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Haneke's cinematic masterwork depicts the North German village of Eichwald in the year leading up to World War I. This is a locked and airless society, immured by class hierarchies, poverty, brutal labour conditions, fanatical Protestantism, embedded misogyny and customary abuse—a strictly fixed, near-feudal culture of archetypes. Haneke focuses his eye on the asphyxiating strictures of social, ideological and psychological regulation (figure 1).
A schoolteacher, our narrator, begins his tale when the local doctor's horse is felled by wire strung between trees and the rider severely wounded. A series of increasingly malevolent ‘accidents’ follow, such as abductions, beatings, arson and vandalism which ‘increasingly take on the character of a punishment ritual’. Who is doing this and why?1 The narrator acknowledges his unreliability, weaving his tale from memories, rumour and hearsay, and leaving many questions unanswered. But he feels compelled to bear witness because it may “clarify some things that happened in this country”. The Eichwald children are the ‘Volk’, many of whom will elect Hitler. It is common to say that the Nazi generation was in some way evil or insane, or that that German culture was …
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