Michael Haneke pulls strings, pushes buttons

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,” opens Wednesday in Los Angeles. And those are from writers who admire the beauty, severity and mental prowess of 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 are brutalized by mocking, seemingly motive-less thugs. In “The Piano Teacher,” built around a fearless performance by Isabel Huppert, a ruthlessly exacting piano instructor turns out to have a hidden kinky streak a mile wide. In “Caché,” 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 not long ago, 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” (“Das Weisse Band”), which 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. Narrated in an elegiac voice-over, apparently decades later, by the village schoolmaster (Christian Friedel), the movie depicts the authoritarian culture of Germany between the world wars. 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.”

Shot in Germany, the film is a German, French and Italian production and received funding assistance from the Austrian Film Institute.

Not coincidentally, 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, played by Rainer Bock (General Schonherr in " Inglourious Basterds”).

As the designated enforcers of the social and moral status quo, these men as a group are hypocritical and frequently 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.”

Despite Haneke’s oft-repeated disclaimer, a number of reviewers have interpreted “The White Ribbon” as a mini-allegory of the forces that propelled the rise of Hitler and the cult of the “Fatherland.” In a follow-up e-mail, Haneke was asked whether he thought that Western journalists have overstated the foreshadowing of the rise of fascism because it’s easier to treat the film as a period piece than confront its parallels with the present.

His succinct reply: “Ja.”

In film after film, Haneke has emphasized that extreme beliefs and over-the-top behavior aren’t always accompanied by stomping jackboots. In fact, his movies suggest, the most threatening thing about such pathologies is the way they insinuate themselves among people who see themselves as rational, worldly and tolerant.

In “Caché,” for example, a connection is gradually revealed between the threatening voyeur and the abuse of an Algerian immigrant child years earlier. But the movie isn’t simply scolding France for its past misrule of a colony. The deeper stain is a sort of original sin. Haneke’s characters are self-victimized by a spirit of malice too broad to be solely equated with French imperialism or Prussian authoritarianism.

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. “I try to make visible how the [cinematic] medium manipulates us, because it is the most manipulative of all media, and therefore the most dangerous.”

Haneke cheerfully agreed that his films indicate he generally finds women more interesting than men. Several strong women in his family had a hand in raising him, he said.

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,’ ” he said. “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.”

As a father of four, Haneke hinted, he knows whereof he speaks. “I am not a very good father, it’s my fear, because I didn’t take care too much,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think it’s too good to be, I didn’t want to be, authoritative.”