The small north German hamlet in “The White Ribbon’’ looks like a pristine paradise of rural community. The buildings are handsome structures, photographed in a smoky, nostalgic black-and-white. It’s very much a dollhouse village, where the family lives are intertwined: The farmer, for instance, needs the baron’s land. The baron needs some of what the farmer harvests. There is a doctor, a minister, and a schoolteacher. The women raise the children. But - and here is where things get vague and eerie - there exists the distinct possibility that the children are raising hell.
The dollhouse, you see, belongs to the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. And a few of the dolls have a monstrous side. They must. How else to explain the events that befall the village in the year before World War I? The horrors begin with a wire tied between two trees that trips a horse and sends its rider, the doctor, to the hospital. They grow disturbingly more mysterious from there. Fires, an impaled house pet, abductions, gouged eyes. We don’t know who is behind what, and Haneke leaves us to pick over the particulars much as he did with 2005’s great, equally unknowable “Caché,’’ whose final shot remains a hotly debated matter.
The ends remain loose in “The White Ribbon.’’ But that lack of closure is thrilling. Haneke lays his movie and its mysteries at our feet, leaving us to ask, “What in tarnation?’’ Narrated by the young schoolteacher years after the events described have taken place, the film is a kind of fable. It moves among five Protestant households - those of the baron, his steward, the pastor, the farmer, and the doctor - revealed to be in various states of decay. The pastor (Burghart Klaussner) punishes his son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) for the crime of masturbation. His sentence is several nights sleeping with his hands strapped to the sides of his bed.
Indeed, it’s the pastor who metes out the additional punishment that gives the film its title. For their separate misdeeds, Martin and his sister Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) each have a sliver of white ribbon tied to them as a reminder of the innocence they’ve soiled. After a while, it’s at least clear that the children of the pastor, the steward, and the farmer are parented into various states of rebellion. Nastiness brews, and much of it appears to be aimed at the village’s two only-children, one of whom is Sigi (Fion Mutert), a small chic-looking boy with long blond curls. He goes missing, and his disappearance feels like a rebuke of his father’s wealth. Of course, we can only speculate about what happened.
We see enough to know that these children are at least capable of acting in anger. But cruelty is not their invention so much as their inheritance. Rage and violence are the default settings for most of their fathers. One conversation between the haughty widowed doctor (Rainer Bock) and his docile midwife (Susanne Lothar) features the most casually heartless putdowns I’ve seen in a movie. His bluntness has a tinge of comedy.
Haneke writes and directs with ominous majesty. Like “Caché’’ and 2000’s “Code Unknown,’’ “The White Ribbon’’ is predicated on a kind of structural constriction. You can feel the story’s inclement weather closing in on you. Events that seem inexplicably random, gradually, through careful, simmering storytelling, are revealed to be malicious but vaguely so. The central mystery mutates so that what seemed to be a personal attack might be a form of cosmic vengeance. If Ingmar Bergman ever had nightmares, they must have been like this.
The village’s scale is life-size, but it looms much larger in the memory. So do a few of the faces. Proxauf, who looks about 12, has freckles, dark circles beneath his eyes, and is bucktoothed: He’s bad Opie.
The compositions are exquisite. Characters framed in medium shots and in that divine black-and-white (shot by Haneke’s superb frequent collaborator Christian Berger) often appear to be starring in Vermeers whose colors have seeped out. They’re intense, beautiful, often breathtaking shots that are tinged with doom. Keeping with the Protestant proceedings, the palette of ash and shadow suggest the repression of visual vibrancy. Even so, the color black still seems to have a hundred different shades. And some vicious images remain hauntingly rich. The sight of a man swinging a scythe into a vast bed of cabbage heads counts here as a mass decapitation. I, at least, thought I saw blood.
It’s true that Haneke has an antagonizing worldview that tends to fight oppression with oppression. He can be obvious, sometimes flagrant. Yet even in his relentlessness, it’s exhilarating to be in the thrall of such a keen storyteller and allegorist. A man dominates nearly every family in “The White Ribbon,’’ damning childhood rites with Draconian punishments. And that smothering appears to be at the root of the controlled nastiness breaking out across the village. The climactic sound of a whistle being blown in spite qualifies as both a bit of humor and a confirmation of madness.
This ultimately is not a movie about who’s setting traps and torturing children. It’s about the poison of patriarchy (wives and girlfriends have it only slightly better than daughters and sons). After spending much of the last decade staging unhappiness in French and often in France, Haneke has positioned his storm cloud over Germany, not wagging his finger but hurling bolts of lightning.
Haneke locates chilling news in his village. Whether these kids are terrorists or not, the film suggests that, on the eve of a world war, they’re capable of adapting their fathers’ oppression and starting a political party of sorts. It’s more than conceivable that in a few years those white ribbons will mutate into red armbands.