Michael Haneke is the master filmmaker of the modern world. More than any of his contemporaries, or even his descendants, Haneke has displayed an unparalleled understanding of how films should deal with contemporary technology. As auterist works like Benny's Video, Caché, and Funny Games (both the original and the notorious American remake) prove, Haneke is the poet of video cameras, the philosopher of television, deconstructing technology and that audience's expectations of it with his red blinking light.
Which is why it came as something of a shock to learn that his latest project, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergestchichte) , is set a long time ago, in a land far, far away—so far, in fact, that in this land they don’t even have cars, let alone TVs. Set in a German village in 1913 and 1914, The White Ribbon posed a significant challenge to Haneke’s weltanschaaung—was it developed enough to make a project that didn’t address issues of contemporary technology in some way? The verdict, naturally, is yes.
Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, The White Ribbon is a fiercely damning portrait of the German educational and familial institutions of the era. While Nazism is never explicitly referenced in the film (as of course it did not yet exist), the audience is still aware—and uneasy—of the fact that the generation of children being raised in this film's brutally oppressive world would be shouting “Seig Heil!” twenty years later. I was fortunate enough to sit down in a roundtable discussion with Haneke and a few other critics during this year’s New York Film Festival.
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about the ways in which you like to use the genre conventions of the thriller in order to advance your own ends in your films?
MH: The genre conventions are the tools, the glue that I use to keep the audience in their seats. Suspense is a dramatic means, a dramatic process that I use for that end.
Tribeca: So you almost view it as a kind of Trojan horse, to use to keep the audience invested in the story, so that you have their full attention for advancing your larger points?
MH: The highest rule in both cinema and on stage is to not bore your audience, and suspense is the greatest means of achieving that.
Tribeca: Do you find that the influence of fascism comes from the punishments as inflicted in the school system and households?
MH: The film shows how people can be made to follow an idea, an ideology, and for that reason I used the best-known example of that ideology, which is German fascism. But I don’t think the film is specifically about German fascism—rather, I think the film uses that specific historical context to examine the broader question of how people can be manipulated in such a way as to follow ideology, to grasp at ideology to save themselves.
Tribeca: The film feels very literary. Were you inspired by literature in any particular way, and by any particular authors—perhaps (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky?
MH: [laughs] That’s a very flattering comparison. But yes, of course I was inspired by literature. Most of us know this period of time through literature, so that made it easier for the spectator to enter the story. That’s also part of why I chose to shoot the film in black and white, and why I chose to present the film with the narrator in the very beginning, saying, “I don’t know how accurate this is.” That’s what I try to do with all my films, to fuel the mistrust the audience has for what I’m depicting—I never pretend that what I’m showing is an exact depiction of what actually took place. That’s the problem with historic films that claim to depict things exactly as they were.
Tribeca: Was there any conscious (Robert) Bresson influence, with the pastoral setting, the religious themes? I understand Diary of a Country Priest is your favorite film.
MH: There are many directors I admire and it’s well known that Bresson’s a huge influence on me. However, it’s not so much that when I’m directing a specific film I try to imagine how others would do it—when I’m there, I’m trying to discover my own approach to what this story requires. If you want me to mention a visual reference we used for this film, I would mention August Sander, who was the German photographer of the period, and whose work influenced us in trying to create a look for the film. The extreme sharpness of the images that you see onscreen was impossible to create until the advent, a few years ago, of digital post-production. Even though the film is in black and white, we had to shoot the film on color film stock, because black and white isn’t sensitive enough to natural lighting to be able to use with natural lighting. The problem, however, when you’re shooting with color film stock, candlelight, is that the faces get a pinkish shimmer, and when you filter out the pink, you’re left with faces that are a little fuzzy. So we had to sharpen each face individually in order to get that very sharp outline, and that was a lot of work.
Tribeca: Can you talk about the challenges for you in depicting scenes of extreme physical violence?
MH: In fact, there’s very little violence in my films that is depicted onscreen. If you were to bring together all the violence in my films and lay it end to end, you’d find that there’s less violence than in the most banal TV thriller. The only reason the violence is so powerful is because it’s not shown, it’s not visible—I call upon the spectator’s imagination to conjure what I allude to, and the spectator’s imagination is far more powerful than any image you can provide them. I remember reading a very amusing review of Benny’s Video that went into great detail as to how Benny kills the girl. This was all the more striking because that murder doesn’t take place onscreen, yet that critic responded as if he had seen it.
Tribeca: What was it like to be working in your native language of German again?
MH: It’s true that you’re much more comfortable when working in your mother tongue, but not because of communicating with actors—they’re forced to listen while you’re explaining what you want. The problem is that it’s harder, in a foreign tongue, to follow what’s going on around you, especially when you’re a control freak like me—you can’t follow conversations as easily. It’s very unsettling for all this commotion to be happening around you and not being able to understand what’s going on.
Tribeca: I understand that you studied philosophy in university, and I’m wondering what role, if any, philosophizing plays in the conception of your films?
MH: It has nothing to do with the films that I make. I went into philosophy with the belief that it would provide me with the answers to the questions that I was looking for. It was an important process, but the truth was that I realized I would never have the answers to those questions, and it hasn’t been an influence on my work—at least not a direct one.
The White Ribbon opens Wednesday, December 30 in New York and Los Angeles.