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Michael Haneke Interview: Uncut

The following interview was conducted in soft sunlight, on the porch of Michael and Susi Haneke’s weekend house, a good hour south of Vienna in Lower Austria. Because of its hilly landscape, the Viennese have always called this supremely beautiful region “the hunchbacked world,” suggesting a dark, malformed quality. In all likelihood this contradiction isn’t coincidental: the Viennese generally delight in multiple meanings or meanings that can inverted, e.g., the “sweet rottenness of beauty” (and vice versa). They tend to be skeptical of the rigorous or unequivocal in life and art alike, which is probably why Michael Haneke (like many other rigorous filmmakers, writers, and composers based in Vienna) has only belatedly become a cultural hero in his own city. For 25 years, his films mostly earned critical applause (or were met with controversy) at home, but were hardly embraced or debated by a wider audience. His public image as a relentlessly serious, “professorial” man didn’t help. It took several major awards at Cannes, for The Piano Teacher (01), Caché (05), and now The White Ribbon, for the Austrian public to accept Haneke, at age 67, as one of “their” pre-eminent artists. He’ll never turn into a king of hearts, nor—as he explains in the following interview—did he ever remotely strive for that role in the cultural card game. But in the private hunchbacked world of his garden, he appears as a much more relaxed, funny, and pleasure-embracing human being than his public persona would ever seem to admit.

Is it a coincidence that you followed your American remake of Funny Games, a production that in some ways seems the most “foreign” in your career, with a work that moves deeper into your own culture and its history than any of your previous films?

It’s pure coincidence; nothing pre-planned about it. To be honest, it’s hard to talk about the “inner logic” of one’s own work. I rarely think about such things. It’s certainly easier to categorize after the fact. The so-called Austrian trilogy, for instance, was not planned as one. It was only after having made Benny’s Video that I thought there needed to be a third film. And later, too, it was more a question of what each production context allowed me to do, rather than any overall aesthetic notion of following this film with that film.

So the new film isn’t a counter-reaction to your experience of working in the U.S.?

The only counter-reaction was that I was much more relaxed on the set of The White Ribbon! It’s a lot easier to control the situation if you work in your own language, and my English is not very good. As a control freak, I need to be fully aware of what goes on around me on the set. So, although The White Ribbon was by far the most complex, expensive, and time-consuming of my films, the work was also very easy and natural from my point of view.

The film is set in 1913-14, in a small town in northern Germany. As a moment in history, this date carries great importance. On the other hand, the locale is extremely remote from the historical centers and important events. How did you arrive at this conjunction of time and place?

I think it’s always in the “small” places that larger events or developments are being rehearsed, in terms of the spiritual and moral climate. My basic idea was to tell the story of a group of kids who make an absolute of the ideals that are hammered into them by their parents and educators. They turn inhuman by appointing themselves as judges of those who do not live by what they preach. If the drill to which you’re exposed is really rigorous, it becomes a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of terrorism. You turn an ideal into an ideology, and all those who oppose it or are neutral toward it can be constructed as the enemy.

The choice to tell this story in a small town in Protestant Germany on the eve of World War I has a bit of a personal background, but the main reason was that it allowed the film to implicitly refer to things that went on later in the 20th century, or even today. The personal aspect is that I was the rare case of a Protestant child in Catholic Austria. And the rigor that I encountered in Protestantism as a boy was quite fascinating. It’s much more elitist and arrogant, if you like, than Catholicism, where you have a go-between between yourself and God. The Catholic priest can absolve you and take away your guilt, whereas in Protestantism you are directly accountable to God.

And historically speaking, the generation of children that you show and the kind of “training” they were subjected to makes us think of their future roles as adults, or even of their own future offspring. I assume that’s why the voice of the narrator is that of a very old man. The distance between his voice and the appearance of his character in the film, a young teacher, opens up a wide range of historical experiences that lie between. 

