The memories of an unnamed elderly tailor form a parable from the distant year he worked as a village schoolteacher and met his fiancée Eva, a nanny. The setting is the fictitious Protestant village of Eichwald, Northern Germany, from July 1913 to 9 August 1914, where the local pastor, the doctor and the baron rule the roost over the area’s women, children and peasant farmers.
The puritanical pastor leads confirmation classes and gives his pubescent children a guilty conscience over apparently small transgressions. He has them wear white ribbons as a reminder of the innocence and purity from which they have strayed. When under interrogation, his son confesses to ‘impure’ touching; the pastor has the boy’s hands tied to his bed frame each night. The doctor, a widower, treats the village children kindly but humiliates his housekeeper (the local midwife, with whom he is having sexual relations) and also sexually abuses his teenage daughter. The baron, who is the lord of the manor, underwrites harvest festivities for the villagers, many of them his farm workers. After his young son is abusively injured by unknown assailant(s), he summarily dismisses Eva for no apparent reason, yet defends the integrity of a farmer whose son in a symbolic act has destroyed the baron’s field of cabbages.
The schoolteacher’s friendship with Eva leads to a visit to her family home during a Christmas break; asking for her hand in marriage, he receives from her taciturn father a reluctant permission to marry, but only after a one-year test-period delay.
Unexplained harmful events occur. A wire is stretched between two trees causing the doctor a terrible fall from his horse. The farmer’s wife dies at the sawmill when rotten floorboards give way; her son was the cabbage-field vandal, and her grieving husband later hangs himself. The baron’s young son Sigi goes missing on the day of the harvest festival and is found the following morning in the sawmill, bound and badly caned. A barn at the manor burns down. The baroness tells her husband that she is in love with another man. Shortly after the pastor has singled-out and mortified his daughter in class, she opens his parakeet’s cage with scissors in hand; the pastor finds the bird on his desk, cruelly impaled in the shape of a cross. The daughter of the steward at the baron’s estate claims a violent dream-premonition about harm coming to the midwife’s handicapped son, then the boy is attacked and almost blinded, found during a night search along with a well-written note quoting Exodus 20:5. The steward thrashes his son for violently stealing a flute from Sigi.
The midwife urgently commandeers a bicycle from the schoolteacher to go to the police in town, claiming that her son has said he knows who attacked him. She and her son are not seen again. Meanwhile, the doctor and his family have also suddenly disappeared, leaving a note on the door indicating his practice is closed. The schoolteacher’s growing suspicions lead to a confrontation in the pastor’s rectory, where he suggests that the pastor’s children and students had prior knowledge of the local troubles and insinuates that they likely perpetrated them. Offended, the pastor berates him and threatens to report him to the authorities if he repeats his accusations.
The film ends a few days after World War I officially begins, with the final scene occurring in Sunday church on the day of a visit from the narrator’s prospective father-in-law. Disquiet remains in the village, with no explanation of the violent events. The narrator is eventually drafted, leaving Eichwald, never to return.