Michael Haneke interview
We talk to the director of complex whodunit The White Ribbon
Austrian writer and director Michael Haneke has scored another critical success with his complex whodunit The White Ribbon. Kaleem Aftab speaks to him about his favourite themes: terror and guilt.
‘I’m a control freak,’ says Michael Haneke, the current holder of the Palme d’Or. The Cannes prize-winning director is talking in a London hotel room, wearing a black shirt and trousers, German words spouting through his Santa Claus-esque white hair and beard.
The juxtaposition of darkness and light in his appearance is mirrored characters that populate his movies. The 67-year-old director is famous for bleak, unnerving and violent films such as Benny’s Video, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. Amidst all the abuse, it’s easy to overlook the good that surfaces in many of his characters. It’s a point that he himself makes when discussing the children who are 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 that 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 occupied by the desire to find reasons behind violence. The schoolgirl being shot dead in Benny’s Video, the self-mutilation in The Piano Teacher, the terrorist acts that feature in Hidden are all incidents that fascinate the Austrian. In The White Ribbon, Haneke uses characters known only by their occupation (a baron, pastor, steward, school teacher, midwife and farmhand) to try and discover the features 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 turns to the children.
‘What the film is trying to do is show the conditions under which people are prepared to follow an ideological position, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a religious ideology, an ideology of the left or the right. That is not what the important question is,’ he believes. ‘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.’
His past films deliver the clear message that the history of violence in society is caused by humans not learning from past mistakes. Manipulative and mean characters that highlight this view are his canvas. Yet on this fascination with cruelty, Haneke states, ‘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, however, far more sure 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 a quite extraordinary CV.
‘The White Ribbon is undoubtedly the most complex film that I’ve made,’ he argues. ‘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 between 1967 and 1970 before working 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 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, but it should end in the heads of the spectator.’
The suggestion in this statement is that what people infer when watching his films is what’s important. Ironically, inference is partly why his Cannes win was controversial. There seemed something predestined about the fact that a jury headed by Isabelle Huppert gave him the Palme d’Or. She 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 and only got the director prize.’ As with the dense plots of his films it’s hard to discern the motives at play here, however 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.