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The German Problem

Who's In It: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klausner

The Basics: In a strictly laced-up German village on the unsuspecting eve of World War I, a series of increasingly horrific events takes place. First the town doctor is injured by a trip-wire in the path of his horse, then the local land baron's son is found brutalized, animals are stabbed, unpopular children mutilated and so on (seriously, tons of human misery on display here, too much to list). Meanwhile, the authoritarian elders of the town are both confounded and--though probably not responsible for the mysterious crimes--guilty of brutality themselves: incest, beatings, binding the hands of masturbating teenagers and other acts of random cruelty. And then there's the question of the village's creepy stoic kids: blonde, unsmiling and hive-minded, hovering around every crime scene, cool and curious. Thanks to director Michael Haneke, who never met a spooky mystery he felt like solving for you, you'll leave piecing it all together by yourself.

What's The Deal: Michael Haneke is not your buddy. All his movies are unsettling, usually tragic tours of bad behavior featuring pointed morals and lessons about why people suck. His other films just seek to indict you for even watching them, you art house-loving, middle-class pig. So if you've got a perverse perspective already and don't mind a movie that occasionally holds you in contempt, his films are total entertainment. This quiet, severe, black-and-white slow-burn of a whodunnit that's really about creeping fascism and the ubiquitous human capacity for meaningless cruelty is an artful bummer that unfolds toward its ambiguous ending like a very slow steamroller whose path you can't escape. I don't think I have to spell out this is very much my kind of thing.

How It Creeps Up On You: Nothing is telegraphed by sound design or camerawork. All two-and-a-half hours of it is somber and still, as silent and frightening as a someone stalking you unseen down the end of a dark hallway (keep watch for how many people seem to emerge silently from pitch-black places in this movie). Part of that ominous quality is due to the way it looks, which comes courtesy of Haneke's longtime cinematographer Christian Berger, who frames everything like it's the coldest, starkest formal portrait ever taken.

Stamp Of Approval: Winner of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or. Unlike the Oscars, that frequently means a film might be worth looking at.

See Also: Haneke's other excursions into unhappiness, Cache and The Piano Teacher. And if you're feeling really masochistic, Funny Games will leave you exhausted, cranky and hopeless.


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