Michael Haneke discusses 'The White Ribbon'
Dave Calhoun met with Michael Haneke in Munich to discuss the details of his Palme d'Or winner, 'The White Ribbon'
Mysterious crimes start to happen – someone ties a wire between two posts and trips up the doctor’s horse; someone burns down a barn – and we wonder whether the rituals and strict, God-fearing regimes of these households may be connected with these acts of violence. This being a German story, we’re also provoked into thinking about Germany in the 1930s and ’40s. When the kids in the film become adults, who will they be? Will they be Nazis? Will they be complicit in the Holocaust? And what does the narrator of the film – telling the tale from decades in the future – know about this society that we don’t?
What Haneke presents is an astonishly precise historical story with universal significance and relevance for us all. It’s a period piece that couldn’t be more modern in its suggestions of the links between behaviour in the home and behaviour in the wider world.
Time Out caught up with Haneke in Munich in July, six weeks after winning the award at Cannes. He was in the Bavarian city to collect a lifetime achievement award from a local film festival and was jolly and upbeat, talking in German through a translator but regularly switching to English and clearly still high on the film’s hugely positive reaction in Cannes.
Congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or.
I first saw the film at Cannes and then caught it again in London last week.
‘In London? Was the projection okay? I always worry about these things [laughs].’
Yes, the screening was fine. I know that ‘The White Ribbon’ was a film you wanted to make for a long time. Why did it take so long?
‘It’s just as simple as the fact that I didn’t get the money together so quickly [laughs]. It had a budget of 12 million euros, and shooting with children causes problems too. It’s very regimented here in Germany and you can only shoot for a certain number of hours a day. Here you can go to jail if you don’t follow the rules about working with children [laughs].’
I’m glad you survived.
‘It’s happened here in Germany before that a producer had to go to jail after filming with kids and going over the time that was allowed.’
How did it feel going back to making a film in the German language?
‘It’s the first time in ten years I’ve shot in German, and I’m far more relaxed shooting in German. Since I’m a control freak, I can know exactly who’s saying what and doing what and have more control over the situation. It’s not just a question of being able explain what I want, more a case of feeling comfortable knowing what’s going on.
‘Although it’s the largest production I’ve done, my colleagues were surprised how relaxed and laid-back I was. “Funny Games US” was difficult because of my poor English. Even though it was a small production since I’d already done it before.’
Did your English improve when making ‘Funny Games US’?
‘I always had a translator with me, but in certain situations, that’s a little bit difficult. For a complex scene, it was difficult. I always had the impression I wasn’t being precise enough. It was much easier in German.’
You set this film over a year from 1913 to 1914. Why 1913? You give us a study of an almost feudal village, but one on the edge of the modern age.
‘The village is always the easiest model to use to cut through society. You can show the hierarchy of a society in one place. You have a good overview.’
Do you think 1913 was the latest time in Europe you could portray that sort of hierarchical structure, from the baron right down to the farm workers?
‘The beginning of World War One was the first big break in society and you could see things changing internationally. The feudal society that had existed for thousands of years before came to an abrupt end.
‘But it’s not necessarily about that point in time. It could have been set at a different time about a different situation. It could have been set in an Arabic country even. It’s about the origin of evil, the origin of radicalism and terrorism. But since it’s a German film, this is the best example of this situation in German society. I don’t want it to be understood solely as a film about German fascism.’
Are you hopeful that people see the film’s themes – repression in the household, punishment, shame – as relevant to any society?
‘I want to show how all sorts of suppression can make you open to an idea when someone comes along and says: “I can save you.” It’s like the story of the Pied Piper… It’s the war that takes place between people that makes them receptive to such ideologies. The civil war between groups of people.’
You’ve been planning this film over ten years. Were you thinking about the roots of modern radicalism too, perhaps Islamic fundamentalism?
‘Of course, you deal with what you see and hear every day and anyone who makes a serious film is dealing with today’s reality. That’s why there are so few good films about the Holocaust because people get caught up in telling a history, get lost in the background. This film is talking about us today, not back then.’
Several of your films have partly been reactions to the failings of other films. ‘The Time of the Wolf’ was a reaction to films about the apocalypse. ‘Funny Games’ was a comment on screen violence. Do you think this film is filling a gap in relation to films about this period of history?
‘My films would not be the films that they are if current cinema was not in the state it’s in now. Of course it’s a reaction to what’s going on.’
I’d like to hear more about what you think has been lacking in films about modern German history, in particular about the rise and execution of fascism.
‘I don’t want to judge the works of other colleagues in interviews. But taking “Schindler’s List” as the most famous example, there’s a scene in that film when we don’t know if there’s gas or water coming out in the showers in the camp. You can only do something like that with a naive audience like in the United States. It’s not an appropriate use of the form. Spielberg meant well – but it was dumb. It’s very difficult in German cinema because of the guilt that’s still present. It often drifts off into a sentimentality that’s not appropriate for the subject.’