1914 was the real cultural break. In Germany and Austria, the unity of God, Emperor, and Fatherland broke down with World War I, and in many ways World War II and postwar developments can be related to this. At the height of National Socialism, the 8- to 15-year-olds in The White Ribbon would have reached an age where one takes responsibility. But I was also thinking of the history of leftist terrorism, the Red Army Faction. Gudrun Ensslin was the fourth of seven daughters of an evangelical pastor, and Ulrike Meinhof also came from a very religious background. They both had this moral rigor that I found very interesting. I knew Meinhof a bit in the late-Sixties, when she prepared her teleplay Bambule for German Südwestfunk where I was a young broadcast editor. She didn’t appear to be a fanatic, actually. She was charming, highly educated, and pretty funny. Once, her children were late for school, and she told them that if it happened again they should justify it by saying “It’s the fault of capitalism.”

A different context, again with different roots but with a similar moral structure, is that of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. What all these groups and individuals share is that ideals are being turned into ideologies to a degree which is life-threatening—not only for other people but also for themselves, because they are willing to die for their convictions.

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

Except for a brief and vague remark at the beginning, the narrator does not reflect on anything beyond this one story and these local characters. And his last words are: “I never saw any of them ever again.” The paradoxical effect, of course, is that we immediately start to think of where and when we might have encountered them in other shapes—throughout history or in our own lives. This is a good example of your double strategy to leave some things open but also leave enough traces for substantial interpretation.

I always look for the places in a story where leaving things open can become really productive for the viewer. I often compare filmmaking with building a ski jump; the actual jumping should be done by the audience. For the filmmaker, this is pretty hard—it’s much easier to do the jump yourself, to do it for the viewer. Because there’s always the fear of frustrating them. What do I have to indicate? What do I leave out? How much can I not spell out when constructing a film and still not frustrate the audience? Such strategies have become widely accepted in modern literature, but much less so in cinema. That’s a bit sad.

When writing a script, do you always have too much stuff at first, too much explanation, and then you hack away at it?

It’s an issue at an earlier stage—during construction. That’s when I ask myself all these questions. When I start writing the actual script, the storyline is already set. The actual writing is a pleasurable process that also involves the unconscious. But before that I need to know in detail the economy and the means of the narrative. I don’t think that any artwork based on a vector of time can be constructed in a free-flowing manner. You can certainly write a novel or a poem without knowing at the start where it will lead you. The author of a book can navigate differently from its reader. But the distinct vector of time involved in any drama, film, or musical piece asks of you to include a notion of the viewer or listener in your artistic construction. In film this presupposes, of course, that the mise en scène will be on the same artistic level as the writing. The films that have really excited me, emotionally and intellectually, were always created from such a unity, the unity of form and content. It may sound old-fashioned, but I don’t know any sensible approach that would have superseded it.

I love the scene with the girl Erna in tears, when she asks the teacher if dreams can become real. She says that she dreamt one of the violent acts that create such tension in this little town, before it actually happened. On a larger scale, this also recognizes the idea of a certain prescience in society, that societies may “dream up” or imagine changes or catastrophes that will happen at a later stage—like in Kracauer’s metaphor of Dr. Caligari and Hitler.

I won’t oppose such an interpretation. But it was much more banal. I was looking for a way to have one of the kids say something that leaves us with a feeling of suspicion as well as suspension. When she talks about her dream, it seems to us that she knows something, but it’s also possible that she doesn’t. I decided to do it that way because I remembered an experience from a long time ago, when the woman with whom I was living at the time woke up one morning and told me of a dream she had just had. In the dream, her brother was standing at a ledge in the mountains shouting for help. Later that day, her mother called, telling her that the brother, who had gone skiing in the Alps, hadn’t returned home. Several hours later, the mountain rescue service found him and two friends on a ledge where they had lost their way, almost frozen to death. It was precisely how she had dreamt it the night before! I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me this story, but I was a witness.

In our first interview 20 years ago, when The Seventh Continent came out, the question of religion took up quite some space. You talked a lot about Jansenism, Pascal, and Bresson, for instance. And in later years, theologians have engaged with your work in books and conferences. Nowadays, you rarely talk about such issues, but The White Ribbon is a film that directly tackles religion—in its less transcendent aspects, of course.

