A trickle of strange, tragic events – perhaps betokening an active, malicious agency – trouble the seemingly eternal placidity of Eichwald, an agricultural community deep in rural Germany throughout 1913 and 1914. A wire is stretched between trees where the widowed town doctor (Rainer Bock) habitually rides — he is injured in a fall, and has to be absent from his practice, leaving his children in the care of his colleague (and ill-treated mistess), the midwife (Susanne Lothar). A woman falls through the floor of a barn where she is working and is killed, prompting her angry son to take a scythe to a cabbage field in order to express his displeasure with the remote Baron (Ulrich Tukur) who is unpopular but the major local employer. At the same time, the Baron’s little son disappears and is found hung upside down in the woods, having been given a severe beating – which prompts the Baroness (Ursina Lardi) to take the child away to Italy for a while. Other local authority figures – the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and the Baron’s Steward (Josef Bierbichler) – are stern, unbending and often brutal, punishing anyone who expresses any dissatisfaction with the way things are. Whippings, behind closed doors, are commonplace, and the Pastor lectures his son on the debilitative effects of masturbation – we later see the boy has to sleep with his hands tied to the frame of his bed.
The young schoolmaster (Christian Friedel) is more sensitive, if ineffectual, and embarking on a hesitant, sweet romance with a nanny (Leonie Benesch) who gets fired by the Baron after the heir-flogging incident and has a father who is another little tyrant more concerned with keeping the younger generation in their place than moving aside. Meanwhile, many of the village’s children are walking around in unison, giving off a Midwich Cuckoos vibe – rarely caught doing anything wrong, but often around when bad things are happening. A barn burns. The midwife’s simple-minded son (Eddy Grahl) is also taken into the woods and beaten, perhaps tortured. Suspicions whirl around, but no one really wants to know what’s happening and whose fault it is. Michael Haneke may be the most intensely misanthropic director currently working in the international arthouse scene, and his films alternate between the unmissable and the insufferable – this deceptively placid period piece (it could almost be a prequel to Heimat), in cool black and white with a measured pace, is one of his best films.
Obviously, it builds up to the outbreak of the First World War and there’s a sense that the specific problems of this society arise from entrenched 19th Century attitudes – but Haneke could find worms of evil in any community at any time, and here refuses to take the easy out. He also holds back on actually confirming what the teacher comes to suspect – that a group of kids in town are behind the worst of the crimes, and maybe more that haven’t come to light yet – and leaves the mysteries unresolved at the end, refusing even to reveal what happened later to any of the people involved and how Eichwald changed during the War or the Third Reich. There are the expected intimations of child abuse and everyone in power is shown to be capable of acute cruelty – the doctor’s rejection of his mistress is extremely blunt and upsetting, robbing us of any potential sympathy with the initial victim – while the children seem to learn cunning rather than virtue from repeated punishments. Obvious, impulsive malefactors like the cabbage-scyther and the Steward’s son who snatches a whistle from the Baron’s overprivileged prince and shoves the kid into the river are severely treated (the angry young farmer’s deferential father hangs himself), which just makes others more cautious and ingenious in their wickednesses: the Pastor’s daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), forced to wear a white ribbon to remind her of purity, might be the ring-leader but then again might not be.
Haneke stages intimate, exquisitely painful conversations, but in the subplot about the schoolteacher and the nanny at least tries to show real innocents – a few years older than the creepy kids – among the monsters, though a moment where the girl refuses to have an impromptu picnic in the grass with her timid swain hints that even here the suspicions are too deep-seated to allow actual love to develop.