Michael Haneke: 'The World Would Be Much Poorer Without Art'
Adored, reviled, emulated and microanalyzed, Michael Haneke is everything an auteur should be. The Munich-born, Viennese-raised filmmaker won his first Palme d'Or with this year's The White Ribbon (opening in the U.S., finally, on Dec. 30). Something of a departure for the man preoccupied with the intersection of technology and senseless violence in movies like Benny's Video, Caché and both sadistic versions of his Funny Games, Ribbon sheds the director's favored, blueish palette for monochromatic black-and-white, and dials the clocks back to 1913, where a series of bizarre mishaps and cruel, gruesome pranks befall a German agrarian town. As the braided narratives draw to a close and the Great War begins, we've borne witness to numerous brutalities and acts of violence. But what surprises are the frequent, deftly staged moments that come in between -- displays of what some might consider sheer sentimentality: a child grappling with the concept of death; a boy pleading with his strict father to nurse an injured bird back to health; a school teacher asking for his beloved's hand in marriage. Has Haneke at last betrayed his soft side? Movieline met with the director on a recent visit to Los Angeles, where we spoke of the perils of authoritarianism, the label of "provocateur," and the ambiguity of art.
It seems to me a great deal of this movie explores the consequences of faulty or misguided parenting. Would you agree with that?
Of course, it's a question of education. In each area where you have humiliation and depression and suffering, this is really where the seed of violence and extremism can grow. And of course the part of the parents is a very important part of this.
Was your childhood a happy childhood?
[Laughs] Compared to this film, yes. Each childhood has its own difficulties. I myself had a very privileged childhood, so we had no problems with money. But was my childhood really happy? I cannot say yes. I grew up in war time, so it was not so funny.
One of the least sympathetic characters in The White Ribbon is the pastor. I'm wondering what your feelings about religion and God are, and if his character exists in part as perhaps a critique of those institutions?
The film, first of all, is not a polemic against any religion. So whatever idea you take -- in the beginning it doesn't even matter if it's a good one or a bad one -- but the moment it becomes a doctrine or an ideology, it becomes dangerous. So in this case, religion itself is not bad, but if it becomes institutionalized, then the power the Church has can become very dangerous. But it's always the question of how you use that. The pastor in himself is not a bad person per se, and he himself might even be convinced that he's doing the right thing. He loves his children. But his behavior is connected to his children. Beating children, at that time, was totally accepted and used in almost every family. I read several hundred books about education, and from our perspective we think it's cruel, but in the time frame where it happened, it was just a normal punishment. A lot of the punitive techniques in the film are taken directly from these educational books offering hints to parents on how to punish their kids. So the title of the film, for example -- The White Ribbon -- is not a fantasy. It was actual advice from one of these books.
And so a central theme is that this kind of corporal punishment and repression will eventually lead to things like fascism?
It is one of the major columns of fascism, but not the only one. Fascism in itself is way too complex that you might find an answer in a single film, and I didn't even try to do that. It is one aspect.
And one I don't think I'd ever seen explored in film before.
That was the idea. It's important to say it's not just right-wing fascism, especially in Germany, but also the left-wing fascism, the religious kind. There are many different ways that it can appear. So I want it to be understood in a broader sense.
You once said that all your films "deal with my own fears." What are some of your phobias?
[Laughs] Some things are personal. I don't like so much that the approach to a film goes too much towards the psychology or biography of the auteur, because then it leads people to think too much about the personality of the writer and director, but not deal with the film work in itself.
Which leads me nicely into my next question, which is that you are a filmmaker of ideas, and yet you don't like to talk about those ideas.