The White Ribbon

Austrian writer/director Haneke's stark, troubling drama about the miserable souls in a small German village in the year before World War I opens with a voiceover by its lead character, the village's soft-spoken teacher. Speaking as an old man – presumably during or after World War II – he claims that the story we are about to watch may "clarify some things that happened later in our country."

That's the only explicit clue we're given as to what Haneke's message is, but it lingers throughout the film. In essence, by depicting the disturbing acts of violence that crop up in this pastoral setting – the likely culprits being the village's children – Haneke is saying, "Here, then, are the origins of the Nazi generation." It's not a stretch: Germany's 1913 adolescents indeed grew up to become the leaders and supporters of the Third Reich. And by subtly depicting the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that these children suffered at the hands of their oppressive parents, Haneke argues that the fascism that engulfed Germany in the thirties was borne out of this cruelty.

So no, The White Ribbon is not a "fun" movie, but neither it is boring nor entirely hopeless. Mostly it is simply engrossing, thanks to a great cast and especially to Christian Berger's stunning black and white cinematography, the best of the year, which does such a great job at placing you in early twentieth century Germany that the film almost feels like a relic of its time.

This is a serious, challenging work by a filmmaker whose output – save, perhaps, his unnecessary English language shot-for-shot remake of his own Funny Games – has become increasingly mature and meaningful.