The great German humorist Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote that life is an "episode unprofitably disturbing the blessed calm of nothingness." Bleak stuff, and not entirely unconvincing, if you can ignore the waft of histrionic self-loathing. Doubters need only venture into Michael Haneke's filmography, which constitutes a hair-raising inquiry into humanity's flair for royally flubbing its brief shot at somethingness. Haneke's latest plunge into the bracing depths, The White Ribbon, is by turns captivating and infuriatingly ponderous, and while it does not rank among his best work (Code Unknown, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Funny Games), it is charged by a portentous current that insinuates itself into the hours and days that follow the slow fade-out of its final image.

It is 1913. In one year—and by the end of The White Ribbon—Archduke Ferdinand will be assassinated. Soon after: a riven Europe, a hobbled Germany. But the village of Eichwald is already beset by 20th-century growing pains, in the form of seemingly random acts of violence and vandalism. The local doctor is downed and nearly killed by a booby trap of tripwire; a laborer falls from a great height and dies; a barn is eaten by flames; a child is bound and beaten by unknown assailants. Like an austere and God-fearing version of Wisteria Lane, the cloistered microcosm of Eichwald is a tiny hell of suspicion, gossip and pervasive cruelty; each and every citizen is as likely to be a perpetrator as a future victim. It is, in short, the world according to Michael Haneke.

But for the first time in his career, Haneke's meticulous creation bows beneath the weight of his influences. The result, however rigorously composed and skillfully photographed, is a film that too often backslides into sycophantic simulations of Bergman's suffocating crises of conscience or Dreyer's intense studies of faith. And while there is a kind of geeky thrill in watching Haneke stoke the sputtering flames of his progenitors' legacies, the formal risks and unexpected fillips that distinguish his finest films are conspicuously absent.

The White Ribbon would be nothing more than a visually stunning failure if not for the skein of nagging and vital questions that unfurl as the credits role, as you leave the theater, as you drive home, as you tuck yourself into your warm bed. Make no mistake—this is not a murder mystery. The culprits are identifiable early on, and the legerdemain of the thriller plays no part here. But the narrator explains that his dark tale intends to "clarify some things that happened in this country." What happened in that country was one of the worst things that has ever happened, and while it appears Haneke lays blame at the feet of brutal parents and callous authority figures, it is more complicated and disturbing than that. As in all of Haneke's films, failing to act is a quiet kind of cruelty, and even mustering up the courage to do the right thing has unforeseen and terrible consequences. So, the loose threads of The White Ribbon fray into a haunting riddle: What do you do as this strange interruption of nothingness goes to seed? Turn away? Hide? Watch and cheer? R.

The White Ribbon

opens Friday at Fox Tower.