Michael Haneke • Director
by Fabien Lemercier
21/05/2009 - Lengthily applauded on his arrival at the press conference following the presentation in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival of his magnificent period feature The White Ribbon [trailer, film focus], Austrian director Michael Haneke revealed to journalists certain aspects of his method, whilst maintaining, much like his film, an element of mystery as to the possible interpretations of his work.
What made you choose to centre your film on this German village on the eve of the First World War?
I’d been working on the project for over 10 years. My main aim was to look at a group of children who are inculcated with values transformed into an absolute and how they internalise them. If we raise a principle or ideal, be it political or religious, to the status of an absolute, it becomes inhuman and leads to terrorism.
Another title I considered was "The Right Hand of God", for the children in the film apply these ideals to the letter and punish those who don’t share them 100%. Moreover, the film is not just about fascism, which would be too simplistic an interpretation since the story is set in Germany, but about a definite pattern and the universal problem of corrupted ideals.
Why did you decide to shoot in black and white?
All the familiar images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are in black and white for the mass media (photography, newspapers) already existed, whereas our perception of the 18th century, for example, is in colour due to the paintings and films we’ve seen. I love black and white and jumped at the opportunity. It also enabled me, as did the use of a narrator, to create a distancing effect. What matters is finding an appropriate medium for portraying one’s subject.
Have the themes of violence and guilt returned to the centre of your work?
I explore these subjects in all my films. In our society, the issue of violence is unavoidable. As for guilt, I grew up in a Judeo-Christian environment, where this is an ever-present theme. You don’t have to be a bad person to become guilty: it’s part of our everyday life.
The White Ribbon features a large number of characters. How did you select and direct all these actors?
For the cast, I looked for faces that resembled photos of the era. Over six months, we saw more than 7,000 children. And the task was even more daunting given that it’s obviously not physical appearance which should take precedence, but talent.
When it came to the adults, I chose actors who had already worked with me and others whose work I was familiar with. As for directing actors, I merely point it out to them if I think something doesn’t sound right. If the cast is good, the character works well in the situation.
The plot raises more questions than it answers.
There’s nothing to explain. My rule has always been to ask questions, to present very clear situations and tell a story so that the viewers can look for the answers themselves. In my opinion, the opposite is counter-productive and the viewers are not colleagues of the director either. I go to a lot of effort to achieve this effect. I believe that art should ask questions and not offer answers, which always seem to me dubious, not to say dangerous.