“I do not believe I am a pessimist” – director Michael Haneke on The White Ribbon
MY WORD. It seems high culture can still inflame the masses. To get into London’s Mayfair Hotel, where I am to interview Michael Haneke, the Austrian director of a dozen ascetic masterpieces, I have to force my way past a legion of paparazzi photographers and an intense commando of eager young autograph hunters.
“Oi, Mickey. Over ’ ere,” they will, no doubt, shortly be bellowing. “Show us your harsh post-Marxist critique on contemporary bourgeois hypocrisies.”
Sadly, it turns out that the crowd is actually hoping to catch a glimpse of Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand. The footballers have just produced a lads’ movie called Dead Man Running and are holding their press junket in the hangar beneath the stark room where Mr Haneke sits waiting with his interpreter.
The director has flown in from Vienna to discuss his astonishingly dense and resonant new film, The White Ribbon.
“Yes. I do live in Vienna. Though I work a great deal in Paris too,” he says. “I suppose where I really live is Hanekeland.”
On the evidence of his films, that must be a rather frightening country. “I don’t think so. That is not how I see it.”
It looks as if he’s brought Hanekeland with him. Dressed entirely in black, his hair and beard a ghostly ashen, he sits in the middle of a huge room with a wide field of window immediately behind him. The interpreter, who is also wearing dark clothes, positions himself at a right angle to both interviewer and director. Anybody who has sat through a Haneke film such as Funny Games, Hidden or Code Unknown will, just reading these words, appreciate the appropriateness of this combination of ritual and expectation. It is time to begin. “I don’t want to explain anything about my films,” Haneke responds to my opening parries. Yet people must often ask him for such explanations. Haneke’s films are renowned for offering only the most oblique solutions to their many twisty conundrums. In Hidden (2005), Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche never quite unravel the reason why surveillance tapes of their house have been mailed through their letterbox. In The White Ribbon a number of antisocial acts – the burning of a barn, the tripping-up of a horse – trouble the citizens of a German town in the months before the first World War. It is giving little away to say that Hercule Poirot is conspicuous by his absence in the final reels.
“It is not a matter of frustration that people always ask me for the solution,” he says. “They have been educated to expect answers, even before the questions come along. It’s the TV principle. You offer three possible answers before the questions come to relax and calm the audience. The productive thing to do is to undermine those expectations.”
We are, however, offered a clue as to The White Ribbon’s meaning. Before the action begins, the narrator tells us that what we see may help us explain “what came after”. The younger people in the film – often mistreated and ignored – are of an age to become Nazis in a few decades time. So the film is about the
I don’t look at my old films. You just see the mistakes if you do that. I am not interested in my own past. I am interested in my future” – Michael Haneke (right) and top right a scene from The White Ribbon ( Das Weiße Band)