The White Ribbon (15)

Ryan Gilbey detects a new tenderness in the darling of European cinema

Michael Haneke isn't a film-maker to shrink from asking audiences to confront the unimaginable, but he goes a step further with his Palme d'Or-winning latest, The White Ribbon. Never before has the world entertained the notion that one of Haneke's films could actually be entertaining. It is undoubtedly odd to discover that a writer-director renowned for austerity can accommodate that cherished comedy staple, the tea-table summit between a gruff father and his daughter's suitor. And while The White Ribbon is hardly Carry On Haneke, the spirit of Talbot Rothwell endures in anyone capable of writing the line, "Someone has cut off the baron's cabbages!"

Of course, it is vital that we stay calm and don't panic. The film has no score. Christian Berger's stately black-and-white cinematography jumps from grainy interiors to eye-wateringly snowy landscapes, maximising unease. The theme is human cruelty and culpability. Phew. But The White Ribbon nevertheless resembles a game of grandmother's footsteps, with Haneke inching ever closer to delivering pleasure without punishing us for craving it.

The setting is a feudal community in Germany, immediately before the First World War. A village doctor is injured when his horse is felled by a tripwire. Soon there are other unexplained incidents, including the death of a farmhand and the torture of the baron's son, who is found hanging by his feet after a sound thrashing. The common factor appears to be the proximity of a group of local children. Following each fresh outrage, they materialise faster than you can say "The Midwich Cuckoos" to ask innocently if they can help.

Despite its full complement of creepy kids, The White Ribbon refrains from identifying a definitive focus of horror. If the children are the perpetrators of the violence, it is their elders who have nurtured these dubious talents. The villagers' child-rearing techniques, based on instilling guilt and inflicting pain, are shown to be incendiary - literally so in the case of Martin (Leonard Proxauf), who is interrogated by his father on the subject of masturbation. When the lad is woken at night by the sound of a raging fire outside, we see that his wrists have been lashed to the bed. In the absence of other culprits for the arson attack, the film hints that Martin and his peer group are responsible.

Haneke is careful to insist on the youngsters' vulnerability, so they are never merely sinister aggressors. A tenderly played scene in which a girl explains death to her cherubic brother demonstrates the director's expertise in switching from humour to poignancy to dread. What starts with the boy enquiring sweetly "One can't fight death? It has to happen?" ends with his features hardening with resentment. It's like watching Kids Say the Funniest Things turn into The Omen.

The film is not without its banal episodes. A clear-cut instance of child abuse feels out of place in a work that harnesses so much suspense from insinuation alone. And the adults' hypocrisy is transparent enough without Haneke cutting clumsily from Martin's confession of self-abuse to the doctor and his housekeeper bent over a piano for the sort of duet in which Schubert plays no part.

But the picture's success lies in its ability to make imaginative leaps between cause and effect; leaps that couldn't happen if Haneke didn't omit the "who" from "whodunnit". When he withheld a crucial element from his 2005 thriller, Hidden, it felt perverse, as though he were embarrassed to serve up anything as tacky as resolution. The gaps in The White Ribbon are intrinsic to its meaning. It is narrated from many years hence by the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who concedes that what he is telling us may not be entirely true, but argues that the events he witnessed help explain later developments in Germany.

So he is inviting us to interpret the story as a portent of National Socialism, while paradoxically announcing himself as an unreliable narrator. (It's impossible not to notice that he emerges suspiciously well from the whole thing.) This makes The White Ribbon not only a cautionary tale in its own right, but a warning against such warnings. It is an analysis of the flaws inherent in any analysis

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End