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The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke gives us the lowdown on a film that is being hailed as one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made

Michael Haneke’s immensely brilliant new film The White Ribbon is set in 1913 in a small rural village under feudal rule, and it explores a moment of calm before the 20th Century's first great storm – the period just before fascism tore its way through Germany. The story begins when the village doctor is catapulted from his horse by a trip wire placed across the road, breaking his collarbone. As the seemingly innocent population of the village lack any obvious motivation, the set up is essentially of the ‘who done it?’ variety. However, as ever more surprising and disturbing events occur within the tiny community, it becomes increasingly clear that the inhabitants aren’t as at peace as they initially appear. 

Haneke is a master at creating terrifying characters who are all the more scary because they seem so real. Characters who act like any normal person, except for those sporadic occasions when they perform some intensely psychotic act. That an apparently normal person could do something so horrific breaks down the traditional good guy/bad guy barrier and leaves you feeling awkwardly exposed.

True to the from of any great suspense thriller, the possible tripwire culprits continuously increase in number, each with their own back-story or motivation. Possibly the only slightly annoying aspect of the film is that it’s never made explicit who actually did do it. But this is surely the point Haneke wants us to take – to blame one person would be to detract from the focus of a village built on stringent expectation and austere dogmatism. We’re obviously invited to draw parallels with modern society – issues of alienation, the rise of the BNP and youth crime can all be read into the film. Putting the plot aside, Haneke's near perfect cinematography is so captivating that you would have to look to Kubrick or Hitchcock to find similar mastery. Dressed all in black with his white hair and beard striking a contrast with The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke enters a hushed auditorium, to talk about what for me is the year's most impressive film, below is what he had to say...

I’m interested in making films that show a section of society. You’ve got to think about how old the children are going to be when it comes to the period of fascism. It’s very simple to get a cross section of society within a village; you get a microcosm of the social macrocosm.

The film does try to use German fascism as an example. Theoretically, one could make a film in an Arab country which would be about Islamism. That would be something entirely different, but the psychological model that underpins both of them would be the same.

It’s not specifically an explanation of German fascism, because that would be an impossible thing to do.  What the film does is show how people are indoctrinated or prepared for an ideology, how people who are already in a state of repression are being humiliated by society – they clasp at the straw that’s offered to them, and that develops into a form of fascist indoctrination. It’s always the same model that operates in those circumstances.

In essence you deal with children rather more simply than you deal with actors. You have to show a sort of respect and deal with them lovingly, you have to protect them and if you protect them enough, they’re open and engaged. If they’re gifted, it’s a wonderful present you’re given, more so than in the case of actors.

We didn’t only need the children to be talented, but we also needed the faces that we recognised from the photos from that period. My main fear was that we wouldn’t find them so we started casting six months before we made the film. We tried seven thousand children in order to find the right ones.

The narrator is there to achieve a kind of distancing or estrangement. The use of black and white is also tied to this element of distance. The reason is that historical films always come with a claim of false naturalism – 'that’s how things specifically were.' Of course, they aren’t because films are always artefacts, not a reconstruction of reality.

Originally the film was going to be three and a half hours long. The producer was aware he couldn’t sell that, so it was decided we had to cut one hour from it. I only managed to cut 20 minutes, so we asked Jean-Claude Carrière to help. For me it was painful, but Jean-Claude’s suggestions were so convincing that I was happy to follow them. 

I certainly don’t offer solutions, that’s not my job. The issue in the film is education, which is an eternal problem that you simply can’t get rid of – it’s a basic human problem. If you could solve it we’d have a different society. It’s not ideal now, but it certainly wasn’t ideal back then either.

I think most neurosis begins in the family. For the simple reason that the smaller you are the more likely you are to be at home and be influenced by your family. You are, after all, influenced most in your early youth. Cleverer people than I have said that already.

When you read criticism about my films, you get the impression that they’re all about themes, problems or ideas. However, those are things that develop out of characters, out of images and out of other things and these more abstract things develop while you are working on the material. They develop out of it; it’s not a theoretical exercise from the outset 

Improvisation you can do in the theatre, but not in the cinema. I have a storyboard and I stick to it exactly. Film with a specific aesthetic form must be prepared in advance. This idea that people like John Cassavetes made their films by improvising, it’s just not true. He rehearsed for months in advance. Any successful film has to be thoroughly prepared.

The White Ribbon is out at London's Curzon Mayfair and cinemas nationwide from November 13

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