Innocence Lost: Michael Haneke's White Ribbon

Michael Haneke has made some of the most politically challenging films of recent years and his latest film, The White Ribbon, is no exception. The Skinny met with the Austrian director to talk about his approach to radical filmmaking.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 26 Oct 2009

Michael Haneke, dressed all in black and with a thick white beard, is calmly sitting in a London hotel chatting to journalists about his Palme D’Or winning film, The White Ribbon. He’s a jovial presence, something that may surprise those who have seen any of his often bleak and challenging films, coming across as both intelligent and assured yet also modest enough to warm to.

I begin by asking him, perhaps conversely, about the final image of his latest film, which in my mind appears to capture the essence of what the director is trying to achieve. It shows the inhabitants of a small German village gathered in church, silently facing the camera. Having followed the strange and frequently disturbing stories of several members of this community, this final image has a startling impact: it suddenly brings a mirror up to the audience.

“The film shouldn’t end on the screen,” explains the filmmaker, “it should end in the heads of the spectators. It’s like a ski jump, the ski jump has to be well built but the ski jumper has to do the actual jumping.” And if there’s one thing that Haneke is encouraging his audience to do, it’s to jump, in more ways than one. Across his films the director has never shied away from shocking images, presenting violence in an unflinching manner so as to illustrate the true horror and unexpected form that it can take. His 2005 film Hidden contains one unforgettable scene that is so unexpected and fearlessly presented that it produced audible gasps of shock from almost every cinema-goer who went to see it. At the same time his films are undeniably powerful and linger long after the lights have gone up.

The White Ribbon is no exception and sees Haneke as politically curious as ever. Set just before the outbreak of the First World War it recalls a series of strange crimes that mysteriously occur in a small German village. In one instance a trip-wire causes the local doctor to fall from his horse and in another a child is found beaten. Given the era that the film is set it’s initially tempting to see the film as a comment on the rise of Nazi fascism. And whilst this partly does seem to be Haneke’s aim, he is also adamant that The White Ribbon is not a historical film.

“What the film is trying to do is to show the conditions under which people are prepared to take on an ideological position, to follow an ideology,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter in the first place whether that’s a religious ideology, whether it’s an ideology of the left or of the right, that’s not the important question. The starting point for all of this in the case of a particular individual is some hopeless or humiliating situation in which they find themselves and along comes a ratcatcher who offers them a way out. Whether it’s a German fascist or a Stalinist who offers the solutions that’s another question entirely. The example of German fascism is simply the most obvious and prominent example.”

It’s easy to make connections with a whole host of modern day situations. “It’s not for me to decide what the specific parallels are, that’s the job of the audience, argues the director. “But unfortunately these kinds of things are always happening over and over again, everywhere. And after ten years of course there will be new examples but they are all based invariably on the same principles. You could make a film in an Arab country about Islamism, that would be a different film but it would be the same complex of basic ideas underpinning it.”

What is heavily present throughout the film are the children of the village and some of the most haunting scenes are created through the juxtaposing of children (and the innocence implied by their presence) with horrific acts of violence. This is not just something we see in The White Ribbon but across his films. The reason for the presence of children (and also animals) he says, is because of their vulnerability, their existence at the bottom of society’s hierarchy. For us to see them harmed or embroiled in acts of violence is all the more shocking and leads us to question the society that has created them.

There is little doubt that watching a film such as The White Ribbon can at times be an uncomfortable experience. Haneke’s films challenge audiences in a way that mainstream cinema doesn’t, they demand a response and a degree of engagement from the viewer. “My films are always a reaction to cinema as it is, to films that try to calm or satisfy the audience or offer them some kind of hope. If the other films weren’t the way they were mine wouldn’t be the way they are either.” His films are both radical and also reactionary and for audiences looking for something to get their teeth into they are also ski jumps lying in wait, ready to give you lift off.

This White Ribbon is released on 13 Nov 2009.