Superficially, the plot is about a small town in Germany just before the start of the Great War. A series of crimes occur, unsettling the quiet of the small town. This causes disruption in the steady order, from parent to child, baron to worker, priest to congregation. We see in almost pedestrian fashion the infection of evil spread, with small actions of hatred growing ever larger.
Yet the film, with tremendous restraint, never escalates outside the scope of the town. The point, it seems clear from the opening monologue, is to show the sheer banality of evil, the startling ease by which the actions of even children (taught by the provocative, yet common brutality of their parents’ strictness) can lead to devastating consequences.
It cannot for a moment be forgotten the films tacet historical undertone – these children, after all, grow up to be the core of the National Socialist movement, and in so doing they fulfill the sins of their parents’ abusive behaviour. Yet, the film is far more universal in its exploration, a universality that’s in direct odds with the claustrophobic, small-town setting. By contextualizing the everyday evil, the small mindedness and petty bickering, Haneke exposes in a beautifully subtle way the real force of actions that spelled doom for untold millions. In other words, this contagion of evil, from parent to child, is hardly unique to the German volk.
The evil of dogmatism, of a certain small-minded, provincial attitude that when taken to its extreme form results in the seemingly inevitably cyclic brutality on a mass scale, is the core “horror” that underlies this film. Eschewing over-the-top gore, this film horrifies with the commonplace nature of the actions of almost everyone in the town.
This is a beautiful, haunting work.