Time of the Wolf (2003) – Michael Haneke’s exploration of collapsing society

Time of the Wolf. Image credit: Courtesy of IMDb Time of the Wolf. Image credit: Courtesy of IMDb

Amongst the least critically acclaimed masterworks of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, Time of the Wolf sparked controversy upon release due to the actual murder of animals. Yet, the film is one of the most ambitious and one of the bleakest existential journeys ever put on the silver screen

Time of the Wolf (original title: “Le temps du loup”) – Drama/Horror – Michael Haneke – France – 114 minutes – available here

The 23 feature-length films Michael Haneke has written and directed in the past 46 years seem to have a common thread: the filmmaker’s bleak outlook on mankind and society. In fact, as Haneke himself puts it, “the question I ask in all my films is how we wrong others” to understand how trauma and hardship affect regular people, whether they’re victims or perpetrators. And, often, they are both of those things in Hanake’s catalogue.

Although the renowned Austrian artist usually mixes and combines genres in his movies, horror is a powerful vehicle for such themes and goals. In this respect, Time of the Wolf is not the first effort within the genre for Haneke, as he has given his unique take on it in films like the two Funny Game movies (the original Austrian picture and its shot-for-shot American remake) and The Moor’s Head (1995). In fact, the most dour and disturbing films from him are probably the ones that have less to do with horror in the traditional sense but delve into the horrific side of human beings. Time of the Wolf has a bit of both: it’s Haneke’s version of a postapocalyptic drama, more interested in the core of fear and human behaviour than in the plain disaster aspect of this kind of flicks.

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My review is also available on IMDb – Time of the Wolf (2003)

Time of the Wolf – post-apocalyptic collapse of society with no apocalypse

Time of the Wolf features one of the most shocking and impactful opening scenes ever: [spoilers for the opening] when Anna (Isabelle Huppert), her husband Georges and their two kids (Eva and Ben) arrive to their cabin in the countryside, where a family of intruders immediately shoots the man and forces Anna’s family to seek shelter elsewhere. Why do they have to find refuge, though? Throughout the first act, with no exposition whatsoever, we learn that the environment has been destroyed, the water is contaminated, and the animals have been burned, probably because they have been infected and thus carry diseases. After a few days and nights of complete despair, Anna, Eva and Ben reach a train station, where they find other survivors. Together, they wait for the train, expecting, in the middle of the chaos, to go to a better place. Their troubles are not over, though. In fact, they only just began.

As he often does, Haneke offers no explanation as to the cause of the events in his film. Time of the Wolf opens in media res (a fancy Latin expression that means “in the middle of things”) and, in typical Haneke fashion, ends with a non-ending: it’s up to the viewer to decide what to get out of his movies, and Time of the Wolf is no exception. What’s really interesting about this post-apocalyptic horror drama is its social commentary on the collapse of society. For our main characters – who are cleverly on the background of the story – what matters is how people behave under such desperate circumstances. Haneke refuses to depict black and white characters and solutions: everything in this picture is exaggeratingly realistic, full of grey areas and open to the viewer’s judgment. “The important thing was that people think anything could happen to them at any time, here and now, that the story is as believable as possible for the highly pampered individuals in our highly industrialized society. I wanted to make a film which has nothing to do with the spectacular nature of the disaster-movie genre”, said Haneke. Not just that, but “The decisive aspect of disaster movies is that the extreme situation involved, whether it’s a war, an atomic catastrophe, an environmental disaster, increases the consumer appeal through exaggeration. The more extreme the events, the easier it is for the audience to maintain a distance”. Haneke doesn’t want his film to be cinematic: he wants it to be real, gritty and relatable.

The limits of art and the extent of controversy

Arguably, the obsessive search of realism led to specific choices that caused the lukewarm critic response to Time of the Wolf, as well as some serious hatred from audience members. Very purposefully, the film refuses to give the viewer satisfaction, by hiding the violence and implying it offscreen. However, the only bloody sequence the camera doesn’t shy away from happens when a real horse gets his throat slit: the scene was set in a slaughterhouse, where the horse would’ve likely been killed regardless of the movie, but the fact is that it took three takes to get to the final scene. Meaning: three horses were killed for that one sequence.

Time of the Wolf has been well-received regardless, as no professional critic could ever deny the perfection behind every single shot, but I’m not convince that specific sequence needed a real horse to die. Such decision, while understandable from the perspective of Haneke’s unflinching commitment to his idea of cinema, stirred controversy and became (in the festival circuit, at least) the main point of contention regarding Time of the Wolf. Avoiding the killing of a real living creature would’ve likely helped the discussion to be centred around the filmmaking aspect alone. On top of that, this picture features tones of sheep carcasses and an outstanding scene of burning horses: they all look realistic, but they’re all achieved through masterful practical effects. It makes you wonder why Haneke thought it necessary to kill a real animal, regardless of how powerful and well-made that scene was.

Is there hope in this world?

