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The Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, 2003)


    Michael Hanekeís The Time of the Wolf starts with a series of shots of a family minivan that deliberately recalls the opening of his Funny Games. Perhaps appropriately, then, the first few minutes of the film play like that film in fast-forward before the movie shifts off into a different direction, which is both more harrowing and humane than the confrontational Funny Games. Definitely less provocative than Hanekeís usual output, The Time of the Wolf shows us a point of view that seems to disarm criticisms that his previous films were sadistically programmed to shock the audience solely for the sake of shocking them. Despite all the doom and gloom, thereís a sliver of hope present here that would almost qualify this as the happy Haneke. By the standard of any major director, outside of Bergman, a film as relentlessly bleak as The Time  of the Wolf would qualify as some sort of apotheosis of misery. For Haneke, itís almost a reprieve from his usual uncompromising nature. Not coincidentally, the movie Wolf most readily begs comparison to is Bergmanís superior Shame, a work that similarly observes a society so stressed that itís essentially nonexistent.


    Before settling down somewhat, The Time of the Wolf offers a harrowing and formally accomplished glance into the animalistic abyss that is mankind without order or compassion. Centering on Anna (Isabelle Huppert), a mother whoís desperately trying to hold her family together, the first act of the film reduces its characters to a nearly primitive state. It instills in the audience, through a masterful use of screen space and scale, a primal fear of the dark. Marked by a procession of burning cows and eerily misty fields, the gargantuan landscapes of the countryside suddenly become an imposing force. With all of the comforts of society gone, nature suddenly must be reckoned with. We watch as these characters realize that elemental forces like fire and darkness once again warrant fear. When Anna stands in the complete darkness and spies a light in the distance, itís at once a reprieve from the unremitting night and terrifying because it means that another person is out there with her. At one point, a boy makes a grave for a pet from rocks and logs. As crude a gesture as it is, it provides a reassuring moment, because itís the most civilized action on display. In the next scene though, Anna stumbles in the dark and knocks the grave over, giving the impression that even that last vestige of society has crumbled. Itís a masterful moment in a virtuoso sequence that would likely lose most of its impact if not projected in the blackness of a theater.


    After showing us the seeming end of civilization, The Time of the Wolf begins to retreat by showing a thoroughly splintered one, and while it doesnít quite stumble as it retreats, itís disappointing nonetheless, since Haneke is one of those rare visionary filmmakers who could effectively demonstrate the horrors of the apocalypse. Anna and her family eventually fall in with a group of other survivors. At that point, the movie becomes something of an ensemble piece, as it begins to observe the various ways that people deal or fail to deal with such extreme stresses and reclaim order. Itís never made certain what causes this sorry, anarchic state, or even where the action is taking place, and that enhances the feeling of dread. Though the characters appear to be filled in about the specifics of their situation, it doesnít seem they can bring themselves to speak about it. As the title suggests, Haneke partially declares that without rules to govern them, people begin to behave like wolves, with an amoral vagabond boy the character who is perhaps most fitting of the movieís title. There are rapes and murders, but they are unquestionably not intended to titillate (indeed, the staging of the rape scene, and the reactions of its lone witness, are one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the film). Haneke spends as much time showing us how faith still manifests itself as he does dissolving humanity. One character writes a letter to the recently departed. Several others are willing to share what they have, despite the scarcity of any kind of supplies. Another is willing to sacrifice himself to save the rest, and in that action, Haneke seems to see the prime building block of social order. Because of the ensemble structure, Haneke doesnít feel required to resolve each character arc, instead offering an poetic and purposefully vague group catharsis that begs the question of whether or not these people can go back to how it was after theyíve lived like this. The Time of the Wolfís portrait of a civilization gone off the tracks tests us to consider exactly how much of the way we live is taken for granted.




Jeremy Heilman