Do you feel that by looking at German society in 1913 and by looking at the roots of the events of the 1930s and '40s, you were removing yourself from that more sentimental territory?
‘Not really, I just found it interesting. There have been so many films about the roots of fascism, but not about this generation. The whole use of Germany and the example of fascism is exactly that – an example. It’s very important that the film and its themes and the fact that it’s taking place in Germany are seen internationally as just an example.’
I’d like to talk about the role of your narrator, who we know is talking from the future – or at least the future of the era in the film. I ended up assuming that he was narrating from about the mid-1960s. In terms of why you have a narrator – is it partly to lend a subjectivity to the film, to stress that this film is just a suggestion, a theory? It gives room for interpretation.
‘The narrator says that some of the things he’s going to say he heard from hearsay and he doesn’t know exactly how true this all of this is…’
I think the narrator also puts a little more of you in the film too.
‘No, not at all. He exists to present the situation as a model and to create a distance from the story being told. The use of black and white is similar – to create a distance from a false naturalism that suggests we know exactly what happened and we’re going to show it to you.’
The narrator also causes us to think of later German history.
‘In the 1970s, the narrator could also know something about the Red Army Faction and everything that was taking place here in Germany.’
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the film in relation to the Baader Meinhof group at all.
‘Some of the big names from that movement also came from Protestant homes. But I don’t want this to be thought of as against Protestantism in any way. A lot of German intellectuals also emerged from preachers’ homes. But Protestantism has a certain rigidness that’s very close to fanaticism.’
I think the lesson is that while this film is partly about many things, it’s not entirely about any… Did you have an exact year in mind that the narrator was telling this story from? The 1970s?
‘Yes, of course. The man’s voice suggests he could be 85 or 90.’
One overriding suggestion in the film seems to be that you can in some ways judge the health of a society by what goes on behind closed doors.
‘Yes, of course. If there was one title that could be applied to all my films, it would be “Civil War” – not necessarily civil war in the way we know it, but the daily war that goes on between us all. All the big wars can be traced back to all these small ones between all of us. I always try to build models to show the big picture with the small model.’
Is it important that the village in ‘The White Ribbon’ should not be seen as unusual, despite the build-up of strange acts we witness or hear about – the doctor’s horse being tripped over, an industrial accident, a barn set ablaze…
‘These aren’t such unusual things. It should be seen as a normal village. The dramatic form, of course, condenses everything. But it’s important that it doesn’t seem unbelievable or that it could not be taking place somewhere else.’
In terms of storytelling, these crimes introduce a form of mystery, which I think is comparable to what you do in ‘Hidden’.
‘Mystery is a good dramatic form!’
But it feels more in the background here, the mystery element is not as dominant.
‘This is a much more epic film than “Hidden”. “Hidden” is a kind of thriller. Here, the mystery is just the means to an end.’
This is a period film, you recreate this village in 1913. You’re a very precise filmmaker. You describe yourself as a control freak. How waylaid were you by historical precision?
‘I read a lot of material about bringing up children in the countryside during that period. About rules and behaviour. A lot of stories appear in the film that have been taken from books. For example, the use of the white ribbon as a means of punishment was taken directly from a book about how to bring up kids. It was a method of a child being visually reminded of what they had done without using violence. Also, the farmer who attacks the cabbage crop – stories like that came out of books too. There were traditions that I wasn’t aware of before. It’s difficult to invent things like that!’
Your illustration of tying a white ribbon round a child’s arm as a form of punishment suggests that shame is a very destructive force.
‘Yes, absolutely. I also used a lot of photos from that period as that was one of the first times to be documented by photos. It helped a lot for the costumes and the hairstyles. It was a lot of work!’
Was it all shot on location?
‘It was a huge effort. The village, for example, is about 150 kilometres from Berlin and the castle is near the Baltic Sea. It was impossible to find a location that had both. In former East Germany they’re either run down or they’ve been renovated to death. About a quarter of the village was rebuilt to look like that time. A couple of the houses were completely built from new. The pastor’s house was shot in a studio.’
There’s a scene when the baron’s wife lists all the things she thinks are wrong with the village. But the baron responds by changing the subject and asking about her suspected adultery. He can’t see her accusations. Similarly, the teacher talks to the pastor and accuses his children of bad behaviour and his reaction is of fury. He can’t recognise the possibility. The theme of blindness is very strong in the film.
‘The pastor is not willing to accept the situation, otherwise his entire life would fall apart. They’re not evil people, it’s just the situation. The pastor is a man who loves his children and is convinced he’s doing the right thing. It’s a shock to him because as soon as he sees the murdered bird on his desk he knows that the teacher’s accusations are true. It’s not so funny for him.’