I don’t mind this approach to my work, but I am not a religious filmmaker. Not at all. The Seventh Continent is a much more existential film than The White Ribbon, which deals more with the surface of religion, its negative political side; the question of God is not raised at all. No religion automatically spawns terror, it’s always the churches and people who use the basic religious needs of others for their own ideological ends, in conjunction with education and politics. Faith per se is something positive; it generates meaning. I for one have no religious faith anymore. Tough luck! Because if you do, you have a different, more contented view of life. For the Jansenists, the existence of God survives in his remoteness or unavailability. You can say that this is only wordplay, but it’s closer to one’s sensations than a purely rational explanation. You can rationalize and explain away the feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, for instance, but the feeling remains.

White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

You already mentioned that you were baptized as a Protestant, but you’ve also told me that you grew up without seeing much of your father and that you were educated by three “mothers” in cozy Catholic surroundings—which you disliked. Your upbringing must have been quite the opposite from the pastor’s kids in The White Ribbon.

Since puberty, I‘ve always defined myself by taking a certain distance. I see it even in everyday conversations. That’s also why I’m not good at accepting accolades. How should I say . . . As soon as a majority takes shape, I’m against it on principle. It’s instinctive. Whenever people agree on everything, I get aggressive. At school, I didn’t go to Catholic religious instruction—we had Protestant instruction once a month, and I enjoyed being different from all the others in my class. I never liked being slapped on the back, and I don’t want to do the back-slapping myself, either. I was a loner as a kid and I’ve remained that way. I’m not especially proud of it, of course, it’s just a fact.

In the reception of your films, violence and its media depiction are often discussed as your major theme. But there may be a larger term that defines your interest better and that includes violence, namely the notion of lovelessness. It’s also at the center of the new film.

Doesn’t all dramatic work deal with this? Chekhov at least, who is the greatest dramatic writer next to Shakespeare. He is so heartbreaking in Uncle Vanya, the way he presents carelessness and the desperate longing for a love that, in the end, one is unable to muster anyway. And it’s also what’s prevalent in daily life, the feeling of a lack of love that everyone is afflicted by.

But since the fetish of love in all its variations has been such a core element of middle-class ideology for two centuries, it’s not surprising that the great artworks of this same era regularly uncover the actual lack of love in bourgeois relations. It’s an important type of social critique, and I see your films as part of this tradition—even though you don’t tend to view them as explicit social critique.

Well, I’m certainly a part of bourgeois culture, and I do view the society I live in as pretty loveless. In The White Ribbon the theme probably presents itself more pointedly, almost in model form, because of the historical distance between the story and ourselves. But it’s not limited to works from the past two centuries. I think that poems or artworks from earlier times appear to us through our own framework. You read or hear something that was made in the 17th century or in antiquity and you draw it toward you. Otherwise we wouldn’t be moved by so many creations from the distant past. There is a continuity of certain themes that can’t be dismissed, even if the forms of social life and artistic expression undergo massive changes.

I’m interested in the topic of education and its representative in The White Ribbon, the teacher and narrator of the film. In many ways he departs from the rigidity, cynicism, or brutality that the other figures of authority often show—the pastor, the doctor, the steward. The teacher is the only male character who really asks questions, almost like a detective, and he’s also the only one who is allowed a genuinely sweet love story. But we never really see him in his job, teaching things to the pupils or bringing some enlightenment. It’s almost as if he becomes part of the repressive system by default, his potential as an alternative figure not fully realized.

Yes, of course. On the one hand he is a bit of an outsider from the start. He’s a counterweight in the whole construction, someone who takes a distance and has his doubts. Teachers often play this role. Look at how Wittgenstein practiced his job as a schoolteacher—he was in direct conflict with the small community where he worked. I also remember one or two teachers from my own childhood who were real idealists. On the other hand, he’s a bit of an opportunist sometimes, for instance when he echoes the pastor’s authoritarian stance toward the pupils. He’s not fully up to snuff in terms of acting as an alternative. To me there are no completely positive or negative characters in the film. The pastor is not evil either, he’s really convinced of what he does. He really loves his children. That’s the horror of it. It was normal to beat one’s kids. When he tells them, “I won’t sleep tonight, because tomorrow I will have to hurt you,” it sounds cynical to our ears, but I think it’s better to believe him. It’s not very interesting to see him as a sadist or as a grotesque mental case. If these people had just been perverts, this kind of behavior wouldn’t have had such broad effects. And I’m not sure if any other system of education is inherently better. It’s always about the individual pedagogical impulse: do you do something just to exert your authority, or to help the other person find his or her way in society—as shitty as society may be. Each educational system is only as good as the person who acts in it.