Aside from the horse moment (and a few strangely put-together editing choices), Time of the Wolf is a technically perfect film, with no mistakes or goofs to be found. This is no surprise, considering Haneke is a perfectionist and most of his pictures are flawless on a technical level. The same can be said for script and storytelling, which are immaculate and perfectly explore the aforementioned themes of collapse of society and desperation. Again, this is nothing new for Haneke: actually, in Time of the Wolf these concepts are very fitting for an ensemble film, where the deconstruction of a single character (that we saw, for instance, in The Piano Teacher and Amour) extends to the whole of society. In fact, this is taken to the extreme, to the point that our main characters are rarely in focus, as they usually get mixed up with the tons of extras masterfully directed in situations that scream misery and despair.

The post-apocalyptic setting, in combination with the bleak colour palette and natural lighting highlighted mostly during night-time sequences, is the most appropriate for a world where courage, kindness, love is of no use. However, there might be a glimpse of light at the end of this film. This is very unusual for Haneke, but the ending to Time of the Wolf, while open to interpretation, clearly underlines how not all hope is lost. Similarly to Andrei Tarkovskij’s Ivan Rublov, this film seems to imply that even in a total social collapse a new beginning is awaiting, whether it’s 15th century Russia (like in Tarkovskij’s movie) or today France. In addition, glimpse of hope are present (subtly and briefly) throughout the entire runtime: a bowl of milk is given, not bartered for, and a man lets Eva hear Beethoven’s Frühlingssonate on his Walkman. This moment is particularly poignant, considering that Haneke refuses to put musical scores and soundtracks into his movies, as he considers music to be manipulative to the point that mainstream cinema relies on it to deliver emotions that the images aren’t earning (a point of view that’s truly hard to argue with). Here, however, the lack of music might have a significant meaning in terms of the story: to simplify, no music means no hope; the presence of music leaves a door open for it.

Gritty reality vs Spiritual aspirations

Despite its presentation constantly strives for extreme realism, Time of the Wolf features quite a lot of spiritual (religious, if you will) elements. To my knowledge, Haneke is not a spiritual person but, in this film, he seems to imply a lot of religion-related topics, ideas and images. Starting with the title: “It comes from the Edda, the oldest surviving collection of Germanic poetry”, the filmmaker said, “which contains Sibyl’s Prophecy about the end of the world, Götterdämmerung. The lines just before the Twilight of the Gods are A wind-age, a wolf-age till the world ruins: / No man to another shall mercy show.”

In addition, Time of the Wolf features references to two different “religious” groups: the Just and the Burners (or something like that, I don’t recall the actual name of the second group, only briefly mentioned in the film). From the sneak peek we get at them, it appears as though each of the groups/sects represent a mixture of beliefs coming from current-day religions. Their presence in the movie could simply depend on Haneke’s attempt at creating a genuine, realistic and believable universe within the film, but I believe it also holds relevance in terms of the non-ending. [spoilers for the ending] When our main characters reach the train and leave the purgatory-like train station (an obvious homage to the hospital in Saramago’s Blindness), the common interpretation – which I explained in the previous paragraph – is that they finally catch a glimpse at hope, with Time of the Wolf leaving room for light at the end of a dark tunnel. However, given the underlying spiritual elements of the film, this ending might just as well signify that, in order to escape such a desperate world, you would need to seek an afterlife. Does this afterlife exist, though? Because Time of the Wolf doesn’t provide answers, as though Haneke is saying that you might hope for something better at the end of your journey, but this “something better” could simply not exist.

Final thoughts

Just like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, perhaps the most existentially relevant film ever created alongside 2001: A Space Odissey, Time of the Wolf is an ambitious artwork that explores people’s genuine behaviour in the context of a collapsing society. Benefitting from constantly held back performances (remarkably, the best current European actor – Isabelle Huppert – rarely speaks and shines by barely being part of the film), grainy and low-budget look, absence of score paired with layered sound-design, wide shots giving the movie’s world breadth, Time of the Wolf is another technical and philosophical achievement from Michael Haneke.

This is a film that deprives itself of any entertainment value: it’s not meant to be enjoyed, as it should spark constant train of thoughts. Unfortunately, the controversy related to the killing of real animals has caused Time of the Wolf to be dismissed over other titles in Haneke’s catalogue. Although, as I said, I don’t understand or even sympathise with such controversial choices, I think this picture is a wonderful art film that deserves to be rediscovered and re-evaluated. This analysis was intended as an homage to a great film and the masterful filmmaker who made and, hopefully, will convince some of you to check it out.

Where to watch Time of the Wolf

For this article, I watched the DVD of Time of the Wolf by Curzon Artificial Eye, which also sells a box set of Michael Haneke’s movies. I would strongly recommend this edition, as it features an in-depth and eye-opening making-of documentary that provided me with tons of information related to the film.

However, I watched Time of the Wolf a second time on Amazon Prime, where you can rent it for 3.99 USD. Here, the movie is in HD, which helps the experience as both image and sound mixing are far superior in comparison to the DVD version.