Michael Haneke: The man behind the menace

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The Austrian director Michael Haneke came to London last week for the British premiere of his latest film, ‘The White Ribbon’. For Dave Calhoun, it was the end of a journey that began with the first unveiling of this extraordinary film in Cannes this May

May 22 2009, Cannes Film Festival, France

Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ has its world premiere at Cannes. The last time this 67-year-old Austrian was at the festival was in 2005 when he won the best director prize for ‘Hidden’, a film which still has fans of this thriller asking: so, who did send the tapes?At Cannes, one of Haneke’s regular actresses, Isabelle Huppert, who starred in his ‘The Piano Teacher’ and ‘The Time of the Wolf’, is president of the jury and there’s talk that Haneke may miss out on a major prize to avoid charges of favouritism. But then the former theatre and TV director, whose first cinema film was ‘The Seventh Continent’ in 1989, wins the Palme d’Or, beating memorable but flawed films by Jacques Audiard (‘A Prophet’) and Lars Von Trier (‘Antichrist’).

The White Ribbon 1.jpg
 A scene from 'The White Ribbon'
The truth is that ‘The White Ribbon’ is the best work in the competition: a solemn portrait of life in a Protestant German village during 1913 and 1914 that’s so hierarchical it feels feudal. It’s an epic film, local in focus, universal in meaning. We observe the lives of the village pastor, doctor, baron, steward and their families as a series of violent acts – someone spoils the crops, a woman dies in an industrial accident – occur over several months.

One finger points at the stifling atmosphere in these homes as children are ritually shamed by their parents (the ‘white ribbon’ of the title is one such ritual, a piece of cloth tied round a child’s arm as a punishment). Another points ahead in history to the 1930s and ’40s and the adults these kids will become.

That second aspect is a more teasing element of the film, one that’s left to our imagination but stoked by a narration delivered by one of the characters from a few decades later, in the 1960s or ’70s perhaps. Fascism is the elephant in the screening room.

‘But I don’t want it to be understood only as a film about German fascism,’ Haneke tells me later. ‘It’s about the origins of evil, the origins of radicalism and terrorism. I want to show how all sorts of suppression can make you open to an idea when someone comes along saying they can save you.’

Haneke is tracing a line between repression in the home and corruption in the community. He thinks the German example is a strong one but adds, ‘It could have been set in an Arab country.’ He started writing ‘The White Ribbon’ ten years ago. Was he partly inspired by thinking about the roots of modern terrorism? ‘Of course, you deal with what you see and hear every day. Anyone who makes a serious film deals with today’s reality.’

July 5, 2009, Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich

 Hidden.jpg
 A scene from 2005's 'Hidden'
Haneke is in Munich to receive a lifetime achievement award at a local film festival and we meet on a Sunday afternoon in the city’s grandest hotel to talk about ‘The White Ribbon’. Haneke was born in Munich in 1942 but moved to Austria as a child and now moves between Vienna and Paris. I mention that we’re in his birthplace. ‘Yes,’ he says, with a chuckle. ‘But this is just a coincidence.’ Haneke doesn’t do false sentiment.What he does do, which may surprise those who know only his films (the apocalypse of ‘The Time of the Wolf’, the torture of ‘Funny Games’, the mutilation of ‘The Piano Teacher’), is a lot of laughing. ‘It’s not me who’s terrifying,’ I overhear him reassuring someone at a dinner in London later in the year. ‘It’s my films.’‘The White Ribbon’ is his first film in German since ‘Funny Games’ in 1997. Since then, he’s worked almost exclusively in French, from ‘Code Unknown’ in 2000 to ‘Hidden’ in 2005. The one exception was his last film, an English-language remake of ‘Funny Games’ which he shot in 2007 in New York state. How did it feel to return to the German language? ‘I’m far more relaxed with German,’ he says. ‘I’m a control freak. I like to know exactly who’s saying and doing what.’ I tell him I saw ‘The White Ribbon’ for a second time in London just before flying out to meet him. He looks worried. ‘Was it a good screening?’ He pauses. ‘Was the projection okay?’

Wed Oct 21, lunchtime, Mayfair

Haneke arrives in London from Paris, where ‘The White Ribbon’ had its French launch two days ago. We meet in a hotel in Mayfair not long before I chair a press conference with him for journalists visiting the London Film Festival. The film will have its British premiere tonight as a Time Out gala screening and Haneke will be present. Today he’s dressed all in black. Black polo neck. Black trousers. Black shoes. Black cord jacket. Coupled with his angular white beard, he looks the model, even the cliché, of the severe Mittel-European director of yesteryear. He’s not in the best of moods either: his hotel isn’t to his liking and the bother is clearly distracting him.He has spent the morning looking at paintings in the National Gallery while his wife visited antiques markets. ‘I’ve only been to London two or three times before,’ he says. He was last here with ‘Funny Games’ in 1997. His translator, an academic from King’s College who’s known him for 20 years, says that one of his reasons for staying away was that in the 1990s so few Londoners came to see his films. Worse still, many of those who did gave them a poor reception.That’s all changed in the last decade. But with popularity comes attention, and we talk about how infuriated he gets when people ask him the same old questions. ‘Just don’t ask me what it means,’ he says, laughing. He describes his films as ‘ski jumps’. ‘I’m with you until the point when you launch off the ramp.’ Like ‘Hidden’, ‘The White Ribbon’ is a film that leaves you with many, many questions – and not a handy doggy bag of easy resolutions.
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Haneke at press conference

Wed Oct 21, mid-afternoon, London Film Festival press conference

At the press conference, he’s on slightly reticent form. I bristle when someone asks a question close enough to the dreaded, ‘What does it all mean?’ The interpreter translates a question from a member of the audience about how controlling Haneke is with the more direct: ‘Are you a control freak?’ Haneke laughs. I ask him whether his film, a sideways glance at Nazi Germany, is a reaction to the inadequacies of films that deal more directly with Germany in the 1930s and ’40s? ‘My films would not be the films they are if current cinema was not in the state it’s in now,’ he replies pointedly. It’s then I remember how in Munich talk turned to the ‘shower’ scene in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ – a scene he described simply as ‘dumb’.

Wed Oct 21, evening, Curzon Mayfair cinema

Haneke arrives with his wife, Susanne, for the screening. When it starts, he stands at the back to check the sound levels. Everyone holds their breath. I remember a behind-the-scenes film about him and his work which shows him fretting in a Paris cinema about a projector bulb that’s too bright. After five minutes, he nods. We go for dinner. Two and a half hours later, we’re back at the Curzon and I host a Q&A session. I suggest one of the strongest ideas in ‘The White Ribbon’ is that we can judge the health of a society by what goes on in homes behind closed doors. ‘Yes, of course. And if there was one title that could be applied to all my films, it would be “Civil War” – not civil war in the way we know it, but the daily war that goes on between us all.’What’s he doing next, I ask? ‘A film about the humiliation of ageing’, he says, revealing it will star two French acting legends, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert. So, another jolly subject.’The audience laughs, perhaps ever so slightly uneasily.

Read our review of 'The White Ribbon'

Author: Dave Calhoun


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