CANNES, France (Reuters) - Austrian director Michael Haneke won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival Sunday for "The White Ribbon," a chilling exploration of the roots of Nazi terror.
Haneke's first Palme d'Or (Golden Palm), the top prize at the world's biggest film festival, was one of the favorites among the thousands of critics and journalists in the French Riviera resort for the 12-day movie marathon.
In the black-and-white film, a sinister series of crimes rocks a village in northern Germany on the eve of World War One, and appears linked to a group of children brutalized and scarred by their parents.
Another popular film, "A Prophet," a powerful prison drama by France's Jacques Audiard, received the runner up prize.
Isabelle Huppert, who headed this year's jury and picked up the Cannes best actress award for her role in Haneke's 2001 entry "The Piano Teacher," embraced the 67-year-old at the closing ceremony.
"He keeps the perfect distance from his subject matter," she said. "He says very important things but as he used to say all the time, he doesn't deliver messages, he just shows things in a very subtle way."
Haneke said The White Ribbon should not be interpreted as just being about Nazi Germany, but about any form of fanaticism.
"If you are making a German film then this age is an interesting one," he told Reuters in an interview in Cannes.
"If the children are 10-15 years old in 1913-1914, then they are just the right age during the Nazi regime, and that was obviously the reason to do it in this time.
"But ... you can apply it to any form of fanaticism, whether Islamic or left-wing fascism. It comes in all forms."
He also said film had a place in modern society where television tended to provide instant answers.
"If film wants to be an art form then its duty is to treat the viewers more seriously."
The most controversial film in Cannes was Danish director Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," which sharply divided critics and drew boos, as well as a handful of cheers, at screenings for its graphic portrayals of sex, violence and genital self-mutilation.
France's Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a wife mourning the death of her son and is involved in the most shocking scenes, was named best actress and thanked von Trier, who was not at the glittering closing gala in the Grand Theater Lumiere.
She said he had allowed her "the most intense, the most painful and also the most exciting experience up until now."
The best actor prize went to Austria's Christoph Waltz for his flamboyant performance as a SS officer in Quentin Tarantino's World War Two caper "Inglourious Basterds," which also starred Brad Pitt.
Among the other awards, best director went to Filipino Brillante Mendoza for grisly crime drama "Kinatay" while Mei Feng, the writer for Chinese director Lou Ye's "Spring Fever," was honored for best screenplay.
The jury prize was jointly awarded to British director Andrea Arnold for urban drama "Fish Tank" and South Korea's Park Chan-Wook for vampire romance "Thirst."
The Camera d'Or award for debut film went to Australian director Warwick Thornton for "Samson and Delilah."
The ceremony brings the curtain down on 12 days of screenings, interviews, photocalls and parties in Cannes, where the global economic crisis curbed the normal extravagance and limited the number of A-list actors and celebrities in town.
However, Pitt and his partner Angelina Jolie did walk the red carpet for Tarantino's world premiere, and Mariah Carey, Penelope Cruz and Kylie Minogue were among the stars who made it to the palm-lined Croisette waterfront this year.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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