Michael Haneke has long been one of the arthouse circuit’s premier provocateurs, a cold-blooded Lars von Trier cousin who delights in making audiences squirm. His movies hinge, almost invariably, on acts of violence, often committed out of a sense of curiosity rather than as crimes of passion. The forces that drive the smiling killers of Funny Games or the budding sociopath of Benny’s Video have more to do with Nietzsche than Freud; they torment others not to exorcise inner demons, but as a means of remaking their own image, as refracted through the prism of mass media. Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon, is something of a departure, not just because of its classical black-and-white style, but because it’s the first of Haneke’s features to take place before the dawn of television. Set in a small north German village on the eve of the first World War, the film concerns a string of mysterious, apparently unconnected acts of violence that trouble the formerly peaceful hamlet. A surreptitiously strung wire hobbles a doctor’s horse and injures him; a teacher’s mentally impaired son is kidnapped and tortured. As in Haneke’s Caché, the violence seems to be free-floating and self-perpetuating, as if a disembodied malevolence has settled on the town. It’s the closest thing he’s made to a horror movie, or a supernatural thriller in the vein of Village Of The Damned, and it stands a good chance of finally breaking Haneke through to a wider audience in America. While he was in the U.S. for the New York Film Festival in October, Haneke and a translator sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about media fascism, the dangers of religion, and why he isn’t interested in artistic masturbation.
The A.V. Club: What was the first element of the story that fell into place?
Michael Haneke: It was so long ago. I wrote the script 10 years ago, and it had been percolating in my mind for the 10 years previous to that. But the answer—if you want to know the starting point of the film, the original idea I had was the story of a church choir in protestant northern Germany before the first World War. I like the idea of children who had internalized the moral imperatives that they’d been taught by their parents, and then judged their parents according to the moral imperatives that they preached. That was the starting point for the film.
AVC: Is there a reason for the particular region the film is set in? Is it a part of Germany that’s particularly close to Austria?
MH: No. Germany, in terms of religion, at least, is divided in two. The northern part is mainly Protestant, and the southern part is more Catholic, and it’s the southern part that’s closer to Austria and similar in terms of religion. The people in the north that are in this film are Protestant, and I was interested in dealing with Protestantism because of the rigor and strictness and severity of that religion.
AVC: In some ways, the movie focuses on the dangers of religion. One of the children says something like “I told God to strike me down and he didn’t, therefore I must be blameless.” What role do you see religion playing in this story?
MH: It’s a very complex theme. However, I think people would be wrong if they saw my film as a diatribe against religion. The gospels are something beautiful, but the Crusades were less beautiful than that. So we’re really talking about the church and what the church is. I think that religion is an integral part of human needs, but the question also is how you understand religion. I think that we need ideals to live. It’s impossible to consider living without ideals. However, when ideas lead to ideology, that’s a very dangerous thing. Ideology then leads to creating the image of an enemy, and it leads to the murder and massacre that we’ve seen since the beginning of time. If you think of how much blood has been shed by man against man over the course of human history, then probably religion is the greatest culprit of all of them—whichever religion at all you’re talking about. The difficulty, then, is when you create a church, an institution, and you create a dogma. When you create an ideology, that’s the danger. Communism, too, is a beautiful idea, but millions of people died when communism became an ideology.
AVC: The film is framed by a narrator who, based on the sound of his voice, is looking back from many years after the fact. What was useful to you about putting that frame around the story?
MH: For me, it’s always difficult when a historical film claims to depict or represent a reality that none of us can know, that is always different. It’s always the case. We never know what happened then. So my approach with the narrator is to question that, to leave that open, to underline the fact that this is uncertain. In general, in all my films, I choose to create a certain mistrust, rather than claiming that what I’m showing onscreen is an accurate reproduction of reality. I want people to question what they are seeing onscreen. In the same way as I used the narrator, I also used black and white, because it creates a distance toward what’s being seen. I see the film as an artifact rather than a reliable reconstruction of a reality that we cannot know.
AVC: In terms of the way it’s shot and edited, as well as the black-and-white cinematography, the film has a comparatively classical feel. Is that part of creating that distance?
MH: It seemed to me the appropriate choice for this story, this novelistic form that comes to us from the 19th century. Classicism becomes avant-garde when everyone else is doing their utmost to develop new stylistic forms. I think it’s healthy to return to classical forms.
AVC: You said one of your reasons for doing an American remake of Funny Games was that you felt the original film didn’t reach as wide an audience as you would have liked. The form of The White Ribbon is much less confrontational, and in some ways more conventional than your other movies. Is that part of reaching out to a broader audience?
MH: Funny Games was conceived as a provocation. My other films are different. If people feel my other films are, or respond to them as provocation, then that’s quite different. Funny Games is the only one of mine where my intention was to provoke the audience.
AVC: There are artists whose attitude is “My work is my work, and if people see it or not, I have no control over that.” But your films seem to demand a response from the audience. The way people react to them is as much a part of the film as the object itself. How important is reaching an audience to you?