How was it working with such a large cast?
‘Well, it’s not my first time with a large cast. “The Time of the Wolf” had a large cast too. If you have good actors, it’s easy. The children were difficult to find though. We looked at 7,000 children over six months to find these ten, 15 children. It was difficult.’
We started by talking about why this is set in 1913 and how it’s only partly a German story and could be set anywhere. But, personally to you, you were born here in Munich, where we’re talking…
‘…it was a coincidence!’
…but you were born here in 1942 and 1913 and 1914 was the era of the youth of your parents. Was there any curiosity on your part about your parents’ generation that inspired your thinking about the film?
‘No, there’s no context about my parents or wanting to get to know that generation. It’s simply, as I said earlier, using this time as an example to get to the story. But there’s no relation to my own background or to my parents.’
As a filmmaker, when you’re writing characters and talking to actors about characters, do you like to create a background and a future for your characters? Whether in your own mind or in discussion?
‘No! I don’t answer any questions! [laughs] If an actor says to me, all I know is what’s written in the script, then I say to them: you’re an actor, you have to find it out! Just do it! [laughs] Because it’s boring. Discussing on the set is boring. I hate it. I say: you’re sitting here, you’re sitting there, then you stand up on this phrase. Do it, and then we’ll see. No asking: what did my grandfather do to me when I was a little child? [laughs]’
Don’t you find that some actors expect or need that?
‘Yes, from time to time. American actors like this. They’ve had a bad education! But generally not. If they do, I just make a joke of it. If the casting is right and you’re the right actor for the part, you don’t need a background from 20 years before.'
As a viewer, though, I found this film constantly begged the question: what happens to these people later on? Who do they become? Especially as the film is set on the eve of great change and we know these children will be adults under National Socialism.
‘Yes, it creates that desire in the viewer. That’s the trick! [laughs] It’s up to you to think about it. Generally, when people see my films, they come up to my afterwards and say, “Why did you mean in ‘Hidden’? Who sent the tapes?” It’s up to you to decide! It’s up to you to decide what did it and why. I always say a film should be like a ski jump. The film is the jump, but once you’re in the air, you’re on your own. But it’s important that the jump is well-constructed in the first place.'
Read our review of 'The White Ribbon'.
Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun
Director Tom Hooper and his cast tell us how they turned the super-musical into movie blockbuster.
The Time Out film team weighs in on the nominees for the 2013 Academy Awards
Get ready for the big guns… Spielberg, Tarantino and Bigelow
Daniel Craig’s 007 comeback, a genius indie romcom and all the mysteries behind ‘The Shining’ unravelled.
The results of our study on the state of films and filmgoing in 2012.
Read 'Time Out film debate 2012 highlights'
'The Hobbit' actor tells us why he wouldn't have a pint with Bilbo Baggins.
Dave Calhoun speaks to the director of 'Skyfall' about the latest film in the Bond franchise.
The genre-hopping director tells us how he invented a new genre with 'Life of Pi'
The twice Palme d'Or-winning director discusses 'Amour'.
Read our interview with Michael Haneke
The Danish director talks about his powerful new drama 'The Hunt'.
Read our interview with Thomas Vinterberg'
Time Out looks back at the impact of the 'Twilight' saga.
Discover what 'Twilight' has done for us
Time Out heads to the Lake District to visit director Ben Wheatley on set.
Read about our visit to the 'Sightseers' set
The director talks about 'Frankenweenie', which he describes as 'the ultimate memory piece'.
Read our interview with Tim burton
Our pick of the best films showing over the festive period.
Read 'The top ten Christmas films of 2012'
Mean Girls? Dirty Dancing? Tell us your favourite film guilty pleasure.
Read 'Film guilty pleasures'
What will Disney do to 'Star Wars'?
Read about the new 'Star Wars' trilogy
Ten young actors come of age on the silver screen.
Read 'When teen stars turn serious'
From Connery to Craig, we revisit all 22 Bond films.
Read '50 years of James Bond'
The director talks Scientology and working with Joaquin Phoenix.
Read the interview
Ten funny horror movies which went spectacularly off the rails.
Read 'Hilarious horror films'
The director talks psychopaths and theatre – 'my least favourite artform'.
Read the interview
We round-up the five best horror movies of Autumn 2012.
Read about this Autumn's best horror movies
Time Out visits Istanbul to see the latest Bond movie being made.
Read 'On the set of Skyfall'
Does Skyfall refresh or rehash the James Bond franchise?
The British director explains why 'Ginger and Rosa' is her most mainstream film yet.
'I’m almost as in demand as Brad Pitt’