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German director probes roots of terror

 Director Michael Haneke poses during a photo call for the film
Director Michael Haneke poses during a photo call for the film 'Das weisse Band' in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, May 21, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
— image credit: Reuters

By James Mackenzie

CANNES, France (Reuters) - Strange and menacing events in a north German village on the eve of World War One form the basis of Austrian director Michael Haneke's new film "The White Ribbon," on show at the Cannes film festival.

The film uses a group of children growing up in a morbidly repressive environment of religious hypocrisy and sexual abuse to look at the generation that made Nazi Germany.

But Haneke, whose last film at Cannes was the widely acclaimed "Cache" (Hidden), said he meant to illustrate a wider problem that did not just affect Germany.

"I don't want the film just to be taken as a film about fascism," he told a news conference.

"It was about telling the story of a group of children who take on absolutely the ideals that are preached to them by their parents," he said.

"And whenever you take an ideal in absolute terms, you make it inhuman. It's the root of any form of terrorism," he said.

The White Ribbon was applauded at its press screening and is seen as a contender for the Palme d'Or award, the top competition prize, which has so far eluded Haneke, despite repeated critical successes.

The film opens with an unexplained accident and goes on to show a series of mysterious occurrences that appear related in some way to the children of the village, who behave throughout with an unsettling mixture of subservience and secrecy.

A barn is burned down, children go missing and are found tied up and abused and the local baron is caught up in a feud with one of the peasant families who depend on him.

As the story unfolds, the self righteous cruelty inflicted by the local pastor on his family or the brutality of a local doctor toward his lover add to the uneasy feeling of threat and guilt that lies over the idyllic village.

Burghart Klaussner, the actor who plays the village pastor, said he had welcomed the chance to explore the kind of character who had stamped the world of his own childhood and youth.

"I was very glad finally to be able to play the kind of person whose impact -- in my own family and in society at large -- I felt often in the aftermath of World War Two," he said.

Haneke shot the film in black and white and said he had taken pains in casting the film to find actors whose physical appearance fit in with the images that have survived in photographs from the time.

"It's been burned into our brains, a world in black and white," he said of the contemporary imagery, adding that avoiding the "one-to-one naturalism" of color photography, allowed him to create a slightly alienated, distant feel.

Like other Haneke films, The White Ribbon leaves much unexplained and ends on an ambiguous note that makes its ultimate meaning a matter of interpretation.

"It's the duty of art to ask questions, not to provide answers," he said. "And if you want a clearer answer, I'll have to pass."

(Editing by Steve Addison)

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