What we’re given is a sense that the structures of our civilisation have broken down . . .”
Code Unknown (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages, 2000), The Piano Player (La Pianiste, 2001), Hidden (Caché, 2005) — there’s no question of the critical acclaim that Michael Haneke has attracted, especially since he made this shift into mainly-French-financed, French-speaking European art movies and out of the more austere (not that austerity has been abandoned!)1 Austrian films of the nineties. But it is interesting how Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du Loup, 2003) has pretty much fallen through the cracks of critical attention and appreciation — unfairly so, I think, as it’s a strong and powerful work of European art cinema, full of intelligence, emotion, and formal beauty.
The lack of critical appreciation for Time of the Wolf seems to have begun right from its screening at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. For starters, the film was judged worthy of nothing more than negative capsule reviews by France’s two leading film magazines, Cahiers du Cinéma2 and Positif.3 Richard Porton, reporting on Cannes for Cineaste, declared it a “tepid retread,” with Haneke’s film echoing “the themes of Funny Games without enriching them”;4 and Peter Matthews, in an often mean-spirited and miscomprehending review for Sight & Sound, concludes that the film “must be judged a failure.”5 Even Kent Jones in Film Comment tries hard to find a more positive spin: “a movie of uncommon, hardworking intelligence, and its central failure — if indeed it is a failure — is an honorable one.”6
I don’t think Time of the Wolf is quite the equal of The Piano Teacher or Hidden, but it is a remarkable film. For a director famous for his challenges to and provocations of his audience, this film, which of all Haneke’s work has received the most lukewarm if not negative critical response, is also the easiest for an audience to take — once you’ve looked past its forbidding apocalyptic scenario — for there’s a strong humanist premise underlying the film. This has been acknowledged by both star Isabelle Huppert and Haneke himself when talking about the film.7 She talks of “a certain amount of compassion, humanity” that Haneke brings to the film, while he speaks, a bit more obliquely, of how “art cannot exist without humanism.”
Typically, Haneke offers no explanation as to the cause of the events in his film. Le Temps du Loup Opens in media res, with the family of Georges Laurent (Daniel Duval), his wife Anne (Isabelle Huppert), and their children Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe), arriving at their country cottage in flight from the city. The country we’re in is never specified, although we might surmise France from the names and language (although not necessarily, given that the inhabitants of Vienna were all French-speakers in La Pianiste!); but, more importantly, no explanation is given for why they had to flee the city. War? Infectious disease? In a sense, it’s not important; what we’re given is a sense that the structures of our civilisation have broken down. (It also avoids the often less than convincing back story that usually is given in such post-apocalyptic scenarios — for example, in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…, 2002.)
The Laurents find another family in possession of the cottage, and in the ensuing confrontation Georges is shot and killed. It’s characteristic of Haneke’s cinema, his sensitivity to the morality of the act of filming, of what you as a filmmaker allow to be shown, that we are not given a shot of Georges’s death — we’re not allowed the vicarious pleasure here that is offered in mainstream genre cinema. In fact, the only bloodletting we’re shown in the film is the real one of a horse having its throat slit (actually shot in a slaughterhouse). (Although I have to confess that I’m not convinced of the necessity of this shot, let alone of what seems to be in Haneke’s eyes its higher moral value — a value assigned by its status as real, non-fabricated. Nonetheless it’s a sign of the admirable seriousness and self-reflection that Haneke brings to his work.)
So, with almost no possessions, and no help even from neighbours they know from previous visits, the family wanders off, eventually sheltering for the night in a barn. Which leads to a tour-de-force example of one of the film’s visual motifs: pitch darkness at night. Anne and Eva wake up in the middle of the night to find that Ben has wandered off and Anne has to look for him in the utterly darkened countryside armed only with a cigarette lighter, while Eva keeps burning handfuls of straw to mark the position of the barn.
Haneke films this with absolute realism — he used no artificial lighting — with Anne’s flickering cigarette lighter being the only, tiny point of light within the pitch-black frame as she initially explores the barn. Then, after she goes outside, we have the two points of light: the cigarette lighter and, in the background, the burning bunches of straw — and then the barn itself becomes a major point of light in the darkness as it is suddenly ignited by the burning straw. On one level, of course, it’s a completely realistic situation in a world without electricity. But there’s also a more metaphoric level in the way the scene so perfectly expresses the characters’ situation, their fear and uncertainty and vulnerability. And for the audience, on an aesthetic level this is a simply thrilling visual experience.8
Ben is found, and they also come across an unnamed teenage boy (Hakim Taleb), suspicious, completely self-reliant, a bit wild, who eventually agrees to join up with them; and this group of four then finds and joins a vestigial community living in a warehouse at an empty railway station, waiting, hoping for a train to come through and save them. This community is organised in a totally unaltruistic fashion by a self-appointed leader, Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet), where everything must be earned by bartering whatever possessions are left or by services, including sexual favours from the women.
It’s at this point that the narrative focus of the film significantly changes. Prior to this we’ve followed the story through the character of Anne, on the basis of her being the only adult and of the star power of Isabelle Huppert. But now, in an important scene, her daughter Eva is shown discovering some paper and a pencil and writing a letter to her dead father (in itself an important act of preserving culture/civilisation), and in that letter we’re suddenly given a distanced, more objective perspective on Anne.
