an extraordinary CV. ‘The White Ribbon is undoubtedly the most complex film that I’ve made,’ he says. ‘It was also the most relaxed, because I automatically had everything under control because of the language. If you are in a restaurant and people are talking at the next table in your own language you can follow what is going on, but if it’s a foreign language you don’t follow what’s going on and if, like me, you are a control freak it’s extremely stressful if you can’t understand what people say.’
The son of director and actor Fritz Haneke and actress Beatrix Degenschild, Haneke was born in Munich, Germany during World War II, but grew up in the Austrian town of Wiener Neustadt. He made the short journey north to Vienna to study psychology, philosophy and theatrical studies, and after graduating worked as a film critic for three years before embarking on a career in television. He made his first feature film, The Seventh Continent, in 1989. He’s also a professor of directing at the Vienna Film Academy and made his debut as an opera director in 2006 when he staged Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Paris National Opera.
The auteur makes films that haunt the viewer long after the credits have rolled. Like the climax of Hidden, The White Ribbon ends with an ambiguous shot, which, he says, is all part of his modus operandi. ‘A film shouldn’t end on the screen, it should end in the heads of the spectator.’ Haneke’s Cannes win for The White Ribbon was controversial. There seemed something predestined in the fact that a jury headed by Isabelle Huppert should give him the Palme d’Or. The actress has appeared in a number of Haneke’s films and will appear in his next one, which he says will be set in France because the actors live there. The auteur, nonetheless, insists the win was a pleasant surprise. ‘Anyone who works in this business always hopes for a prize of this kind and I had, after all, received all the others at Cannes. But with Hidden I was the favourite to win [the Palme d’Or] and only got the director prize.’
Whatever the reasons behind Haneke’s win it’s difficult to deny such a great talent the acclaim of an international award that rightly identifies him as this decade’s great European auteur.
The White Ribbon is on selected release from Fri 13 Nov. See review, page 47. 5–19 Nov 2009 THE LIST 27