May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 4, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published in Image Facts.)
“[Films are]…polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”
Time of the Wolf claims its title (Wolfszeit) from an old German poem that invokes an apocalypse, a poetic rendering of the world in stages of social breakdown. As the story goes, Anna is leading her teenaged daughter Lise and shell-shocked son Ben through the French countryside in search of food and shelter after some unidentified social catastrophe has thrust the world into an unstructured and informationless confusion. Making their way from shelter to shelter with no food or water they eventually come upon a small gathering of vagrants in an abandoned railway station. With the rest of this ungainly group of survivors Anna decides to wait for a train to happen by as a harbinger of civilization. Haneke’s sparse tale tracks the devolution of this micro-society into a social system arranged solely around the politics of survival. In the station, Anna’s little family immediately encounters the way men naturally arrange themselves in the absence of established codes and obligations: women are reduced to bartering leverage and men to their status on the scale of the will to power. As a larger band of dislocated vagabonds descends on the station, a weird sort of Tribalism emerges. It is one that hasn’t completely stepped beyond the racial tension of contemporary Europe, which, other than a few packs of cigarettes, remains the only shred of cultural identity in the film.
Throughout the film Haneke continually plays with the depth of field, alternating between and isolating his characters. This destabilizing effect engages us in the frantic anarchy of his script. He lets sound dribble from frame to frame, at times moving from silence to intolerable din back to silence over the course of a few instants. In one gripping sequence Lise and Thomas wait in a woodshed for their mother to return from a hunt through a neighboring village for food and water. Insulated by the unhuman silence of the town, the sound of an escaped parakeet in the shed becomes deafening. Haneke layers over this the clattering and rustling of Lise as she tries to catch it, and the blurry, flitting images of the whole sequence flicker past one another until she finally catches the bird and Thomas zips it up in his jacket, letting us imagine the sound of his heartbeat in the silence that has returned. It is this scene that sets the rest of the film on a life and death scale, spelled out in terms even children can understand.
In a nearby counterpart to this scene, Anna stumbles through pitch-black darkness for several moments as we see nothing but her voice and the dancing prismatic black of filmed darkness. It sits at the beginning of the film like a negative space, as if a scene used to be there but has been taken out, and in the jarring resumption of the film we never recover from a nagging sense of loss. In this way, Time of the Wolf takes from us far more than it gives to us.
Perhaps this is what makes the final image of the film so haunting. It is inconclusive, emptying the film of any sense of myth that may have developed. Haneke seems to be implying that his film is not a “parable for our time,” a “cautionary tale” or any description that is applied to things like Lord of the Flies or similar post-apocalyptic fantasies. Rather the film is an exercise in hopelessness, abandoning myth rather than leading us to it. It becomes a reverse apocalypse. Rather than unveiling the future, it further cloaks it in cynicism, robbing us of the possibility of anticipation. The film really only begins after this ending, the preceding scenes only a way for Haneke to develop a defined border to this side of the chasm spawned by the conclusion. It is like Lessing’s ugly ditch, the edge of language discovered by Wittgenstein, or a host of ways we use to describe the unspeakable. Perhaps in terms of film, Haneke has enacted here the reverse of the Starchild sequence in 2001. We can only say: “My God, it’s full of nothing.”