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.

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

Foto: X-Verleih

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.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Scenes from 'The White Ribbon'

Foto: X-Verleih

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.

'We Are All Obsessed with Fear'

SPIEGEL: In several of your films, there is no satisfying conclusion to the whodunnit apect of the storyline. In the end, we are always left feeling perplexed. If art does nothing but create perplexity ...

Haneke: ... then you're making things very easy for yourself. There is a logical explanation for everything that happens in these films, but I'll be damned if I'll tell you what it is.

SPIEGEL: And you know the answers?

Haneke: Of course. But what good would the answers do you? As a viewer, I don't want to be palmed off with simple solutions, because I know that they're not real solutions. The world isn't that simple. The only things I've remembered from books or films are the things that made me anxious, the things that forced me to agonize over myself or the world in which I live.

SPIEGEL: In other words, is it sufficient for art to merely perform a diagnosis?

Haneke: That's already too much. My films are a reaction to the cinema that already exists. The authors of mainstream films aren't stupid. They see the abysses just as much as I do, but they deliberately don't address them, because reassurance is easier to sell than agitation.

SPIEGEL: Is that true? The modern commercial horror film also uses unsettling images and scenes. And evil survives in the end in those films, to ensure that a sequel can be made.

Haneke: But that's something else. These films make violence unreal and therefore consumable. It's like being on a ghost train ride. I deliberately allow myself to be frightened but I know that nothing can happen to me. I remember when Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" came out, and I was sitting in a matinee filled with young people. The famous scene of a boy's head being blown off caused a huge commotion in the theater. They thought it was great and they almost died laughing.

SPIEGEL: And you?

Haneke: I was upset because I think it's irresponsible. I can't stand violence. I'm allergic to any form of physical violence. It makes me sick. It's wrong to make it consumable as something fun.

SPIEGEL: It's interesting to hear you say that because your films are filled with violence.

Haneke: But they don't show it and they take away its value as an attraction. Because that's obscene. I think it's more intelligent to work with the viewer's fantasy. The viewer's fantasy is always more powerful than any image. The creaking floorboard is worse than the monster in the door.

SPIEGEL: In other words if we were mentally completely healthy and if we had no chasms in our souls ...

Haneke: ... then I'd certainly like to meet that person ...

SPIEGEL: ... we could watch your films without hesitation because the horror you suggest wouldn't resonate with us?

Haneke: These people you describe don't exist. I believe that we are all obsessed with fear. It's one of the basic conditions of human existence.

SPIEGEL: What are your fears?

Haneke: They aren't particularly original. Fear of illness, fear of pain. Fear of losing a loved one. Fear of dying.

SPIEGEL: But if people have so many fears already, does the cinema have to make them even more anxious?

Haneke: Look, Pier Paolo Pasolini's film "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom," which deals with sexual perversion in fascist Italy, scared me so much that I was sick for 14 days. Completely wiped out. To this day, I haven't drummed up the courage to watch it again. Never again did I look into such a deep abyss and rarely have I learned so much.

SPIEGEL: Apparently there are plenty of abysses in modern middle-class society, the milieu to which you return again and again.

Haneke: It's what I know best. I can tell these stories from first hand experience. Besides, the viewers of my films are also primarily from the middle class which makes it easier for them to identify with the characters in my films.

SPIEGEL: We believe that it isn't easy to identify with them because they are always pathetic creatures. Why do you allow the middle classes to suffer so much? In one film, a family commits collective suicide and in another a family is murdered. And when you portray a happy middle-class family, it ends up being terrorized with threats as in "Caché."

Haneke: We imprison ourselves to defend our affluence. The main characters in "Funny Games" are prisoners in their own world. In the end, they are unable to scale the security fences intended to keep intruders off their property.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you were at odds with your middle-class existence?

Haneke: No, I'm grateful to have had such a privileged upbringing. We constantly see people in the media who are from the Third World and are trying to get to where we live. And we try to keep them out. Because we're afraid to share and fear can quickly lead to aggression. One of the characters in "Caché" says: "Just think of all the things we do so that we don't lose anything." That's a very important sentence in our society.

SPIEGEL: Are you any better?

Haneke: No. I'm just as cowardly and self-absorbed as everyone else. If an immigrant stood at my door and said: You have so much room. Can I live here? Would I let him in? No. I'm not a saint. I cultivate a certain skepticism in my films: toward other people and myself.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Haneke, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philipp Oehmke and Lars-Olav Beier.

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