Time of the Wolf (2003)
Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
Throughout his career, Michael Haneke has been interested in how the media will present information or events versus what experiencing those same things would be like. He’s often pointed to the screen as a filter that blocks humanity’s perceptions of the actual emotional weight of trauma. Frequently Haneke protects his audience from the sight of violence but uses sound to make sure they do not forget the pain inflicted on a person. Time of the Wolf reads as a response to apocalypse-porn popularized by director Roland Emmerich starting with the blockbuster Independence Day. These ends of the world are almost always bombastic, full of massive explosions, and ending with humanity triumphing somehow. Haneke refuses to leave it like that, and so he went about making his own film.
With a title taken from Norse mythology to describe the period just before Ragnarok, Time of the Wolf starts out similarly to Funny Games. A middle-class family arrives at their vacation cabin. Things immediately go south when the father is murdered by squatters. His wife, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), and their two children, Eva (Anais Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe), wander through a desolate landscape, struggling to find shelter. Something terrible has happened somewhere, and this family isn’t sure what it is. They see animals burnt on pyres. They encounter a young runaway (Hakim Taleb) who has sunk into pure survival with zero empathy. Eventually, Anne settles her family at a train station, sure that a train will come at some point and take them somewhere safe. However, they find themselves overcome by a growing number of refugees and realize they are alone while surrounded by others.
Haneke’s apocalypse feels frighteningly real. The middle class is completely unaware until it’s right on their doorstep, tossed from their idyll into a desaturated landscape. Haneke continues his aesthetic explorations from The Piano Teacher by employing chiaroscuro, which makes scenes resemble the iconic styles of Caravaggio or Rembrandt. There’s growing darkness over the land that can’t be hidden even in the daytime, leading to time’s malleability. There’s a point where it becomes near impossible to determine how long this has all been going on. The murkiness of the image underlines the themes Haneke is interested in, the idea of a completely gray moral space, where individual survival is pitted against collective need. These characters have no easy answers for their predicament, so they sadly cling to the hope of normality being restored. Sound familiar?
Haneke is questioning what we define as “human” regarding empathy and our interconnectivity. The title implies that when the end of civilization as we know it comes, people will behave in often violent, desperate ways out of survival. He isn’t confident enough to cast judgment against them, but he does understand that such a turn in society will lead to brutality and mass death. Yet, there are still kind, caring people out there. Mr. Azoulay (Maurice Benichou) is an Arab-French man who tries to talk to people and reach a consensus even when it’s clear they want none of it. He has a horrible crime visited upon his family, and it remains unclear how much this has broken his spirit. It’s clear Azoulay is profoundly affected by his loss, but he seeks out help from people in the community to perform a proper burial, still clinging to some elements of the old world. Post-burial, he distributes the deceased’s clothes, believing that they could help other members of this crumbling community.
Once again, Haneke examines the nuclear family through his lens. Anne’s entire drive throughout the picture is the protection of her children. The filmmaker never frames this in a negative or cynical light. There is a pathetic nobility in her strife; we know she can only keep going for so long, though. Anne is not from a world that prepared her for the utter depravity of this one, and so we are left wondering at what point will her mind fracture, and she will be lost entirely. The young boy she comes across becomes a spotlight of her maternal instinct, imploring the feral child to go with her family so she can protect him too. Ultimately, she cannot save him, and maybe Anne knows this, but is she supposed to let him wander and be killed under these circumstances?
Haneke’s recurring theme of communication is also dead center in Time of the Wolf. The train station is where people of multiple ethnic backgrounds have come to live, forming a makeshift microcosm of the world. One family is Polish immigrants who have been otherized by the native French refugees. When hordes more arrive suddenly, one man recognizes the Polish father, accusing him of murder in his village. Because the Polish man struggles to speak French and is already categorized outside the in-group, even the most sympathetic people question if the accusation isn’t true. This family also experiences horrific loss as their child becomes sick, and the refugee who has put himself in charge of water rations refuses to help them.
At a certain point, the narrative shifts from Anne’s family, and the picture becomes an ensemble piece, jumping between many plot points, many of which don’t have the expected resolution of a Hollywood apocalypse movie. As in real life, societal collapse is predicated on the desperation of clinging to outdated and inefficient institutions. A religious movement centered around “The Just” is mentioned by a few characters, indicating that certain people left on Earth are messianic figures. However, it remains purposefully ill-defined throughout the film. Azoulay still listens to radio broadcasts about “the situation” but never offers clarifying details or advice that aids his fellow refugees.
The film climaxes with Benny, Anne’s young son, suffering from chronic nosebleeds. It’s never confirmed if this is connected to “the situation,” but it can be implied that it is viral in nature. Benny leaves the station in the dark of the night and approaches a fire left burning on the tracks to stop any train that might be coming. The boy strips off his clothes and begins approaching the flames. A man on patrol for the community notices and pulls the child away from the fire before he can commit suicide. He begins to tell Benny that it was enough that he was willing to destroy himself; he’s proven what he’s ready to do, but he can stay; he doesn’t have to go. The patrolman tells Benny he will make sure the community knows the strength of his will but to not do this.
This powerful exchange suddenly cuts to a point of view shot from inside a train. The landscape is bright and lovely as the cars rush down the track. We are never informed as to the time and place of these images. No signs of human or animal life are seen at this moment. We can infer that there must be someone operating the train, but the ambiguity leaves us wondering what Haneke wants us to take away. The speech from the patrolman points at a much more positive view of humanity and survival than you might expect from the director. And the images from the train could imply that we should not hold out hope, that clinging to the chance things will get better sometimes comes to fruition. On the other hand, Haneke’s worldview up to this point has been much more dire, so the ending could be seen as cynical, pointing out the irony of filling children’s heads with stories of hope when often it’s just fantasy.
As expected, Haneke refuses the trite closure of popular apocalyptic media. No one dies valiantly fighting off aliens or zombies either. People just exist, shifting their expectations and bracing themselves for suffering. As we look at Western civilization in the face of climate collapse and its horsemen (inequality, pestilence, war, etc.) Haneke’s vision of what the downfall will look like feels all too real. His conclusion is equally chilling, reminding us that there is no third act in reality and that a collapse can go on for decades. He does see the middle class and privileged people living in a bubble, utterly unprepared for what is coming. When those waves do reach their shores, it will be telling how they choose to live in that dark new world.