White Ribbon Haneke

The White Ribbon

As a professor at the Vienna Film Academy, you are also a teacher. Do you feel an obligation beyond the professional side, beyond teaching filmmaking, to educate the students in a more general sense?

I guess I’m a relatively demanding teacher because I think it’s no use treating students with kid gloves. At the Academy, they are working with a net anyway, so I try to quickly raise the requirements to prepare them for the professional life. I also try and give them internships on my shoots, but it can’t be more than two per film. And usually I don’t mix with the students on a personal level. I mean, I give advice whenever they call me, but I don’t go out for a beer with them. I don’t believe the role of “best buddy” is something that a teacher or parent should aspire to. I think kids hate that, they find their buddies at school, but in a father or teacher they look for a role model.

After the Cannes premiere, several critic friends asked me which literary work The White Ribbon is based on. But it’s an original script, of course. Can you describe the tone that you were aiming at? What kind of writing were you thinking of when working on the dialogues and the narration?

In terms of the formal mode, I decided on two things early on: to do the film in black and white and to have a narrator. Both are means to create distance and avoid any false naturalism. It’s the memory of someone from that era, so I wanted to find a language adequate to this period. I wanted to write from the feeling of how I had experienced this era through literature. Theodor Fontane is probably the closest I can think of. His writing seems representative. I like this measured language—it gives a kind of dignity to the subject and to the reader, it doesn’t jump at you. It’s gentle and discreet.

It’s pretty daring, I think, to introduce such a strong narrator. Ten or 15 years ago, this might have been deemed old-fashioned, but in today’s film landscape it feels like a radical gesture.

That’s why I felt it was legitimate to do it, and why it was fun. It’s like a slap in the face of what is seen as up-to-date and necessary in storytelling today. And it’s an attempt to provoke a certain attentiveness or thoughtfulness in the viewer that the current narrative models in film no longer provoke, even if they are very refined or complicated. There are also people in music and literature who create highly advanced works and at some point return to a “classicist” mode.

Apart from the creation of distance, are there other reasons for the choice of black and white?

There’s a very important practical reason, too. You need to bluff when making a historical film, because you never find original settings that have remained unchanged. You always have to add to the locations and structures that you find, which is much easier if the end result is in black and white and not in color. If you drive through the former GDR, for instance, you see that the houses have very different colors than ours, made by a different industry that produced different chemicals. Each era and each region have their own color that dies with the specific companies that produced it. I rarely see historical films that seem to get it right in color.

What are the positive exceptions?

Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot I find terrific—he manages to create a historical climate for which we have no photographic sources, of course, but which I find fully credible. At the same time, it becomes operatic. Visconti managed to do that too, even better.

So far, the technical side of filmmaking has not been a major topic of discussion about your work. But the look of your films seems to become more important, with Time of the Wolf, for instance, and especially with the new film.

For me, it’s always important, but the more experience you have, the closer you can follow what the cinematographer does. For instance, I always fight for less light when we shoot! In this case we shot on color film, because if you work with candles and oil lamps a lot, you need extremely light-sensitive material, which is unavailable in black and white. It became a black-and-white film only in postproduction. I had a fantastic crew—Christoph Kanter, my art director who I’ve been working with for ages, Moidele Bickel, the costume designer, whom I hired because she had done the costumes for Queen Margot—the best I’ve seen in cinema. She’s a master in creating the necessary patina, clothes that look truly worn. I don’t think a director needs to be proficient in all these crafts, cinematography, set design, etc., but he needs the ability to quickly perceive all details and proportions and see if something is wrong.

