Q&A: Michael Haneke on Violence, The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke is one of Europe's most decorated—and controversial—filmmakers. He has a talent for exploring social issues with a camera, and he's equally adept at getting under his audience's skin. In his 2001 movie The Piano Teacher, for instance, he examined what happens when civilized society suppresses animal passions, including some genital self-mutilation in the process. On Dec. 30 his latest film, The White Ribbon, gets a limited release in the U.S. The movie, which earned Haneke his first Palme d'Or at Cannes, is arguably his best to date. With his usual unsentimental eye, it examines life in a small Protestant village in Germany on the eve of World War I, while teasing out implications about the origins of fascism. It could also be his most inviting movie; it has moments of genuine sweetness and is shot in beautiful black and white. Haneke spoke to NEWSWEEK's Marc Bain about making viewers uncomfortable, film as propaganda, and why he takes his audience seriously. Excerpts:

Violence is something you deal with frequently in your movies. Why do you keep returning to the subject?
It's simply that violence is a part of our society. It's the part that frightens us most when we're confronted with it. But I don't understand why I'm always categorized as a specialist for violence. I don't think that's the only thing that's present in my films. I deal with lots of social issues, like the question of media in our society. Personally, I can't stand violence. In any standard American mainstream movie, there's 20 times more violence than in any one of my films, so I don't know why those directors aren't asked why they're such specialists for violence.

You make very different movies than mainstream American directors do. Your approach seems to be less about using violence to entertain.
Drama lives on conflict. If you're trying to deal with social issues seriously, there's no way of avoiding violence, which is so present in society. You should ask Tarantino why he's so obsessed with violence.

Your movies, as you say, deal with many uncomfortable topics. But they never give the viewer a sense of justice being served. Is there an emotional reaction you want from your viewers?
I try to take the spectator seriously ... Mainstream cinema raises questions only to immediately provide an answer to them, so they can send the spectator home reassured. If we actually had those answers, then society would appear very different from what it is. My approach is rather to deal with the question, to raise the question in a way that confronts the audience with it and forces the audience to find their own responses. As a dramatist, your requirement is to do that with as much urgency as possible so the viewer feels compelled to think about the issues. You can't provide reassuring answers, because there are none. The only people claiming to have answers are politicians or people who want to extract money from your wallets.

Do you feel that film is morally obligated to avoid reassuring answers?
Yes. Film is the manipulative medium par excellence. When you think back on the history of film and the 20th century, you see the propaganda that's been made. So there are moral demands on the director to treat the spectators as seriously as he or she takes himself and not to see them merely as victims that can be manipulated to whatever ends they have.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote about kitsch as a kind of false emotion that the Soviets used for propaganda, to manipulate people for political ends. You mention film's history as a propaganda tool. Is that something that's on your mind as you make a film, keeping the film from acting as propaganda?
Yes, of course. But automatically when you make a film you're manipulating the spectator. If you place your camera here instead of there, you're going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I've often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent.

The White Ribbon looks at children who are raised in a very strict manner—some might even call it extremism—in this small Protestant village in Germany. The implications are obviously broader than the setting. What issues were you trying to address?
I think that the elements that you mention are present in the film and present in that context, but that's certainly not my goal. The question I'm trying to raise is: what are the conditions necessary to make people susceptible to an ideology? Around the world, in every country, in every age, it's always been the same thing: when people are suffering, when people are being humiliated, when people have a sense of hopelessness, then they'll listen to the first person that comes along and says, "I know the solution to your problems." They're willing—eager, in fact—to follow that person. That was the idea behind the film, and for that reason I chose the most prominent example of ideology that we know, which is German fascism. But I think it would be wrong to limit the film to the subject of German fascism for the reasons I mentioned.

There's a cycle of violence evident in the movie. As the parents hurt their children, the children take that pain out on others. Do you think there will ever be an end?
I'm afraid I don't see an end to this cycle of violence. I see children as a fresh field in which people are walking with their hard rubber boots. The longer people walk on the tender soil, the harder the soil gets. Eventually the children themselves start to walk in their hard boots over the soft soil. It's an inevitable cycle. We forget rather quickly physical pain, but our unconscious doesn't forget the humiliation we've suffered and the psychological pain we've suffered.

In the past, with Funny Games, for instance, you directed the movie at a specific audience [American consumers of violence in media]. Is there an audience you had in mind for The White Ribbon ?
Funny Games is the only film of mine which was ever made for a specific audience. All my other films were made for as broad an audience as possible, and this one is no exception.

American critics have accused you of being sanctimonious in your films, like a stern schoolteacher lecturing children. As you see it, you respect the viewer. What do you think accounts for the disconnect between the way you see your movies and the way others sometimes see them?
I think it stems from the fact that most television and mainstream cinema takes the audience as idiots. When they're finally confronted with a film that takes them seriously, they see it as an affront.

Another criticism has been that you make the audience uncomfortable by torturing your characters, albeit for an intellectual point. Do you think of your characters as people or ideas?
I strive very much to create individuals. I'm not interested in them as ideas. I think that's why it disturbs people, because they are real characters. I think it's the mainstream cinema where you find people are reduced to ideas, to clichés of good or evil. In real life there aren't people who are entirely good or entirely evil. We are capable of both, all composed of both in contradictory ways. If you look at the great novels, the characters in them are also very contradictory. It's only in bad literature that people are good or bad.

Last, could you tell me a little about the next film you'll be working on?
I'm so busy giving interviews ... that I haven't had time to sit down to write my next script. But I'm hoping to be able to shoot next summer in France another French production, starring again Isabelle Huppert. I hope I'll have time soon to start writing that script.