Filmmaker Michael Haneke is in possession of a serious idea in "The White Ribbon." It's that the parenting and education German children received in the early years of the 20th century made them morally susceptible to Nazism.
He brings this idea home, methodically and judiciously, through the story of strange happenings in a small German village. Haneke doesn't do anything obvious.
No child is trained to become a martinet, and no one says anything about a master race. Rather, the kids, from their elders, get quiet lessons in moral absolutism, sternness, emotional violence and heartlessness.
In a sense, this is the film M. Night Shyamalan has been trying and failing to make for the past 10 years: There is evil lurking in a seemingly idyllic village, and that evil dwells within.
But Haneke rejects metaphors and tackles the notion head on: A doctor suffers a riding accident when someone strings invisible wire between two trees. Crops are damaged, animals killed. Small children are abused. Someone is doing this, but who? And why?
"The White Ribbon" is languorously paced and full of long, individual shots. This director doesn't change a camera setup unless he has to, and these extended takes create the sense of being in the room with the characters.
Haneke's success in maintaining tension is especially impressive in that he does it despite a loose narrative and the necessity of juggling a dozen characters.
Haneke makes us remember that we are, at all times, watching a town. We are watching a culture. And seen through that lens, everything feels relevant and nothing extraneous.
What makes "The White Ribbon" an important movie is that Haneke's point extends beyond pre-Nazi Germany. It didn't have to be Nazism that took hold a generation later.
It might have been Bolshevism or any ideology that encourages blind devotion, that flatters people's vanity by telling them they're intelligent for not thinking and that they're virtuous for believing themselves better than their fellow citizens.
Thus, "The White Ribbon" is only partly social history. It's a warning that could easily be directed at today's Middle East or, for that matter, at us.