We did the interview in a hotel in midtown Manhattan. He was slender and well-dressed with a beard the color of Malamute fur. As others have observed, he’s disarmingly pleasant in person—even jolly. If he weren’t so thin, he could be Santa Claus.
Our Q & A is below. I’ve condensed some of my questions and remarks to streamline/clarify, and so you don’t have to read as much from me, but I’ve preserved just about every word Haneke said, intelligibility of the tape allowing. His English is fairly good, but unless otherwise noted, he’s speaking through a translator.
NA: Nonexistence doesn’t frighten you?
NA: The scene in The White Ribbon where the boy learns about death for the first time, what about that? The child seems terrified.
Haneke: I think that every child asks those questions at a certain age, usually between four and five, and that scene I find is very touching because it’s when for the first time you come up against certain basic truths about human existence, and there’s a shock always when you learn for the first time that human existence is limited. And it usually takes place at precisely that age.
NA: It seemed like the children’s reactions to death were explored to show different reactions to death… [I cite some examples] Can you talk about showing their different reactions… fear of death vs. fascination with death?
Haneke: I think that in childhood we pose or we ask ourselves those questions, think about them, a lot more seriously than we do in later life when as adults we’ve learned to repress the fear of death, to shove it aside. That’s the case, you don’t think about it until someone in your immediate circle is either dying or dies. Today society represses the fear of death. In earlier days, people died at home whereas today people die alone in intensive care units where no one can see them. But as children, then you are grappling with issues of death.
NA: In the documentation about The White Ribbon, you talk about the “black education” philosophy that was going on at the time… you describe it as a conservative philosophy, but I wasn’t entirely clear what it was…
[translator relays this to Haneke, then asks me, “Where does he mention the black philosophy?” Haneke cuts in, in English…]
Haneke: I don’t know this interview. The man before you showed me the first time, there is an interview inside. I don’t know it. I don’t know, he did this interview, I am really furious. I have to speak with the—because—
NA: This is the paragraph I was curious about… [showing him the press packet]
Haneke: [reads out loud in English, laughs incredulously] “This is a film set in Germany… [extended garbled murmuring]”… Unbelievable… No, but it’s completely stupid, I don’t know why… of course there is a famous book called… Black Approach Toward Education… I don’t know, it’s a book… there are a lot of examples from this, I read a lot of people, of books… [returns to speaking German, back to translator:] The educational system was definitely repressive. It was based on punishment, it was based on corporal punishment, but it was also, that was the only system that people knew. Even in my generation, a lot of people have told me that their parents would beat them. It doesn’t mean that their parents didn’t love them. But that was their only form of education that they knew, because that’s what they’d grown up with, and for that reason it’s what they reproduced. The pastor in the film isn’t a sadist. He loves his children but he seriously believes that this is the appropriate way of rearing his children. He doesn’t know any other method. [After some consideration Haneke adds another thought, which the translator relays:] I am not convinced either that contemporary approaches to society which spares the rod is ideal either. [Haneke thinks of still more:] And I think questions of education, how we rear our children, is a basic problem of humanity since the beginnings of time. I’ve read dozens of books about education, how people have been educated, going back to the middle ages, and it’s a continuous stream of horror stories.
NA: The parents are almost without exception shown to have cruel sides and to for whatever reason hurt their children in some way. One of the only adults who doesn’t do that is the schoolteacher [the protagonist], who actually seems very kind. Why did you make him the exception?
Haneke: I needed someone who came from outside who could tell the story for us, so that he provided a dramatic counterpoint. It was important that there be someone in the story who afterwards was able to reflect on it, to present the different suspicions. To me it seems difficult that someone who actually came from the town, who was involved in the events, would be able to do so. So for reasons of drama, it had to be someone from outside. It’s true that the teacher was atypical for the period because back then even the teachers used corporal punishment, and that was seen as normal. That wasn’t a sign that they were evil or mean or didn’t like children, it was simply the standard form of education. And even today I imagine there are certain areas of the world where kids are still punished physically.
NA: The United States, for example… When the Nazis rise, do you imagine that the schoolteacher would leave the country, or… ?
[Translator follows up on an aside from Haneke, in the third person for some reason: “Just to add with what Michael said… so it’s obvious that [the schoolteacher] withdrew from his profession, he stopped teaching, but Michael mentions that here in the US, the film is going to be shown in two different versions, the version we’ve seen here in which everything is subtitled, but there’s another version in which the narrator’s voice is going to be replaced with an English narration… so it’s possible that another explanation might be that he actually emigrated.”]
