MICHAEL HANEKE UNCUT: Talking shop, theory, and practice with the director of The White Ribbon
by Alexander Horwath
ALEXANDER HORWATH: Is it a coincidence that you followed your American remake of Funny Games, a production that in some ways seems the most “foreign” in your career, with a work that moves deeper into your own culture and its history than any of your previous films?
MICHAEL HANEKE: It’s pure coincidence; nothing pre-planned about it. To be honest, it’s hard to talk about the “inner logic” of one’s own work. I rarely think about such things. It’s certainly easier to categorize after the fact. The so-called Austrian trilogy, for instance, was not planned as one. It was only after having made Benny’s Video that I thought there needed to be a third film. And later, too, it was more a question of what each production context allowed me to do, rather than any overall aesthetic notion of following this film with that film.
ALEXANDER HORWATH: So the new film isn’t a counter-reaction to your experience of working in the U.S.?
MICHAEL HANEKE: The only counter-reaction was that I was much more relaxed on the set of The White Ribbon! It’s a lot easier to control the situation if you work in your own language, and my English is not very good. As a control freak, I need to be fully aware of what goes on around me on the set. So, although The White Ribbon was by far the most complex, expensive, and time-consuming of my films, the work was also very easy and natural from my point of view.
ALEXANDER HORWATH: The film is set in 1913-14, in a small town in northern Germany. As a moment in history, this date carries great importance. On the other hand, the locale is extremely remote from the historical centers and important events. How did you arrive at this conjunction of time and place?
MICHAEL HANEKE: I think it’s always in the “small” places that larger events or developments are being rehearsed, in terms of the spiritual and moral climate. My basic idea was to tell the story of a group of kids who make an absolute of the ideals that are hammered into them by their parents and educators. They turn inhuman by appointing themselves as judges of those who do not live by what they preach. If the drill to which you’re exposed is really rigorous, it becomes a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of terrorism. You turn an ideal into an ideology, and all those who oppose it or are neutral toward it can be constructed as the enemy.
The choice to tell this story in a small town in Protestant Germany on the eve of World War I has a bit of a personal background, but the main reason was that it allowed the film to implicitly refer to things that went on later in the 20th century, or even today. The personal aspect is that I was the rare case of a Protestant child in Catholic Austria. And the rigor that I encountered in Protestantism as a boy was quite fascinating. It’s much more elitist and arrogant, if you like, than Catholicism, where you have a go-between between yourself and God. The Catholic priest can absolve you and take away your guilt, whereas in Protestantism you are directly accountable to God.
ALEXANDER HORWATH: And historically speaking, the generation of children that you show and the kind of “training” they were subjected to makes us think of their future roles as adults, or even of their own future offspring. I assume that’s why the voice of the narrator is that of a very old man. The distance between his voice and the appearance of his character in the film, a young teacher, opens up a wide range of historical experiences that lie between.
MICHAEL HANEKE: 1914 was the real cultural break. In Germany and Austria, the unity of God, Emperor, and Fatherland broke down with World War I, and in many ways World War II and postwar developments can be related to this. At the height of National Socialism, the 8- to 15-year-olds in The White Ribbon would have reached an age where one takes responsibility. But I was also thinking of the history of leftist terrorism, the Red Army Faction. Gudrun Ensslin was the fourth of seven daughters of an evangelical pastor, and Ulrike Meinhof also came from a very religious background. They both had this moral rigor that I found very interesting. I knew Meinhof a bit in the late-Sixties, when she prepared her teleplay Bambule for German Südwestfunk where I was a young broadcast editor. She didn’t appear to be a fanatic, actually. She was charming, highly educated, and pretty funny. Once, her children were late for school, and she told them that if it happened again they should justify it by saying “It’s the fault of capitalism.”
A different context, again with different roots but with a similar moral structure, is that of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. What all these groups and individuals share is that ideals are being turned into ideologies to a degree which is life-threatening—not only for other people but also for themselves, because they are willing to die for their convictions.
ALEXANDER HORWATH: Except for a brief and vague remark at the beginning, the narrator does not reflect on anything beyond this one story and these local characters. And his last words are: “I never saw any of them ever again.” The paradoxical effect, of course, is that we immediately start to think of where and when we might have encountered them in other shapes—throughout history or in our own lives. This is a good example of your double strategy to leave some things open but also leave enough traces for substantial interpretation.
MICHAEL HANEKE: I always look for the places in a story where leaving things open can become really productive for the viewer. I often compare filmmaking with building a ski jump; the actual jumping should be done by the audience. For the filmmaker, this is pretty hard—it’s much easier to do the jump yourself, to do it for the viewer. Because there’s always the fear of frustrating them. What do I have to indicate? What do I leave out? How much can I not spell out when constructing a film and still not frustrate the audience? Such strategies have become widely accepted in modern literature, but much less so in cinema. That’s a bit sad.
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