In a small village in Germany, just before the First World War, a doctor is severely injured when a hidden tripwire pulls down his horse. Scene by scene we get something of the context and build a picture of village life – in private homes, but also at school, in the street, in church.
There are more nasty incidents, and there may be a pattern. A labourer’s wife dies after falling through a rotten floor in the landlord’s barn. Later the barn is burnt to the ground. The pastor tongue-lashes children at school – simply for being noisy between classes – and singles out his daughter who faints with shame. Later, the caged bird in his study is crucified on a pair of scissors.
Gradually it becomes clearer. Haneke is not weaving together conventional tales, with beginnings, middles and ends. Leaving out the connections, he gives us not neat stories about individuals but an uncomfortable picture of their society. It’s rigidly paternalistic and authoritarian; people are defined by their position. And from denial of autonomy, denial of justice, denial of fellowship and love, come malice and violence.
Haneke is a stunning filmmaker whose depiction is as ordained, formal and distancing as the society he depicts, yet gets right inside you. Austere, in black-and-white, with no extraneous music, no straightforward plot, no resolution, this film is impeccably composed and controlled, its characterization eerily truthful, every scene utterly convincing and often chilling. Unsettling and unforgettable, it leaves you appalled, but wiser.