Time of the Wolf

Time of the Wolf

Today, digital postproduction also allows you to “fix” things that weren’t physically possible or went wrong on the set.

The only thing that counts is the result, in its effect on the viewer. And if the viewer is being respected in the work, then all kinds of artistic or technical intervention are not only legitimate, but should be required.

Would it be conceivable for you to make a computer-generated film in the manner of Pixar, provided it were possible to render fully realistic, lifelike images of humans?

Absolutely. It could be total cinéma d’auteur. But the pleasure and the value of collaborating with others, primarily with the actors, would be gone. The kind of tension that you always look for, between a written part and a real person who inhabits that part with all the additional qualities that are unique to this actor—that element would be gone.

Are your films still storyboarded throughout? I wonder if certain strong images—like the crucified bird—are already present in the script rather than “found” while making the film.

In general, I draw the storyboards after I’ve decided on the locations. But images like the one with the bird are always in the script. I don’t believe in fortuitous events on the set, except in relation to the actors’ work. I never trust “symbolic” things that happen by chance while shooting. They sometimes appear like sudden “proposals,” but usually I cannot judge in that exact moment what it would mean for the whole film if I were to include them. I did that twice in my career, and in the end I cut them out. You may find it great that very second, but it’s usually wrong in some other way. I pretty much follow the script 100 percent.

The first idea for The White Ribbon dates back to the late-Nineties when you still had some connection with television production. Originally, it was a multi-part project. How did you reframe it?

There is a lot of explanatory stuff that you need on TV and that you can do without if you make a “real” movie. Also, there were several smaller characters that were easy to get rid of. For the final version of the script, I had the help of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who had some smart ideas about what to cut—for instance, there were several scenes with the kids playing games that are now gone. They made the whole setup much too obvious.

One of the central themes in your work has always been how guilt and violence are passed on, especially between generations. Your four-hour made-for-television movie Lemmings (79) is a strong example of this. The first part is set in the Fifties and the second part in the Seventies. One could almost think of The White Ribbon as a belated prequel and that there is a larger generational epic of guilt at work here.

I never thought of that, but you’re right. There is a certain thematic similarity. As I said before, I have no conception of my “complete works,” but it’s always the same brain stirring things up.

What brought up this connection for me is the writing on the piece of paper left at the scene where the handicapped boy has been tortured. It’s from the Lutheran bible: “I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” The idea of an evil-with-a-history, or a violence that is generationally handed down, always raises the question of where the “curse” originates from—where did the series of violent acts begin and how can it end? If you want to avoid the religious concept of original sin, you need to find historical or sociological origins for such a genealogy.

I think that everyone is capable of everything, of all kinds of viciousness as well as the opposite. It’s just as Goethe said: “I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed.” The balance between good and evil is always there; the question is how circumstances and individual choices make it tip. There is a deep injustice in the world, because not every social or family situation offers the same opportunities to be good, nor the same ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and choices. But for those who have these opportunities and abilities, the question of good and evil is immediately present, and also the question of how to live with something that you’ve done, how to assume responsibility. As for the biblical quote in the film: I used it because it is especially horrific. And the kids take it seriously, it’s what Father taught. For them it legitimizes the torturing of the weakest person in town. That’s what fanatics do.

The Seventh Continent

The Seventh Continent

Notwithstanding Freud, children are still fetishized in our culture as representatives of innocence or uncorrupted nature. In your films, that’s definitely not the case. The ironic subtitle of The White Ribbon, which makes sense only for those who know this old German font, is “A German Children’s Story.” On the other hand, some of the children in your earlier films are strongly associated with utopian moments, like the girl in The Seventh Continent, or the boy in Time of the Wolf. It seems that childhood is a rich terrain for your storytelling.

The child is a highly rewarding subject—80 percent of what we carry around with us is based on imprints from our childhood, from a time before we were able to develop protective mechanisms. So if you want to represent human drama, childhood can serve as a sort of tabula rasa that waits to be imprinted. If you want to describe a society’s conflicts or relations of power, it’s an important element, because whenever power is exercised, the child is usually at the lowest rank, and on the receiving end. And any child will transform these experiences in interesting ways.

