Saturday, July 08, 2006


TIME OF THE WOLF ("Le Temps du loup," 2003, France/Austria/Germany, Michael Haneke)
They jump naked in the fire. Sacrificing themselves for us.

A child of the Cold War, I've long been fascinated by post-apocalyptic fiction, and this seems to me the ultimate among the "this is what it would really be like" sub-genre. Sometimes these stories are merest misanthropy, consumerist wish-fulfillment or heroic fantasies of self-reliance. Not WOLF, which is rigourous, unsettling, and prophetic in the truest sense of the word: forth-telling rather than foretelling, Haneke warns us not about what's to come, but about what already is.

In his press notes, writer/director Michael Haneke tells us the title comes from the 'Song of the Sightseer', part of the ancient Germanic Codex Regius, which describes a time before Ragnarok, the end of the world. But the Austrian bad-boy film-maker isn't interested in making science fiction: "Four-fifths of humanity live in conditions far worse than those depicted here. The only thing I did was to take those living conditions and transpose them into our geographical area. This is not a film for the third world - they don't need to see it. This is for the wealthy nations."

Very early in this dark, dark film – visually dark as well as emotionally dark – a central character is shot to death. Suddenly, awkwardly, capriciously. Haneke has served notice that, in this unvarnished apocalyptic world, anything can happen, we can never let our guard down. In one sequence a mother is separated from her child in the middle of the night in the middle of a countryside as devoid of humanity and compassion as it is electricity. Desperate, she lights clutched handfuls of straw in a complete darkness that fills the screen for panicky, unbearable stretches, and we crave light like a drowning swimmer craves air.

Fire is as important as darkness, and once we find ourselves in the midst of – well, not civilization, but at least other people – we hear snatches of conversation about "nutters" who throw themselves into fire, sacrificing themselves: the cynical response, "Well at least there is one less" – to eat the food, to drink the water, to take up space in the crowded shelters. There's also passing comment about The Just, a Talmudic notion that in each generation there are at least 36 tzaddikim in the world, righteous people for whose sake the world escapes destruction. In Haneke's world, there is no way to know if such stories might be true or not – both tales are recounted by mad people, one of whom swallows razor blades – just as there is no way of knowing what's gone wrong with the world to reduce it to such a state. But the religious, mythical context these stories evoke is intentional on the director's part, and they are clearly taken as true by at least one character in the story in a horrifying sequence that is not easily forgotten. The monologue that follows the martyrdom scene is extraordinary, richly poetic and obliquely hopeful, especially in a film so relentlessly stripped of language and optimism. It evokes biblical language in a skewed and troubling way reminiscent of the hospital "beatitudes" in SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, another strange and vaguely apocalyptic (if far funnier) European film.

TIME OF THE WOLF is a bleak and uneventful film that offers none of the narrative excitement or melodrama of the conventional end-of-the-world flick. The soul-straining tediousness edged with fear that ends up constituting most of what life's about after society collapses proves to be just one more thing to endure, and the film is as willing to expose us to that reality as it is the threat of hunger and thirst and human bestiality. Truly, here, the light shines in the darkness, but it will be up to each viewer to decide whether the darkness overcomes it, or not.

Available at Videomatica

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