February 19, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'The White Ribbon' -- GRADE: B

Review: Unsettling 'White Ribbon' has much to offer

Kristina Kneppek, left, Stephanie Amarell, Bianca Mey and Mika Ahrens live a harsh life during pre-World War II Germany in "The White Ribbon." (Sony Pictures Classics)

In many ways, "The White Ribbon" is the essence of what many Americans think of -- and fear -- when it comes to a foreign film.

It's in German, with subtitles. Its depressing, bare-bone stories play out against a bleak, black-and-white landscape. All the children look vaguely as if they're zombies in training. Laughter is rare. Love is stilted and even rarer.

Beyond that, the entire enterprise is about the cost of social and personal repression. Talk about a good time.

OK, it's not, but it is a good movie. Writer-director Michael Haneke doesn't pull any punches, but then he doesn't throw any wild ones, either. His filmmaking shows precisely the sort of obsession with control that the movie itself is denouncing. Interesting, you've got to admit.

The setting is a small village in the north of Germany, in the time just before World War II. The person telling the story is the School Teacher (Christian Friedel), and the story itself is something of a wide portrait of underlying tension in a "normal" town.

First the local doctor is injured when his horse stumbles over a wire strung between two trees. Next, one child is accosted, then another. Violence erupts at a baby's birth. A woman goes missing.

Meanwhile, most of the children seem to have a vague "Village of the Damned" glaze over their eyes, which is no wonder when you meet their parents, whose harsh proclivities are slowly revealed over the course of the film. This is not a town where the good times roll.

And that, at least in part, is the film's weakness. The tone and town are so consistently twisted and pressure-cooked that the situation seems more conceived than real.

Still, there's an evil, brooding tension to "The White Ribbon" that can't be ignored. It's an unsettling film and it's supposed to be. Oh, those foreigners.