It’s also fun to work with children on the set, even though it’s more time-consuming. Acting-wise, they can’t lie, they are not professionals, so you have to work differently with them. You are also more dependent on their talent, so casting is important. If the talent is there and the part is right, you get something very special, much more than from any professional actor.

Some of the images in The White Ribbon have reminded critics of Village of the Damned—but as someone who is relatively uninterested in genre cinema, you usually dismiss these things as coincidental. Can you describe why genre traditions hold very little appeal for you, even though, as in the case of Funny Games or Caché, the points of contact are sometimes obvious?

Points of contact is the correct expression, because I do use genre—both films you mention are thrillers in a certain way. But generally, what bores me in genre cinema is the sort of abstraction or de-realization of reality that takes place there. It bores me as a viewer, not as a filmmaker. It’s like in the theater, in cases such as Ionesco or Gombrowicz: when the world is reduced to a model, I lose interest after five minutes, because I know right away what it will boil down to. I also try to build models in my films, but ones that are “filled with the world,” where the effect is not just metaphorical but steeped in a verifiable reality. And most film genres—apart from the thriller—don’t do that for me. They offer prototypical modes of behavior that only interest me if I can reflect them as a filmmaker.

That’s why I often said I’d like to do a Western, a super-realistic one. Actually, I like to watch Italian Westerns, that’s the little boy in me . . . In music, too, I’m only interested in certain composers. The world of music is infinitely richer than my personal field of interest. And it’s the same in film, I don’t feel the need to be interested in everything. Ah, yes, Altman—he made genre films, too, but he did it in a way that entranced me, partly at least. Not all his films are great, but some are truly amazing.

If you look across the contemporary filmmaking landscape, which peers would you name as allies, which are the ones whose work you cherish the most?

I’d have to say Kiarostami. He is still unsurpassed. As Brecht put it, “simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.” Everyone dreams of doing things simply and still impregnating them with the fullness of the world. Only the best ones achieve this. Kiarostami has, and so has Bresson. But I must say that I see too few new films; I used to see more, but now I mostly watch older things, at home. I feel more enriched when re-watching Dreyer or other classics. They tell me more about the world of today than todays’s films! But, of course, there are many exceptions. I’ll watch Lars von Trier’s films; he’s certainly special, and he probably represents the optimum in terms of doing things with actors. I like the Dardennes, I loved Tsai Ming-liang’s The River, but that was a decade ago . . . And I’m interested in what Valeria Bruni Tedeschi does as a director. She has found something, an original form that’s really hers.

In terms of future projects, are there any collaborations with specific actors that you would like to pursue?

I have often worked with so-called difficult actors and had the time of my life. And then I often want to extend such working relationships to future projects, because you don’t need to start from zero again. In general, it’s much nicer to collaborate with actors who are exacting and intelligent, and who are really “workers,” who demand a lot from themselves. I think Sean Penn is the best film actor today, he can do anything—I would certainly want to work with him if the project makes sense. It’s the same in France: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Charlotte Gainsbourg—I’m in talks with her. One has to find the right constellation. It doesn’t matter if they are well-known or not, it just has to fit the story. There is also a project that I’d like to do with Jean-Louis Trintignant, whom I’ve admired for almost 50 years now.

I came upon something from Pascal, who is one of your gurus. It’s from the Pensées: “We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the mind of others, and for this purpose we endeavor to shine.” I had to think of Cannes, where you’ve been a regular, and of your recent Palme d’Or—the whole glamour and fame aspect of cinema. It’s not something you seem made for, but maybe even you desire to live this “imaginary life in the mind of others.”

Look, this is a truly happy moment in my life. We are all social beings, and we strive for some appreciation by others. If your work is the center of your existence, it’s great to be recognized for it. You don’t do all this for yourself, you want to communicate. First and foremost, you may actually do it for your own pleasure, because you like to do it, but this energy will stall if you find no response or success. What makes me happy about the Palme d’Or is definitely not the glamour that goes with it but that it’s the optimal form of recognition in my métier. The work should shine—it’s what I go public with. As a person, I’d rather have my peace and quiet.

Caché Michael Haneke