This film won the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It won three European Film Awards, including Best Screenwriter, Best Director and Best Film. It won the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. With its universal acclaim from the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago film critics' associations, this movie is also expected to take home the Oscar.
Michael Haneke wrote and directed this film. I've posted several articles about Haneke, which can be found on WBOC.com. He is in my regards the best European filmmaker alive today. I don't mean in commercial success, but in terms of creative control and in terms of defining film for himself, Haneke is in my mind this generation's Alfred Hitchcock.
This is his tenth, feature film and like the others, it is absolutely stunning. It's his first film in black-and-white, but it's probably his most beautiful. The film takes place in a small town in Germany in the year leading up to the start of World War I.
An unnamed 31-year-old School Teacher narrates the tale. He takes note of a series of strange incidents that occur within that year, culminating in his marriage. The School Teacher's marriage isn't strange. The courtship is a little awkward but his marriage isn't. All the incidents, however, are accidents that result in various people getting hurt or killed. The police know there's someone causing the accidents, but this is before "CSI," so they have no way of gathering hard evidence.
The School Teacher begins to suspect someone in particular, but he can't prove it. He goes to the Baron to try to warn him, but the Baron doesn't listen.
Ulrich Tukur, the German actor from the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (2006), stars as the Baron, the wealthiest man around, the man who owns half the land in the town and for whom everyone practically works. He's also the town's preacher. All of the accidents seem to center around him and his family. He's shocked when the School Teacher suggests that someone within that family may be the culprit.
Suspicion is thrown toward the son of a farmer. That son blames the Baron for his mother's death. The farmer doesn't share his son's need for vengeance, but the farmer's family represents one of the poorest families in the area. Debt and loss are things with which the farmer struggles. Yet, the farmer doesn't complain or fight back. He merely suffers in silence, until it reaches a breaking point.
Every time an incident occurs, it's the job of the Doctor to come and tend to the injured people. Strangely however, the first incident involves the Doctor himself getting injured and breaking his arm. The Doctor is taken to a hospital and he eventually returns, but his departure sets off the falling dominoes, which not only reveal an undercurrent of violence but also various sexual secrets.
Yes, it's a small town in 1913. Yes, it's a pastoral, black-and-white setting, but it's far from a perfectly serene and absolutely pleasant scene with nice, neighborly people. That's the veneer that you think, looking at the town superficially, but just below the surface is a budding evil. This is a theme that runs common in Haneke's movies, but Haneke is much more restrained here, or rather subtle.
Haneke was never really akin to Eli Roth or any of the other Splat Pack filmmakers. He's not one to show the blood and gore. He's excelled at instead building tension and maintaining a mood of uneasiness that keeps the viewer at the edge of his seat. While other filmmakers are content to push that viewer onto the floor, Haneke isn't. One doesn't think while they're falling, they merely react. Haneke prefers the audience to think, allowing the imagination in one's mind, the unknown, be what scares you.
Haneke manages to craft some interesting, dramatic scenes between the two adult couples: The Baron and his wife as well as the Doctor and his wife. Both couples have scenes where they break up. Both are sharply cruel, one from a female perspective and the other from a male's. While other directors delight in slicing and dicing their onscreen characters with knives and saws, Haneke brilliantly does it with dialogue.
During his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Haneke gave special thanks to the children who worked on his film. Though the School Teacher narrates the film, much of the movie is told through the point-of-view of the children. It's through their eyes that we see a lot of innocence and purity lost in this town.
The question becomes what causes the loss of innocence and purity. Is it one or two bad apples? Is it a form of society that is just too poor and oppressive to be sustained? The fact that the trigger is unknown may be the most horrifying thing of all.
Five Stars out of Five
In German With English Subtitles
Rated R for disturbing content, including violence and sexuality
Running Time: 2 hours and 24 mins.