We never again get as close to Anne’s character as we did in the first part of the film. Nor do we really get close to the myriad of adult characters — performed by, among others, Patrice Chéreau and Béatrice Dalle — that increasingly appear. For the real perspective of the film and, if you like, its moral centre now resides in Eva, with the best of human, “civilised” qualities reflected in her naïveté, idealism, and hope.
The object of Eva’s faith is the wild teenage loner whose name we never learn, who very soon abandons this rudimentary community to rough it outside on his own, and who never really returns, let alone rewards Eva’s commitment to him. Indeed, after their community is augmented by a larger group, one that is far more organised (water, animals, even armed guards) than they, the boy steals one of the goats (a source of milk), which Eva takes not only as a betrayal of her trust but also as a particularly immoral act. The immorality of this is reinforced when he has to, uselessly, kill the goat to avoid detection.
Life in this vestige of the civilised world is one of basic, rudimentary, day-by-day subsistence, one that is at times even brutal. There’s a horrifying scene at night when Eva catches sight, among the mass of sleeping bodies around her, of a brutal rape and she can do nothing but throw herself over the sleeping Ben to shield him. Horrifying on a personal level is Anne and Eva’s discovery in the new group of Georges’ killer with his wife and child, about whom nothing can be done as no proof can be offered. Similar accusations are directed by one of the guards against a Pole in Koslowski’s original group, accusing him of murdering a local farmer. In a Sight & Sound Interview Haneke freely refers to him as a fascist9 (justified in the way he attempts to organise a lynching), but there’s a sense of ambiguity here too. The animosity towards this Polish family may be solely a product of xenophobia and racism, but we simply don’t know the background. Anne offers her word against her husband’s killer, and the guard offers his against the Pole.
For all this atmosphere of barely contained violence, there is opportunity too for simple acts of compassion, sharing, and human communion. A bowl of milk is given, not bartered for. A man lets Eva hear a snatch of classical music on his Walkman. An old man entertains the children with a razor blade swallowing act. And there is myth-making. In the original group under Koslowski’s leadership, Béa (Brigitte Roüan) told of the 35 Just, a select group whose mission is to safeguard humanity. The old man (Claude Singeot) elaborates on this with a tale of bonfires being lit in villages, sites for acts of individual, redeeming self-sacrifice.
Which leads then to the powerful climax of the film, set at night on the railway track outside, with the guards doing their rounds, the darkness illuminated by the light from a bonfire on the track itself. Ben awakens in the middle of the night, with all his fears and tensions breaking forth in the form of a nosebleed. His face now streaked with blood, he goes to the railway track outside, stokes the fire there, and stands in front of it. With his (and our) memory resonating with the old man’s tale, he proceeds to strip, standing naked, leaning towards the fire. The camera stays on the back of one of the guards resting some distance off — in fact, he’s the one who accused the Pole, established by the story so far as violent and brutal — and then, as he becomes aware of what’s happening, tracks with him to the right up to the bonfire. Which is where he “saves” Ben, hugging him to his body, and offering him a vision of optimism and hope — all the more striking for being voiced by this violent, unpleasant, negative character:
You’d have done it [self-sacrifice to save the others], for sure. Believe me. You were ready to do it. That’s enough, see. You’ll see. Everything’ll work out […] It’s enough that you were ready to do it.
Cut to the final shot of the film. A lengthy take, shot from the inside of a train, showing the passing countryside, hills and trees, glimpses of valleys, no signs of humans, just nature. No sound but the rhythmic clatter of the train on the tracks. Is this a projection into the future — that the characters we have met will be “saved”? Or merely an expression of the hope that they will be? Whatever it is, this is how Haneke’s intense, serious, and sometimes grim film ends on a note of quiet, rewarding transcendence.10
- But the mind boggles at what his own American remake of Funny Games (1997), now starring Naomi Watts for release in 2007, is going to look like. [↩]
- Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, “Le temps du loup,” Cahiers du Cinéma 583, Oct. 2003, pp. 43-44. [↩]
- Françoise Audé, “Le temps du loup,” Positif 512, Oct. 2003, pp. 50-51. [↩]
- Richard Porton, “Festival de Cannes 2003,” Cineaste 28:4, Fall 2003, p. 52. [↩]
- Peter Matthews, “Time of the Wolf,” Sight & Sound 13:11, Nov. 2003, p. 65. [↩]
- Kent Jones, “The End of the World as We Know It,” Film Comment 39:4, July-Aug 2003, p. 57. [↩]
- On the supplements that appear on the Palm Pictures DVD. [↩]
- This experience is also quintessentially cinematic, that is, of the cinema theatre. The effect is inevitably lessened when viewed on DVD, doubtless the medium by which most people will get to see the film. [↩]
- Nick James, “Darkness Falls,” Sight & Sound 13:10, Oct. 2003, p.18. [↩]
- And it’s an interesting coincidence that another dystopian tale of the future from 2003, Yu Lik-wai’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (Mingri Tianya), also ends on a train journey offering a promise of hope [↩]