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Director shines light on our darker natures

Haneke pulls strings in ‘White Ribbon’

Michael Haneke, director of “The White Ribbon,’’ at the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday. Michael Haneke, director of “The White Ribbon,’’ at the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday. (Paul Drinkwater/Nbc)
By Reed Johnson
Los Angeles Times / January 23, 2010

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HOLLYWOOD - Bleak. Misanthropic. Sadistic. Unsettling.

That’s a sampling of adjectives that have attached themselves over the years to the films of Michael Haneke, whose latest award-winning feature, “The White Ribbon,’’ opened last Friday. And those are from writers who admire the Austro-German director’s work.

Haneke’s craftsmanship displays a switchblade-sharp precision and sang-froid intellectualism that causes reviewers to utter the hallowed words “Alfred Hitchcock.’’ His movies tend to be psychological thrillers, usually focusing on cultured, middle-class people caught up in circumstances that propel them toward the abyss.

In “Funny Games,’’ a couple is brutalized by mocking, seemingly motiveless thugs. In “The Piano Teacher,’’ built around a fearless performance by Isabelle Huppert, a ruthlessly exacting piano instructor turns out to have a hidden kinky streak a mile wide. In “Cache,’’ Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil portray a Parisian pair playing cat-and-mouse games with an anonymous stalker.

The tightly controlled, claustrophobic environments of his movies are intended to make audiences squirm. They’re also meant to make viewers conscious of how they’re being manipulated emotionally by the movie they’re watching, and to contemplate the master puppeteer pulling the strings behind the camera.

Sipping coffee in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, Haneke, 67, conveyed a winking humor and personal warmth at odds with his art. His El Greco visage and chic monochrome ensemble aside, he’s a mirthful conversationalist who appears to be genuinely, if sadly, fascinated by the human capacity for cruelty and self-delusion.

These frailties (among others) surface abundantly in “The White Ribbon,’’ which won a Golden Globe Award for best foreign film and is on the short list for an Oscar nomination. It captured the Palme d’Or at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. Set in 1913 and 1914, the film, which Haneke also wrote, spirals around a series of violent and criminal acts in a provincial village in Protestant northern Germany.

But Haneke, who was born in Munich, educated in Vienna, and spends much of his time in France, didn’t intend the film specifically as a commentary on early-20th-century German society.

“First of all, Germany is nothing else than just the hook for this subject, because it is a well-known hook,’’ he said, switching among German, French, and snatches of colloquial English. “And so in general it is more about how you prep people, or what’s the preparation to make people receptive for extreme ideology.’’

Several characters are patriarchal figures: the baron of the estate that employs many of the townsfolk; the village pastor; the baron’s steward; and the local doctor. As the designated enforcers of the social and moral status quo, these men are hypocritical and brutal gatekeepers.

But in creating these characters, Haneke said, he wasn’t trying to show them merely as personifications of a social structure based on the precept that daddy knows best.

“I see it the other way around,’’ he said. “I think the schools or the educational system is just a follow-up of the individual behavior. You could transplant this film into an Islamic country or background, and the film definitely would look completely different. But it would have the same basic of repression, of humiliation, of frustration, of suffering or agony, and would have these same basic structures. And so as an individual you would grab the straw of ideology, because that’s the hope. That’s the ‘hope’ that came out of all this miserable situation.’’

A former film critic who got his start in theater and television, Haneke is highly conscious of the power of movie artifice, and he strives, a tad quixotically, to make his own cinematic illusions visible.

In some films he uses the device of embedding movies (or videos) within movies, nudging his audience to be aware of how he’s twisting and massaging their hearts and minds.

He also demonstrates in “The White Ribbon’’ a gift for coaxing complex performances from young actors. Much of the emotional response to the film is triggered by the young characters’ painful initiation into the adult world of hierarchical rules and harsh discipline.

“I’m impressed with the English word ‘housebroken,’ ’’ said Haneke, a father of four. “I know it’s applicable only for animals, but I like the word because it contains the word ‘broken.’ So education in that sense means to break someone, the individual person, to make it acceptable . . . for the social ambience it’s in. And that’s a responsibility for everyone as a parent, as a father or mother or priest or whatever. The breaking. They have to break, they break, and every child is wounded.’’

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