SPIEGEL Interview with Director Michael Haneke: 'Every Film Rapes the Viewer'

Austrian director Michael Haneke discusses his shocking new film, "The White Ribbon," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, his penchant for gloomy stories that unnerve his viewers and his unsettling view of humanity.

A scene from Austrian director Michael Haneke's new film, the White Ribbon. Zoom
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A scene from Austrian director Michael Haneke's new film, the White Ribbon.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Haneke, you won the Palme d'Or in Cannes this year for your shocking film "The White Ribbon." Now Germany is even sending you, as an Austrian, to represent it in Hollywood at the Oscars. Let's hope the Oscar jury won't have to go into therapy after all that bleakness.

Haneke: Bleakness?! My film contains a beautiful love story, which isn't bleak, and there are moments of tenderness. But I am stereotyped for portraying only our dark sides. I believe that I love people, but even the most likeable people don't come with a guarantee that they'll always remain likeable. Each of us is capable of anything. It just takes being in the right situation.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Scenes from 'The White Ribbon'

SPIEGEL: "The White Ribbon" portrays a German village in 1913 and 1914, shortly before the beginning of World War I, in which mysterious acts of violence occur. The human relationships in the village are deeply troubled. There are no heroes, and there is no salvation. Do you really have such a negative view of humanity?

Haneke: My view of humanity isn't negative. But the world in which we live is dominated by disorders. I believe that the purpose of drama is to illustrate conflicts and it's something I take seriously.

SPIEGEL: The men in your film are particularly disturbed -- dishonest, cruel and weak. You grew up without a father and were raised by your mother, grandmother and aunt.

Haneke: I never suffered from the absence of a father. On the contrary, as a child I was more inclined to see men as a disturbing factor. It made things difficult for me when I started working as a director. I had trouble dealing with men, and cockfights erupted quickly. I was used to being the cock of the walk.

SPIEGEL: Is that why you always come down on the side of the women in your films?

Haneke: I think it's a little simplistic to explain a work through the psychology of its author. In other words, that Haneke has emotional problems, so I don't have to take his films seriously. By using this argument, the viewer retreats from the challenges of the film. People often use this approach, but I'm used to it by now: What kind of a person is Haneke, to be making those kinds of films?

SPIEGEL: It's certainly a valid question. In "The White Ribbon," even the children are cold and cruel.

Haneke: And I don't believe that children are innocent. In fact, no one seriously believes that. Just go to a playground and watch the kids playing in the sandbox! The romantic notion of the sweet child is simply the parents projecting their own wishes.

SPIEGEL: But your films also often portray the family, the foundation of human civilization, as a collection of speechless zombies. Where does this come from?

Haneke: Before you start digging around in my psyche again: I was very happy in my three-woman family. But even as a child, I understood the difficulties of communication. I say blue, you hear green, because your sensors are set up differently. Sometimes it even happens in interviews, right? Everyone has this experience constantly, starting in the family.

SPIEGEL: In your film, you describe how children, as a result of a strict Protestant upbringing, are raised to be guilt-ridden slaves to authority.

Haneke: Yes, these children are raised to be recipients of orders. They are supposed to learn to accept authority -- even while gnashing their teeth. But education has always meant the taming of individual freedom so that one can be integrated into society. The children in the film turn their parents' ideals about childrearing into something absolute, even though they don't bring them any happiness or joy.

SPIEGEL: And 20 years later these children, as adults, are prepared to form the foundation of German fascism. Is that what you're driving at?

Haneke: You could see it that way. It isn't a coincidence that the village is called Eichwald. When strictness becomes an end in itself, and when an idea turns into ideology, it becomes perilous for anyone who doesn't comply with this ideology. The film uses the example of German fascism to talk about the mental preconditions for every type of terrorism, whether it comes from the right or the left, and whether it's politically or religiously motivated. Wherever people are in a hopeless, unhappy and humiliating situations, they will grasp at any straw that is handed to them.

SPIEGEL: Your film doesn't offer a solution for this dilemma, either. You leave your viewers in a state of hopelessness.

Haneke: Those are your feelings. Every argument is powerless against feelings. But every interpretation is also correct, because it occurs in the mind of the recipient -- in your mind, in this case. In that sense, you have contributed to the film -- hopefully.

SPIEGEL: That sounds demanding, not entertaining.

Haneke: But you, as a viewer, have no other choice. You contribute to every film, even those that confirm your prejudices. All I try to do is provoke you to be independent. Besides, you can always walk out on the film. I have no objection to that. During previews of the American version of my film "Funny Games," ...

SPIEGEL: ... in which two adolescents sadistically torture a family…

Haneke: … many people walked out. I say: The film worked, because it spoiled the fun for consumers of violence.

SPIEGEL: You feel validated when viewers leave the theater? That's a strange attitude to have toward your audience.

Haneke: "Funny Games" is a special case. The film was intended as a slap in the face.

SPIEGEL: Why should we go to the movies, just to be slapped in the face?

Haneke: It was a provocation! A slap means that the viewer is shocked, and that he may even see things differently all of a sudden. Or he insists on his expectations being fulfilled. Then he'll be disappointed and will walk out. If you like to go home feeling reassured, you have to watch mainstream films.

SPIEGEL: We would like to go home feeling reassured.

Haneke: I believe that the purpose of drama is not to let you go home feeling reassured. That was never its purpose, even as far back as the Greek tragedies. Every film is manipulative, raping the viewer. So the question is: Why do I rape the viewer? I try to rape him into being reflective, and into being intellectually independent and seeing his role in the game of manipulation. I believe in his intelligence. At its best, film should be like a ski jump. It should give the viewer the option of taking flight, while the act of jumping is left up to him.

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About Michael Haneke
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Michael Haneke is one of the most important directors of European auteur cinema. He worked for two decades as a television editor, theater and TV director, before directing his first feature film, "The Seventh Continent," in 1989. In films like the study of violence "Funny Games" (1997), "The Piano Teacher" (2001), an adaptation of an Elfriede Jelinek novel, and the thriller "Caché" (2005), Haneke, born in Austria in 1942, dissects the fragility of middle-class life and man's culpability. In his new film "The White Ribbon," which is currently in German theaters and set for release in the United States in December, he portrays life in a northern German village on the eve of World War I. In the nightmarish work, which was awarded the Palme d'Or in Cannes in May and is vying for an Oscar nomination, Haneke describes a world shaped by rigid Protestantism, discipline carried to extremes, narrow-mindedness, mendacity and coldness -- and leaves his audience deeply troubled.


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