14 May 2011

Time of the Wolf

A captivating aspect of Michael Haneke's art comes from his reluctance to offer audiences answers and solutions, and the way this works within his films to embolden instances of mistrust, uncertainty, fear, and violence. He keeps hidden the interior world of antagonists (Funny Games, Code Unknown), who can also be self-harming protagonists (The Piano Teacher, Benny's Video, The Seventh Continent), and/or the identity of antagonists (Caché, White Ribbon), to motivate us, with a high degree of success, toward self-analysis, and to omit shortcuts for reducing the film to a dramatic presentation.

Time of the Wolf is a curious film because the fact that a catastrophe occurred before the film began is undeniable, as is its secondary importance to the aftermath. The catastrophe's nature is neither investigated nor explained in order to fix the film in a world of total uncertainty. This is how it differs from other Haneke films, which are usually about disruptive or injurious acts puncturing otherwise normal existences. In this one, massive uncertainty is the only narrative certainty.

Although this one giant mystery seems to engulf tinier, more specific mysteries present in many of Haneke's other films, it also emphasizes Haneke's perennial theme: the grand mystery of the human spirit. When people group together in Time of the Wolf, so too do their flaws accumulate, and Haneke illustrates through his blossoming narrative the exponential complexities of justice and fairness. Here the reasons behind characters' actions are often painfully clear, motivated by ideas about self-preservation, and used to investigate protean tolls of human imperfection, the way each person carries baggage of selfishness, pride, greed, and other obstructions of communal bliss. Questions are raised about mankind's ability to function in harmony.

It's significant that would-be hero figures embody conflicting characteristics as well. The mother's (Isabelle Huppert) timorous frailty impedes her maternal goals, Koslowski's (Olivier Gourmet) leadership is based on rules he alone makes and enforces, and the leaders of the group who join later deflect interpersonal retributions for the sake of protecting the group as a whole. And ultimately, don't each of them rest their priorities on foundations of opportunity for personal, more than communal, self-preservation? This suggests that people cannot live alone, and they cannot live together.

The sentiment echoes from the movie's first scene. Recall it now: one family encounters another in a village house and a gun is fired.

Recall, from the same first scene, the screaming baby in the mother's hands. Remember their later (but not so much later) arrival at the train station. What happened to the provisions and car they stole? And where has the baby gone?

In the final scene the young boy is held in the arms of the nightwatchman who stopped him from throwing himself naked on the fire by telling him hopeful wishes about a man in a sports car arriving to announce that everything bad is over, everything is fine now. He feeds the boy wishes to encourage him, but we know they're lies, the boy must know they're lies, and the final, horrible mystery seems to be: why keep going? Why not throw ourselves in the fire? It must be to follow a great lie.

That then is the reason to respect and admire Haneke, because although he knows we each carry within ourselves catastrophes and raging fire resolutions, he refuses to lie to keep us from them, and asks that we encounter the ugly places in ourselves, so what we may return to the world with newfound awareness. And hopefully some kind of strength to endure.

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