NA: Going back even as far as Benny’s Video, and The Piano Teacher much later, it seems that sex in the films is often tied to violence and the diseased nature of some of the impulses of the characters… that seems to be continued in this film… why do you think that is?
Haneke: [laughs] You’d have to ask other people where that comes from, [unintelligible] speculation, but I simply know that it exists. Similarly in the film, there’s also a very tender, touching, moving love story.
NA: But the tender love story seems devoid of sexuality. It’s very chaste… almost childlike innocence.
Haneke: [Adopts a sort of amused/skeptical “Welllll, I don’t know about *that*”-type expression.] Well, when Eva doesn’t want to go into the forest and they have their first kiss, that at least points to an expression of sexuality, or at least the representation of the fear of the shame for a young girl that sexuality could imply. There’s also the boy who has to have his hands tied when he goes to bed that also deals with sexuality.
NA: I thought that was interesting to have him tied down when the fire was set. To show us that he couldn’t possibly be responsible—that the destructive impulse running through the village is widespread.
Haneke: That’s a possible explanation. [Thinks for a bit.] It’s like in real life, even in detective novels, there are different elements at work that provide different possible explanations. It’s possible that not all the crimes in the film were committed by the same person, or group of persons. It’s possible for example that the barn simply caught fire, a spark or wet hay that led to the conflagration in the same way that… the woman who falls and dies, it’s possible that it was simply an accident, the wood was rotten. In life there are any number of possible explanations. [Haneke, really wanting to emphasize the point, interrupts the translator in strongly accented English:] It’s not just one solution, generally.
NA: That’s what in part seems so compelling, that they were symptomatic of something larger, rather than a single perpetrator.
Haneke: [in English] Yeah but, that’s all open to interpretation, by you and by everybody.
NA: When you were making the film and creating the story, did you often think of your own childhood? And…when you create characters, do you put yourself into them?
Haneke: Yes, of course, you have to insert yourself into the characters. Everyone does it when you are writing. It’s not so much my own past, but you have to identify with the characters to be able to write them. That’s the case whether you’re writing a novel or a play—you’re forced to identify with the characters. That’s also what’s so interesting about actors, that they have to identify with their roles, put themselves in the skin of the character, in opposite most of us [sic], who are living only one life. Whereas an actor can live a hundred lives.
NA: You made the film in black & white. It’s a new style for you.
Haneke: In fact, I made two other films for television that were historical films that were shot mostly in black & white, with some color scenes. One was a literary adaptation of Joseph Roth’s novel The Rebellion, the other was a drama called Fraulein. [Haneke amends the translation in English:] I like black & white! If I could, I would shoot just in black & white. Because of the distance. Black & white give immediately a distance. Not pretend to be reality. And it’s beautiful, it looks beautiful.
NA: It is. The film’s very beautiful, immaculate. In the New Yorker profile that was published recently, you talk about how you like art that makes viewers or readers or audiences uncomfortable. What makes you uncomfortable? What upsets you?
Haneke: I like films or books that make me uncomfortable because they lead me to question myself, to question things. That search for answers is always very productive. Books or films that merely confirm everything that I already know, that’s a waste of time.
NA: But… not just why do you like books that disturb you, but what *in life* upsets you?
Haneke: [in English, laughing] A lot! [back to German, translator takes over:] I’m frightened of many things. I’m frightened of violence, whether physical or every kind of violence. But I’m frightened as well of humiliation. Constantly in our daily lives we’re humiliated whether intentionally or not. Because of that, we all suffer. In fact, in that sense, uncomfortable is a euphemism, because this is an awful situation. We are constantly being made to suffer humiliation and there’s no avoiding that. The humiliation can be banal, can be trivial and unintentional. If someone wants to shake my hand and I don’t notice and walk by them, in a theater. [In English:] Little things, every day. …There are also things that are very good, but if you have a certain sensibility, you cannot avoid to see these little negative things. That’s all. [Haneke laughs heartily. Publicist enters. Interview must end.] Thank you.
NA: A pleasure.
Haneke: [in English, to publicist, but the tape recorder is still on the table; Haneke picks up the packet with the offending “black education” interview, but his voice remains warm and kindly, like that of a European uncle who gives you lots of handcrafted Christmas presents] I’m really sad with this interview, because there are things inside I never said. I have no idea from where is coming. It’s really a very bad thing, because if everybody gets this, I will read a lot of things that have nothing to do what I said. [sic] I’m really furious about this.
Publicist: I’ll check with [so and so], they pulled it off a Cannes interview you did, I think, so we’ll see. I’ll throw them away now.
Haneke: [warmly] Yah, it would be good, because I am not happy with it.