Time of the Wolf

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is a powerful film, and a thought-provoking one. Haneke’s films have always been about imagining the worst — or close to it — and savagely dissecting the pretensions and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. But Time of the Wolfmoves in something of a different register than Benny’s Video or Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. The view is more detached and contemplative, though this certainly doesn’t mean it is more optimistic or hopeful.
Some sort of (unspecified) catastrophe has emptied the cities, poisoned the water and food supply, and left people to wander nomadically about the countryside, or to gather wherever shelter can be found. Many wait by the railroad tracks, hoping for redemption or rescue in the form of a train that never comes.
Haneke’s brilliance comes in the film’s everydayness. Time of the Wolf doesn’t depict the descent into utter savagery that you might expect. Yes, people are murdered for no reason, and some ugly squabbles develop; but on the whole, the film is as far from the extremes of dystopia as it is from the idyllic. People form groups, and these groups have hierarchies and power relations, and bigotry and sexism rear their heads; but for the most part, everyone gets by and has enough to eat, and there are instances of compassion as well as greed, and quarrels are usually resolved without violence. Conditions are unpleasant, but they are still, largely, livable.
By frustrating our melodramatic, dystopian expectations, and instead instilling in us a sense of the routinization of misery, the everydayness of discomfort and deprivation, Haneke makes a film that in retrospect is far more disturbing than a facile Lord of the Flies expose of human beings’ innate savagery would ever be. Civilization hasn’t collapsed in Time of the Wolf ; what we get instead is a social order without the comforts that privileged people have in our own, but with much the same blend of obedience, complicity, half-assed conformity, half-assed rebellion, smugness, and despair.

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