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The White Ribbon - Michael Haneke interview

Michael Haneke

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PROVOCATIVE German director Michael Haneke (of Funny Games/Hidden fame) talks about directing his Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon, working with children, getting to grips with Fascism and period detail and whether he’ll be making another American movie.

The director was speaking during a press conference held during the Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival, just ahead of a season of his films at the BFI in London.

Q. What challenges would you say that setting it in 1913-14 set you as both a writer and director?
Michael Haneke: Well, the first thing I had to do was to read a lot. First of all, about education… and looking at education from the Middle Ages right through to the 20th Century. The second major area was country life in the 19th Century, which I don’t know much about these days. Secondly, collecting images. We used an enormous amount of images, which were important for the costumes and for the set. They were crucial, in fact. We had wanted to be precise about that. We looked at images from the photographer August Sander, which were very important to the aesthetic of the film.

Q. Why did you settle on the years 1913 and 1914 for this film? Superficially, it seems like this period could have been one of the last stages in European history where you could explore a feudal society… Was it the fact that Europe was on the eve of change that fascinated you?
Michael Haneke: Yes, but also because of the children because you think about how old they’re going to be when it comes to the period of Fascism. And, of course, because in the feudal system of that period at least 80% of people lived in villages, so it’s very simple to get a cross-section of society in a single village. You get the microcosm of the social macrocosm.

Q. The narrator asks us to think ahead and even says at one point: “By re-telling these events, perhaps we can come to some understanding of the events that came later…” It asks us to look forward in German history? But isn’t it true that you don’t just see this as a German story? So, how did you achieve that balance?
Michael Haneke: The film does try to use German Fascism as an example, but not specifically Fascism… the results of German Fascism. It shows how people are prepared or indoctrinated for an ideology… people who are already in a state of repression who have been humiliated by society and who clasp at a straw that’s offered to them. And how that’s then developed into a form of indoctrination. But it could be Fascist, religious or political – it’s always the same model that operates in these circumstances, and it’s that which is the actuality of this film. Therefore, it’s not specifically an explanation of German Fascism because that would be an impossible thing to do in any case.

Q. How did you cast the children?
Michael Haneke: It was very complicated because we didn’t only need them to be talented, but we also needed the faces we recognised from the photos from that period. My main fear was that we wouldn’t find them. So, we started the casting six months before we made the film and tried 7,000 children in order to find the right ones.

Q. How did you go about communicating with your child actors, especially when asking them to do more difficult material?
Michael Haneke: It’s difficult because you can’t generalise about these things. But in essence, you deal with children as simply as you deal with actors – you have to show a certain sort of respect. You deal with them lovingly and protect them, but if you protect them enough then they’re open to engage with what you want to do with them. Of course, the smaller and younger they are, the more patient you have to be. But if they’re gifted, then it’s a wonderful present that you’re given by having a child like that in your film… more so than in the case of actors because, for example, if you ask them to play a lion, they don’t then play a lion, they actually are a lion. So, a gifted child is something very special. On the other hand, if a child has no gifts in that way it’s absolutely hopeless and there’s nothing you can do!

Q. Why did you work on Jean-Claude Carrière on the script and what did he contribute?
Michael Haneke: Originally, in the script the film was going to be three and a half hours long but, of course, I couldn’t film that so we decided to cut an hour from it. I managed to cut 20 minutes but that was all I could do, so we asked Jean-Claude Carrière to help. We spent two afternoons together over it and managed to cut an hour from it.

Q. Was that a painful process for you?
Michael Haneke: For me it was painful, yes, but Jean-Claude’s suggestions were so convincing that I was happy to follow them… and anyway, there was nothing else we could do!

Q. Where do you see this fitting into the context of German cinema, especially with regard to the ’30s and ’40s. Did it in some way grow out of your reaction to some of those films and any failings you perceived in their perspective?
Michael Haneke: Of course there are many films about the period of Fascism itself but I don’t know of any about that period beforehand. But it wasn’t that specific fact that they weren’t there that got me to think about this in the first place. It’s not what led to the basic idea for the film, although it became apparent when I began to think about it. The trouble is that when you read criticisms about the other films that I’ve made you get the impression that they’re all about themes, or problems, or ideas. But those are actually things that develop out of characters, out of images and out of other things. These more abstract things develop while working on the material, and out of it. It’s not a theoretical exercise from the outset.

Q. You’ve made films in German, French and English [with Funny Games US]. But is there a hierarchy of comfort for you? Was it particularly difficult for you to make a film in America?
Michael Haneke: Of course, yes, because my English is pretty bad. So, it was most difficult working in America. I can speak French particularly well so it was much better working there, but I’m certainly more relaxed using my own language. But that’s not because I couldn’t explain things for the actors in other languages because they have to understand what’s going on… that’s their job and they have to listen. But I want to be able to control things and that’s very difficult to do if you’re not 100% in a particular language. It makes you uncertain and it makes you nervous.

Q. Does that mean that the actors didn’t have as much freedom on this to perhaps react to the script and improvise if they saw fit?
Michael Haneke: Improvisation you can do in the theatre, but not in the cinema. I have a storyboard and I stick to it exactly. If an actor comes up with something better and I’m convinced by it, then I’ll certainly take it on. But film with a particular aesthetic form must always be prepared in advance. The idea that people like Cassavettes did their films simply by improvising is just not true. He rehearsed for months in advance. Any successful film has to be thoroughly prepared.

Q. So, are you quite controlling as a director?
Michael Haneke: Yes, of course [laughs]!

Q. Would you be interested in making another film in America or in the UK perhaps?
Michael Haneke: Never say no. It always depends on what’s possible. I don’t care so much where it is; it’s what I want to do that matters.

Q. What are your future projects? Will you be staying in the German language?
Michael Haneke: The next film is going to be another French film about the humiliation of the human body in old age. It’s going to star Isabelle Huppert as the daughter. I hope to shoot it next summer, but I need to write it first of all!

Find out more about Michael Haneke at the BFI