MH: If a director says he doesn’t care how many people see his films at all, I simply don’t believe him. Otherwise why would he bother to make the film? The only explanation would be that it would be an act of masturbation. I think that every creator is looking for a receptor. He’s looking for an audience. There are two parts of the equation: a creator and, necessarily, the receiver of the work. It’s the same thing for a painter who wants his paintings to be seen. However, if you betray your principles in the hopes of reaching a wider audience, then that’s as fatal as betraying your belief. Even the most elitist director or author who claims that he doesn’t care if his works are seen or not, then I have to think that he’s either a liar or a hypocrite.
AVC: There’s such a proliferation of violent imagery in film—you can see almost anything being done to anyone, often in this cinéma vérité style. But The White Ribbon is fairly circumspect about violence, and more powerful because of it. We can’t tell, for example, exactly what’s been done to the retarded boy’s eyes, but that doesn’t take the horror out of the image of his blood-smeared face.
MH: I always seek to mobilize, to call on the imagination of the spectator. It’s well-known that the images that are created by one’s imagination are far stronger than any that I can show. In fact, it’s an error, a widespread error in mainstream cinema, to always want to show things and to depict things. Because as you say, we’re overwhelmed by it, because there are so many of these images, and in fact we become inured to it through overuse. It seems ridiculous. To me, it’s far more efficient to mobilize the imagination. It’s far more efficient to hear a creaking step, for example, than to see the face of a monster, which usually looks ridiculous, and where you know that the blood is ketchup.
AVC: That goes not just for images, but for plot as well. In this movie and in Caché, for example, you don’t connect all the dots. We never know exactly who did what to whom. In the same way that you’re not showing everything that happened, you don’t tell us everything that happened, either.
MH: First of all, in real life, we don’t know—there’s so much that we don’t understand. If someone’s lying to us, then it’s rare that we know that they’re lying to us. It’s only in bad films that you recognize immediately that an actor’s playing in such a way that you can see that he’s lying, and that’s simply dumb. But to reach that, it requires that you make a film in such a way that a spectator feels compelled to find his own explanation. You want to lead the spectator to find his own interpretation. To ask questions rather than provide all of the answers. Doing that leads to open endings and open dramaturgy.
AVC: Audiences these days often seem impatient with movies that don’t provide them with answers. You can hear the volume of chatter rising in the theater, or see them starting to pull out their cell phones. Is it more difficult now to find an audience for that kind of work, and keep them engaged?
MH: I can’t judge the audience. I’m not sure if what you say is true. Up to now, fortunately, all of my films have done rather well. My feeling, however, is that films that are open are more productive for the audience. The films that, if I’m in a cinema, and I’m watching a movie that answers all the questions that it raises, it’s a film that bores me. In the same way, if I’m reading a book that doesn’t leave me with questions, moving questions, that I feel confronted with, then for me it’s a waste of time. I don’t want to read a book that simply confirms what I already know.
AVC: Even some of some of the great Hollywood directors worked that way. Howard Hawks didn’t know who killed the first person at the beginning of The Big Sleep.
MH: [Raymond] Chandler either.
AVC: Or even William Faulkner, who adapted Chandler’s novels. And Alfred Hitchcock was very impatient with people who wanted to know how everything worked.
MH: Because it is boring to have all the answers. Only political people have answers.
AVC: That is one of the characteristics of fascism, the idea that the state can provide all of the answers for everyone.
MH: That’s the daily fascism of the media.
AVC: Do you think there’s a connection between that fascism and political fascism?
MH: Of course there’s a relationship between them. It plays on the basic need of mankind for a sense of security. Every form of anti-Semitism, every form of xenophobia plays on this fear of the unknown, and unfortunately there are all too many politicians who know how to manipulate that. The dumber people are, the more they feel the need for a broad set of shoulders they can lay their head against.
AVC: To what extent are the victims in the film, the doctor and the boy and the baron’s son, allegorical? Are they intended to represent the eventual targets of Nazi fascism?
MH: I leave that interpretation up to each spectator. I don’t want to provide an instruction manual as to how different themes in the film should be seen.
AVC: Based on the opening narration saying “This might explain some things that happened in my country,” we might expect a more neat explanation. For example, there’s a Jew in the village, and people start saying anti-Semitic things, and that will show that Nazism is on the way. But you don’t take the obvious route. What happens is much more ambiguous.
MH: It would be too simple if we were to reduce the film to that specific a phenomenon. The basic model of behavior that you see in this film applies to every country and to every age. It would be a mistake if you saw this film simply about Germany and about German National Socialism. Audiences in Germany should see the film as a film about Germany, and in the same way, I think that American audiences should see this film about America.
AVC: There is a real danger in period pieces that people will see them as only being about the past. There have been a number of films recently—Downfall in Germany and Valkyrie in the U.S.—to take on this period, and they give you a sense of closure at the end, a feeling that the book has been closed. That’s profoundly dangerous in some ways.
MH: I haven’t seen Valkyrie yet. Downfall, I saw, and I found it a very questionable film.
AVC: From your point of view, I assume it’s critical to avoid the trap of having The White Ribbon be seen as not just about Germany, or just about the past.
MH: After having spoken with many people about the film, it’s my impression that most of them understand that this is a film that’s timeless and not limited to the period and place that it depicts. Unfortunately, you’re helpless when people interpret your work wrongly. There are simply people who can’t or won’t understand or accept what you’re trying to do. When you take the risk of expressing yourself in public, you have to open yourself to that possibility.