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Learning German From Michael Haneke

A serious man
Kevin Scanlon

The haunting final shot of The White Ribbon — a children’s choir singing in the balcony of a small church while the adult parishioners file in below — was among the first that occurred to the film’s writer-director, Michael Haneke. “I had the idea that these kids who are singing admire the ideals of their parents, but they take these ideals as absolutes and make them into a kind of ideology, which is very dangerous for other people,” he told me last summer. Haneke had stopped in L.A. on his way to the Telluride Film Festival, where The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, was receiving its North American premiere. “People who believe they own the truth become dangerous,” he added. “One of my first ideas for a title was The Right Hand of God, but it was too pedantic.”

Dogmatic ideologies — religious, political and social — are central to Haneke’s latest film, which unfolds in a rural German village during the year preceding the start of World War I. From its startling opening image of a horse tumbling over a trip wire and violently dislodging its rider, The White Ribbon traces a series of increasingly sinister “accidents” that befall the villagers, with no obvious culprit in sight. The young son of a wealthy baron is caned and hung upside down in a sawmill. Another boy, the mentally disabled son of a midwife, is nearly blinded; an anonymous note strung around his neck states that the children are being punished for the sins of their parents. Only, as The White Ribbon proceeds, the local schoolteacher (who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on the past) suspects with increasing conviction that it is the village’s stoic, strictly disciplined children who are actually doling out the punishment.

For those familiar with Haneke — whose best-known previous film, Caché (2005), focused on a bourgeois Paris book critic besieged by mysterious, voyeuristic videotapes sent from an unknown assailant — it will come as little surprise that The White Ribbon offers no tidy solution to its own sociological whodunnit. As usual in Haneke’s work, guilt or innocence is a collective rather than individual trait. The director, who began writing the movie’s screenplay more than a decade ago (initially as a TV miniseries), says he was intrigued by the way that “the appearance of German fascism and the appearance of Italian fascism were very different” — a difference the German-born, Austrian-raised Haneke chalks up to Germany’s unforgiving Protestant (as opposed to Catholic) roots. So he immersed himself in period research, with a particular emphasis on educational philosophies and techniques. The titular ribbon, which is tied around the arms of disobedient children as a reminder of the purity they strive for, was one such discovery. “It’s an enormous humiliation, because everybody knows what it means,” Haneke says. “On the other hand, this white ribbon makes the ones who wear it the heads of this children’s group.” Watching The White Ribbon, it isn’t difficult to imagine another type of empowering armband many German children who suffered the humiliations of World War I would come to wear a mere two decades later.

Haneke also took inspiration from Jonathan Littell’s controversial 2006 novel, The Kindly Ones, a fictional autobiography of an SS officer, which the filmmaker calls the best book about fascism he has ever read. “It’s an amazing book,” he says. “It’s very hard to read. It’s so cruel, it’s terrible. It’s an SS officer, very intelligent, who is responsible in the book for all these massacres, which are described in great detail. But you can understand him, because he says, ‘I have to suffer to do all these things for my ideology. It’s terrible what I’m doing, and I’m suffering so much, but I have to do this for my principles.’ That is very Protestant, very German. Of course, there are a lot of people who like to torture other people — that’s a different thing. But if you’ve read things like Eichmann saying, ‘I was an employee, and order is order,’ you see that where there is an ideology, and you are following rigorously this ideology, you have a good conscience.”

When I ask Haneke if he could imagine committing such atrocities, he quotes Goethe: “‘There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable.’ It’s very easy to say, now, for my generation and the generation of my children, ‘How did it happen, the Nazi time?’ It’s easy to say it if you are not in the situation. Maybe I would have killed someone just to save my own skin. It’s easy to say you wouldn’t, until you are in the situation.”

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!”

He also admits to a severe case of nerves on the night of The White Ribbon’s victory at Cannes, where his films had been lauded many times before but never with the coveted Palme. Even then, there were some naysayers who supposed that the fix was in, given that Huppert (who won a Cannes prize for her Piano Teacher performance) was the president of the competition jury. “I was very happy that, after the ceremony, the members of the jury came to me and said, ‘We agreed from the minute we saw the film that this would have the Palme,’ ” he says with the pride of the concert pianist who has finally made it to the stage of Carnegie Hall. “This was a relief for me.”

Next, Haneke will turn his attention from the very young to the very old in a film about the indignity of aging, which will reunite him with Huppert and will also star 79-year-old French film icon Jean-Louis Trintignant, who hasn’t played a leading role in more than a decade. “It’s a depressing theme, and I don’t know how much people will want to see it,” says Haneke, whose own aunt, with whom he was very close, committed suicide at 93, “because she had suffered enough. She was very clear in the head, but her body was falling apart. She didn’t want to go into a home for old people. So, it’s a theme that has interested me for a long time.”

And with that, Haneke sends me on my way, complete with a plate of leftovers.