Michael Haneke’s fascination with the human condition has been the nucleus of a two-decade long film-directing career. His very reputation as a social commentator of the bleak and brutal aspects of life is built upon the consistency of his method and his genre. Other than perhaps, Funny Games, a critique on the horror and torture porn genres, Haneke’s work has remained exclusively focused on the disturbing and uncomfortable side of drama. So, the 2003 film Time of the Wolf, an interpretation of the post-apocalyptic genre, is a film that distinguishes itself from the bunch.
Murder, rape, pillaging, suicide and lawlessness all feature without objection and with little effort to prevent them. The majority of films from the post-apocalyptic genre convey, more superficially, these dark elements, but do so to the horror of their heroes. The weakness of the hero in this genre seems justified because of the gravity of the predicament; it’s no great surprise that the hero doesn’t save the day when the day isn’t worth saving.
The escapist cinema-goer is out of place in a post-apocalyptic film; rectifying a foregone civilisation leaves little hope for a happy ending. But in almost every instance there is a plucky warrior or law-enforcer struggling against the devastating elements. Max Rockatansky in Mad Max), The Mariner in Waterworld, even Katniss Everdeen in the recent The Hunger Games. Michael Haneke gives us no-one. The characters of Time of the Wolf are the tormentors and the tormented. The redemptive hero is a glaring omission that casts a shadow over the duration of the film.
We follow the Laurent family; mother Anne, and her two pre-adolescent children Eva and Benny. They are left alone in a dystopian future France after the father Georges is murdered in the opening scene of the film. Thus hope, and a possible hero, are immediately dispatched. At the same time, the death allows Haneke to explore the effect of his incompetence on the family left behind. Georges is killed by another man in their rural weekend home. As they arrive from the city, ignorant of the crisis around them, they enter their home to find another family squatting while they have been away. The actions of the man who shoots Georges are unprovoked and they are not acts of aggression. He kills Georges to protect his family. Georges attempts to reason with the man, but in his ignorance of the lawlessness in which the region is engulfed, he underestimates the desperation of the man and is killed.
Unwittingly, the family have entered this post-apocalyptic world, and in such a state, where resources are scarce and fear is growing, necessarily competition for food and shelter is increased. In this state, the role of the father, with two young children, is especially crucial to the family’s survival. And the role of the male, in an environment of heightened hegemonic masculinity, is to out-perform his rivals. And so Georges’ death at the first sign of conflict is symbolic of his incompetence as protector and provider for his family, and as a man. The same incompetence can be seen in the Georges Laurent of Hidden and the Georg of Funny Games – the similarity of these names is not, of course, incidental.
The impact of Georges’ incompetence has a significant effect over the remaining members of the Laurent family. Anne, as a mother, must attempt to provide emotional support to her children and guide them to safety from the scene of their father’s death. Early in this journey it is indicated that she is unable successfully to take on some of the male responsibilities necessitated by her husband’s death. She roams around the town seeking the pity of old acquaintances but is met mostly with unwillingness. While Anne searches for a missing Benny in the middle of the night the barn she opts to stay in is accidentally burnt down by Eva. Anne then latches onto the first male figure that enters, the savage ‘young runaway’. Both Anne and Eva look to this boy as a replacement for Georges but his selfishness and untrustworthiness serves to emphasise the loss of Georges.
The boy guides them into a temporary camp, inhabited by a collection of individuals at continual odds with one another but attempting to work together in the hope of escaping by stopping a passing train. It is in this community that the lawlessness of the post-apocalyptic world is realised. People steal from one another, selfishly withhold resources and profit from one another. Koslowski, the de facto leader of the camp, receives sex in return for food and water from women who can offer nothing else. A man trades water for watches, livestock, and other valuables. Later, the man who killed Georges appears at the camp and despite Anne’s emotional protest they are unable to punish him for lack of evidence. Law, fairness and morality is never present. No turn-taking exists in conversation. There is no respect for one another. When each individual’s own personal survival is at stake, natural instincts take over. They become like the wild dog that bites the boy after they spend days together without trouble. It simply wants food and will commit an aggressive act to get it.
Benny’s suicide attempt epitomises the hopelessness. After hearing an older man speak of the ultimate altruistic gift of self-sacrifice Benny walks outside to offer himself to a fire. Partly, he may have been convinced by the older man’s story, but the act also appears an attempt to excuse his father’s incompetence, as though by committing suicide Benny can make himself believe that his father was an agent in his own death, sacrificing himself for the gain of others. A man prevents Benny’s death and soothes him with a monologue of the assured phrases that a dominant male would be expected to utter. He also asks Benny: ‘Your parents. Why did they let you out all alone?’ This reminds us of Georges’ incompetence, Benny’s need for a father figure and more generally the lack of leadership within the camp.
And the ending. Well, it is ambiguous. The camera travels through the sunny pastures of the French countryside with the sound of a train. It could be their saviour, the happy ending that all have been praying for but it is too dreamy, too perfect to be real. I believe that it is not literal, but a sign of civilisation restoring itself. It is Haneke illustrating how only chaos can occur without the archetypal dominant male. The train is a symbol of the liberator and protector, who inspires hope in a broken world.