White Ribbon: Interview with Director Michael Haneke

"The White Ribbon” won the top award, the Palme d’Or, at the 2009 Cannes Film Fest. The film played at the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests. Sony Classics will release the film in the U.S. in November.

Interview with Michael Haneke
Q: Inspiration to focus the story on a village in Northern Germany prior to WWI?
Haneke: I wanted to present a group of children on whom absolute values are being imposed. What I was trying to say was that if someone adopts an absolute principle, when it becomes absolute then it becomes inhuman. The original idea was a children’s choir, who want to make absolute principles concrete, and those who do not live up to them.
Of course, this is also a period piece: we looked at photos of the period before World War I to determine costumes, sets, even haircuts. I wanted to describe the atmosphere of the eve of world war. There are countless films that deal with the Nazi period, but not the pre-period and pre-conditions, which is why I wanted to make this film. It is always the private questions that are most important.
Of course, my concerns are different when writing or shooting. When writing the script, I am concerned with sociological and philosophical issues. On the set, you are asking if this actor is wearing the right tie, if the sound is ok. The details are important. This is where the film director steps in: otherwise sociologists would be making film.
This is a film that’s set in Germany prior to World War I, and this is a time period we can research very closely. During that time period, and long afterwards, there was a very “black” approach towards education. Teachers were like pedagogues who adhered to a certain conservative educational ideal. This is the generation where when they became adults, they became adults in the Nazi period. But I don’t want people to just see the film as a film about a German problem. It is about the roots of evil. Whether it’s religious or political terrorism, it’s the same thing. That’s what it’s about because in France, people say it’s a German problem. But it’s a problem for everyone.
What is this “Black Educational Principle”?
H. It is a German phrase. 19th century education and even before always had this connotation of this black education. This “black” approach to education lasted long after WW I and didn’t end until about 1968. It was this system and these ideals that instilled within these children the roots of terror that would later become manifest.
Does your film connect with issues today in Europe?
H. There is nonstop fascism in France, Austria, Germany, everywhere you look, in how people treat each other. The verbal violence they use. They don't treat the person as a person but as someone to be manipulated: this is daily fascism.
Why did you choose to avoid showing the children’s activities?
H. Because you wouldn’t have the suspicion if I disclosed all of that. It wouldn’t work. The viewer’s suspicion must remain heightened.
Does White Ribbon explain how the Nazi philosophy was adopted?
H. It doesn’t explain it. It’s one of the sources of radical thinking. Once I thought about another title for the film, which was GOD’S RIGHT HAND, which means that these children take themselves for God’s right hand because they know the difference between good and evil and they have the right to judge others. This is always the beginning of terrorism.
What is your film saying about Christianity?
H. I wanted to depict the children who in their adult life would play a role in the fascist period, and these people were determined by Protestantism. If made in Italy, of course it would be a different influence. You do not have to look very far to see a comparison to things going on today. Islam is the same: obsessed with a certain idea, a certain vision of religion, which has nothing to do with real religion.
Are children innocent in your opinion?
H. Children are no more or less innocent than the rest of us. Since Freud, nobody believes in the innocence of a child. Same goes for men and women: I think everyone can be cruel with each other; not just men and or women, not limited to gender.
How did the casting process work?
H. There were three stages of casting; the casting of the actors, the casting of the extras, and the casting of the children. The casting of the actors was done in the usual way. But I tried, in all three groups, to find faces that, as it were, matched those one sees in the images of those times. These are faces where you say, “That’s an old-fashioned face, like one in a vintage photo.” There are fewer and fewer of them, but our ambition was to find faces that you’d see in those pictures, if they were authentic.
The actors were cast in a perfectly normal way. First I booked actors that I already knew and thought would fit the part. But over a period of about two months, I also met with many actors that I didn’t know, to fill the remaining roles. For the extras, there were 2 groups: For the local villagers, we found nobody in German-speaking areas with real farmer’s faces, that were suitably weather-beaten and believable. So we looked in Romanian villages for people who lived that life and brought them to the film’s location. And in addition, like for the big festivity, for that we had about 100 extras from Romania, and another 100 found by combining the whole area of Northern Germany, and contacting individual people on the street or wherever we found them.
The third and most strenuous casting was of the children. All in all, we looked at 7000 children, which is really a lot. And not just by contacting the agencies specialized in children, where the results are usually meager, as those children have been corrupted by TV series and so on. We checked every village in N. Germany, we searched village by village. We had a lot of people doing the preliminary work for us doing filmed interviews and showing them to me. Then we sought out those whose faces seemed the most suitable and did tests with them. My assistants did tests with them which I looked at, and with the rest, about 30 children, I did some tests myself that went a bit further, and then we were down to the 10 main roles. And those who were second choices filled roles in the classroom and other places. It was a very strenuous procedure that took over 6 months.
Why don't we know who commits the crimes?
H. In everyday life, you don't know all the reasons that something happens. In my work, I try to give the contradictory nature of reality. Cinema has made us used to having answers for everything, so does television.
The little boy's discussion of death?
H. I remember that moment personally, when I first experienced the idea of death. At age 4 or 5, a child realizes that life is not eternal. It's an important moment for all children.
How important was it to shoot this film in German?
H. This was the first film in over ten years that I got to shoot in German. A great pleasure, as I felt in my element. Which I don’t feel as much in France, as I don’t master the language in the same way. It isn’t to do with not being able to express myself as well, but more about not grasping everything that’s going on around me, and since I’m a bit of a control freak, who wants to control everything, I need to know what’s going on. It’s a lot more complicated in a foreign language. In your own, you do it through a kind of osmosis, but in a foreign language, even if you’re fluent, you can’t really do it. Which is why it was a pleasure for me to shoot the film in German. But though basically, in France, the possibilities for filmmaking are easier and more organized and that in the meantime, I’ve also made a lot of friends here, many of whom are actors. It is a great privilege for me, to be able to operate in these two environments. I’m very grateful for it, and it enables me, more or less, to shoot one film after another, which many of my colleagues, who are limited to one cultural environment, cannot do. They have to wait a couple of years to make their next film. Over the last 10 years, uninterruptedly, I’ve shot one film after the other. That’s a great privilege for which I’m very thankful.
Why are your films always so disturbing?
H. To function, art has to rub salt in the wounds. What interests me when I read a book or a movie are works that make me uneasy, that make me think of new problems, instead of those that reassure me. The films that I retain are those that disturb me. I often say that if my entire corpus were to be given one title, the title would be Civil War.