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Indeed, for all its explicitly German context, the implications of The White Ribbon as a parable about the seeds of fanaticism have no geographic or temporal borders. “That’s what I would like to say in every interview: Don’t just take this movie as a story about German fascism,” Haneke says enthusiastically when I raise the point. “Yes, I tell this story, but I’m showing a model. You could make the same film in an Arabic country today. Of course, the film would be completely different, but the model is the same. If you are in a position of humiliation and weakness, you take this straw from an ideology, and then you have an enemy and you can emancipate yourself.”
On the international stage, where he is, along with Pedro Almodóvar and Woody Allen, one of the few “art house” directors whose name alone guarantees a certain level of worldwide box office, the 67-year-old Haneke has been alternately exalted as a master of modern cinema and caricatured by his critics as a scold who wags the finger of moral rectitude from a high perch. It is an image no doubt abetted by the stern figure Haneke cuts in person, with his preference for head-to-toe black suits, his carefully parted white hair and formidable white beard. “At the age of 14, I wanted to become a pastor,” Haneke says, laughing at the stereotype. “And people who don’t wish me well say you can still see it in my films nowadays.”
In reality, as I discovered while profiling him for this paper two years ago, Haneke is a surprisingly approachable and good-humored individual who also happens to be a relentlessly ambitious artist with a perfectionist’s obsessive temperament. In that interview and others, Haneke related the childhood memory of his stepfather — a professional musician — disabusing him of his dream of becoming a concert pianist. While he maintains that he is grateful for having been so dissuaded, in talking to Haneke and in seeing his films, one can still periodically glimpse that determined teenager seated at the ivories, aspiring to greatness.
It’s now late October, and Haneke has invited me for lunch at the third-floor double apartment he shares with his wife, Susi, in central Vienna, not far from the houses of Parliament, where The White Ribbon had just received its gala Austrian premiere. We enter through Haneke’s office, an uncluttered, white-walled workspace that could just as soon belong to the protagonist of Caché. But the rest of the rooms are incongruously cozy, decorated by Susi, who runs a nearby antique shop. Nothing, however, is quite as incongruous as the sight of Haneke standing in his kitchen, sautéeing chicken breasts on the stove, while his wife prepares a garden salad. When I suggest that no one reading this article will believe this portrait of Haneke the domestic, the director once more expresses his perplexity at the idea that he is somehow the living embodiment of his films.
Over lunch, Haneke, who has frequently worked with child actors, elaborates on the difficulty of making a film in which nearly all of the principal roles are played by minors. Over seven months, he and his casting directors auditioned more than 7,000 children, steering largely clear of camera-trained child actors and models. “I was looking for old faces,” says Haneke, who relied heavily on the work of the portrait photographer August Sander as a visual guide to the period. Making the film in black-and-white was another Haneke mandate, though given the expense and technical limitations of actual monochrome negative, the film was, like most contemporary black-and-white movies, shot on color stock (by his frequent cinematographer, the gifted Christian Berger) and later transferred. The result is a movie that feels as timeless as Haneke’s other works of the last decade seemed elementally modern in their recurring themes of emotional anesthetization and broken lines of communication.
Haneke admits to becoming depressed on set when he isn’t getting what he wants. For one of the most intense scenes in The White Ribbon, in which the youngest son of the village pastor offers his father a baby bird as a replacement for a beloved pet that has been found dead, he spent nearly a full day shooting with the child actor Thibault Sérié before throwing up his hands in frustration. “Finally, I said, ‘We will never have it right.’ Then we did it again and it was good. It’s a good strategy. I did it also with adult actors.”
Haneke notes one scene from 2001’s The Piano Teacher, in which the sadomasochistic title character (played by Isabelle Huppert) and one of her pupils have sex in the school locker room during a break from the boy’s hockey practice. “The whole scene was shot in one take, and it was very difficult,” he recalls. “We did it several times, and once it was very good. Then we looked at it on the video monitor and I saw that the makeup woman was in the shot. I was furious. Isabelle, too. We had to do it again, and we did it again and again, and it was bullshit. So I said, ‘Okay, the light is going, I know we will not get it.’ Then we did it one more time, and it was fantastic!”
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