By Peter Knegt
“I chose this period and this country because I think it offers the most prominent horror of extremism of any kind,” Michael Haneke said of his film “The White Ribbon.” “That said, I think it would be an error to reduce the film to this specific period or this specific country. I think the Germans should see this film as a film about Germany. However, I think that in other countries, people should see the film as about their own country.”
Haneke was speaking at a press conference at Walter Reade Theater ahead of “The White Ribbon”‘s screening at the New York Film Festival last night. The film, which won Haneke his first Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, takes place at a rural school in the north of Germany as the pre-WWI seeds of fascism begin to unravel. One of the school’s teachers (played by newcomer Christian Friedel) comes to believe that a series of deadly accidents may be the work of one or more of his strangely withdrawn pupils.
Haneke told journalists, via a translator, that he did little rehearsing on the set of “Ribbon,” despite the massive cast (as moderator Richard Pena noted, it’s not just an ensemble, it’s “like a whole community”).
“I didn’t do any rehearsals with the actors whatsoever,” Haneke said. “I’m not sure that it’s helpful. I never do that… I’ve worked a long time, in theater as well, and it’s my belief that rehearsals aren’t useful. Even on stage, it’s really only when the actors are under the pressure of having the real audience that things come together and you get the real results. I tend to shoot my scenes very quickly. There’s an initial rehearsal when the camera is in place so everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. But then I immediately shoot because it’s my impression that most often it’s the first take that’s the best. It’s either the first take or the twenty-fifth.”
Haneke shot “Ribbon” in black and white, a choice that drew curiosity from those at the press conference. “It was very clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to shoot the film in black and white,” Haneke responded, claiming two different reasons for this choice.
“The first is that when people think of that period, they think of it in black and white,” he explained. “It was right after the invention of photography and the images that we know of that period have been translated to us in black and white. For that reason, it seemed to me it would be easier for the spectator to enter into that period.”
The second reason was the distance that black and white creates between the image and the spectator. “It works against films that claim or seek to reassure the spectator and claim that they are reproducing reality,” Haneke said. “In the same way, the film begins with a narrator who says that the tale that he wants to tell, though he’s not sure if he remembers it correctly, or even if it’s true. The film, in both those manners, never claims that it is offering an accurate depiction of what took place. Rather it offers spectators artifacts. I’m always trying to arouse a sense of mistrust in the audience towards what they are watching… That’s something that marks all of my films.”
The highlight of the press conference came when a journalist asked Haneke if he has “some abiding sadness in [him] that produces this kind of drama… this ethos on the screen.” The rest of the audience burst into nervous laughter.
“I don’t think that I’m a depressive kind of person myself,” he responded with a smile, “but you probably best ask my wife who’s sitting at the back of the theater. That’s to say, however, that I believe that drama has the obligation to deal with conflicts that surround us and with which we’re confronted by in our daily lives. That’s our responsibility to deal with these ideas. I’m always surprised by mainstream cinema that seeks to sweep under the carpet or make harmless very serious questions that we’re confronted with. I think that I respect the spectator so much that I want to take seriously the questions that he or she is confronted with. Problems that aren’t so funny at all.”
The press conference ended with Haneke being asked what he thought American audiences would make of “The White Ribbon.”
“I’m looking forward eagerly to seeing they respond,” he said simply, smirking.
“The White Ribbon” screens again tonight at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, and opens in theaters this December care of Sony Pictures Classics.