May 2008


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As usual these days, I’m a bit slow on the draw. But there’s a new podcast up at errata, a long, rich conversation that Rob Davis and I had about the important Austrian director Michael Haneke. Haneke’s most recent film is an American remake of his own German-language movie Funny Games. That’s not my favorite film of his by a long shot, but it is a useful starting point to think about what he is trying to do. And Rob and I use it as a springboard to explore this most provocative of directors.

I realize Haneke isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (many of you probably won’t have heard of him), but I hope you’ll check out the podcast, as I’m particularly proud of it. I’m not sure there’s a better 70-minute overview of Haneke’s work around. To provide further context, I’ve posted below my review of his 2004 feature, Time of the Wolf. And here’s a link to my review of Cache.

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Michael Haneke is one of the most vital directors working today. Though he doesn’t receive the acclaim of Martin Scorsese or the notoriety of Lars von Trier, his body of work cannot be ignored. In many ways, Haneke reminds me of Krzysztof Kieslowski, with his moral framework and thematic control. Haneke’s works may not be as accessible as Kieslowski’s, but he is just as committed to examining contemporary society with a penetrating sword. His film Time of the Wolf is a perfect example.

The movie opens as a family of four are arriving at their weekend cottage. As they unload their supplies, they’re confronted by another family who’s taken refuge in the house. It soon becomes apparent that the family isn’t on a holiday but rather is fleeing some unknown catastrophe–a horrible state of affairs that has people scrounging desperately for food, water, and shelter. In a horrifying moment, the father is shot, and the mother and two children are chased off their property with only a bicycle and a day’s worth of food.

The three head into the village, hoping to find someone who will help them. But the only people they meet are just as frightened as they are and completely unwilling to assist anyone, friend or stranger. The family is reduced to sleeping in old barns or sheds. In one unforgettable scene, the young son Ben (Lucas Biscombe) goes missing in the night. The mother (Isabelle Huppert) and older daughter Eva (Anais Demoustier) head out into the total darkness, yelling Ben’s name. Even the hay they set on fire for light only reveals how dark their situation truly is. And when the shed they’re sleeping in catches fire, it becomes a miniature apocalypse and a perfect metaphor.

time_of_wolf_01-resized.jpgThe majority of the film takes place when they meet up with other refugees who are camping out at a train station. Their hope is to force a train, which may or may not come, to stop and take them to a better place. As they wait, they form a community based merely on what they have to offer. Eva’s bike makes an attractive bargaining chip, while some of the women willingly offer their bodies in exchange for fresh water or food.

Time of the Wolf is reminiscent of books like Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness–works that explore what people are really like when civilization is stripped away. What makes Time of the Wolf especially powerful is Haneke’s absolute rigor. If you’ve seen his earlier films like Seventh Continent or Benny’s Video, you’ll know what I mean by ‘rigor’. He refuses to allow any hint of sentimentality into his work. His objective camera placements offer penetrating looks at his characters and their situations, gazes that refuse to look away no matter what’s taking place on screen. While his narratives are often shocking, they’re not designed merely to shock but rather to jolt us out of our complacency, to force us to see things as they really are.

Haneke’s focus on truth is similarly unblinking. There are two situations in Time of the Wolf when characters accuse someone else of a heinous crime. In one case, the audience is set up, by its empathy for certain characters, to believe the claim; in the other case, to doubt it. And yet Haneke, through elegant rhyming, forces us to grasp that truth can not be dependent on whom we like but on whether something is true. And that often is very difficult to determine.

Yet, Haneke’s films are not without hope. True, they spend much more time destroying the false hopes of civilization, technology, and bourgeois sentiment. But that’s only so they can point the way to something richer, something deeper. This reaches its apex in the astounding climax of Time of the Wolf, simply one of the most surprising, stirring, and memorable conclusions to a film from the last several years. Raising fundamental issues of sacrifice and salvation, it challenges us to examine our own beliefs and assumptions. And in the midst of this darkness, a light breaks forth, one that recalls the famous passage from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Time of the Wolf is certainly not for everyone. Animals are killed onscreen, for instance, and certain scenes are so intense that people in the audience I was with started swearing out loud. Yet those who stick with it will experience spectacularly beautiful compositions, acting of exquisite control, and a story so haunting I’ve been thinking about it ever since I saw it.

Time of the Wolf: four 1/2 stars, out of five