A couple years before Cormac McCarthy published his Pulitzer-Prize winning, family-themed, fire-symbolized post-apocalyptic novel The Road, Michael Haneke gave us a similar story with Time of the Wolf. The fire in Haneke’s film is not as overtly symbolic, his characters are much less sympathetic (and much higher in number), and the originality is not quite there, but there is a catastrophic earth with unknown backstory and bleak, graphic minimalism.
This isn’t really a science fiction film, though. There is no indication of a future setting and technology has no role; instead, this could just as well be a drama about life in a poor, isolated village. Those lucky enough to have possessions arrange trades and fight each other for a goat or what little uncontaminated water is available. There is little more valuable than a lighter or a bicycle. Instead, this is a Haneke film, through and through. Violence is omnipresent; every image is at least a little bit uncomfortable; characters are terrible to one another and see little wrong with that. Realism is dialed-up—once again, there is no non-diegetic sound and shots tend to be somewhat lengthy—and a clinical detachment separates the audience from the characters, asking us to consider their behavior in a crisis and turn it back on the morals we exhibit.
Where Time of the Wolf falls short is in its worn out Hobbesian thesis. When resources are depleted, people will use whatever authority or power they have to gain an advantage, even if that comes at cost of the lives and well-being of others. The exception is family. Mothers will care for their children, and as a result will have some sympathy for orphans as well. Children represent hope. The bigger extractions come in the slow reveal that the apocalypse is likely some kind of ecological disaster and the aforementioned implications of the realism. Somewhere outside of the privileged Western world that Haneke criticizes so often (most obviously in Funny Games, but in many other works as well) people are living that apocalypse every day, hoping that some metaphorical train will pass by and take them to some better place that exists only as an abstract idea.
Still, the film starts off particularly strong. The Haneke family (parents Anne and Georges, children Benny and Eva) arrive at their weekend home with supplies only to find an armed-intruder is already there. Something happens, and the family is on the run already. They move with the help of a lighter and when Benny disappears, Eva needs to keep a fire going so they can find their resting place for the night after finding Benny. Haneke shoots this scene without shying away from pure blackness, letting only the desperate calls indicate that the film is still running. Then he will let the fire in, and somehow seeing just a tiny bit of light amidst all that blackness is even bleaker. When there is a full frame of color and background, the colors muted so heavily that everything looks gray. There is no substitute for compositional genius.
Eventually, the family finds a large shelter, ruled by a greedy man with connections to the village. Power dynamics play-out fairly conventionally, and Time of the Wolf takes a step backwards in storytelling both compared to its first half-hour and compared to Haneke’s previous film, The Piano Teacher. As such, the film appears to just go through the motions but brings out haunting images and occasional glimpses of emotion but never becomes terribly involving. Haneke’s films are often-times melodramas at heart, and Time of the Wolf does not mark any kind of departure in that regard, but it also does not do anything particularly subversive or powerful. Audiences will watch the story unfold with the same distance with which Haneke films it, but when there is nothing particularly new to be said, as there is in his other films, that is not a good thing. This time, Haneke gets by on his rigorous filmmaking and is saved by a great start and a few stand-out moments, but nothing elevates Time of the Wolf.