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Michael Haneke Makes It Hurt So Good

Michael Haneke Makes It Hurt So Good (photo)

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“Why so glum, chum?”

It’s the first question I really wanted to ask 67-year-old Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, whose provocative social dramas are fueled by some of the bleakest, most distressing subject matter in world cinema today. Whether it’s the sadomasochistic student-tutor romance in “The Piano Teacher,” the relentlessly brutal critique of violence as entertainment in his meta-horror “Funny Games” (and his shot-for-shot U.S. remake, which gave the finger to Hollywood by mocking it with Hollywood financing), or the accusations of bloodlust against his own audience in his allegorical masterpiece “Caché,” Haneke’s arthouse miserablism certainly doesn’t inspire hope in the goodness of mankind. But maybe inspiring thought, self-reflection and debate demands that cinema hurt so good.

The 2009 jury at Cannes certainly believed so. Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or (and now nominated for a Golden Globe), “The White Ribbon” finds Haneke returning to his German roots. Staged in a Protestant village in northern Deutschland just before World War I, the film uses the historical framework of fascism and terrorism to depict how any community could easily turn against itself. Mysterious accidents begin to appear like crimes (arson, abduction, assault and assorted sabotages), and could it be that the children are to blame, retaliating against the verbal, physical and spiritual abuse wrought by the adults in power? With the help of a translator, I chatted with Haneke about the similarities between “The White Ribbon” and “Caché,” whether he sees humanity as inherently evil, and why he’s never directed a comedy.

What inspired you to write such a German-specific story?

I chose the context of German fascism because that’s the best-known example of how people can be made receptive to what I call “ideological rat-catchers,” people who are selling their ideologies like this. The film seeks to show the process of how people can be made receptive to such ideologies. It would be a misunderstanding to see the film as simply about the rise of fascism. That would be far too reductive, especially since there’s no single film that could deal with all those causes.

12302009_TheWhiteRibbon2.jpgAs in some of your other films, “The White Ribbon” has mysteries that are never resolved. What attracts you to this idea, setting up audiences to search for clues in vain?

When you pose questions without providing answers, then you’re forcing the audience to reflect on the questions and think about them more seriously. It’s dramatically effective to do that. When a drama works with suspense, it’s the glue that keeps the audience sitting in their seats. For every event that takes place in the film, there are several possible and logical explanations. It’s up to each individual spectator to find the answer for himself.

Some have compared the ambiguities of “The White Ribbon” to “Caché.” The new film concerns an unknown villain who plants a tripwire, setting off a series of antagonistic events. The earlier film also has an unknown villain who instigates hostility, except with strategically delivered videotapes.

After “Caché” came out, there were entire internet forums developed to discuss what the two boys were saying in the schoolyard at the end of the film. Of course, I had to write dialogue for them, but I made sure that no one ever found out what they said. That provides different possible interpretations for the audience. But, especially in “Caché,” the questions that people are looking for an answer to are the least important part of the film. The film grapples with Daniel Auteuil’s character’s guilt and how he’s going to respond to his obligations. That’s far more important than whoever actually sent the videotapes. The tapes are simply a means of creating suspense.

There’s another scene in “Caché” where Juliette Binoche is accused of having an affair with a friend of the family. You can assume that, yes, they’re having an affair, but she claims she isn’t. So it’s up to each of us to make up our mind. So rarely do you actually know where the truth lies. It’s only in mainstream cinema that everything is clear and all problems are resolved. Real life is complicated and contradictory.

12302009_TheWhiteRibbon1.jpgCharacters in your films are often so cruel to one another. If there were no laws governing us, do you see humanity as inherently evil?

Yeah. [laughs] I think everyone is capable of doing absolutely anything. It just depends on the situation they find themselves in. It’s easy for us who are living in such comfortable, privileged surroundings to judge other people and say, “Oh, I would never do that.” To stick with the example of German fascism, where we lived under the Nazis and were told that in order to save the rest of your family, you have to denounce your neighbors — I’m not so sure if I’d be strong enough to oppose them. You never know how you’re going to respond.

You typically take a detached, didactic approach to your subject matter. Would you ever consider making something more personal or even confessional?

No. I always think it’s dangerous to make films that deal with one’s own tummy-aches. I leave that to beginners and dilettantes.

Is this the first feature you’ve shot in black and white?

I made two previous films [for television] that were mostly in black and white, although they did have color scenes in them. The first was a literary adaptation of Joseph Roth’s novel “Rebellion,” and also a drama called “Fräulein.” Both were period pieces.

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Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

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Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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