Academic journal article CineAction

Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf: After the End, Only the Inescapable Present

Academic journal article CineAction

Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf: After the End, Only the Inescapable Present

Article excerpt

Time of the Wolf (2003), Austrian director Michael Haneke's seventh feature film, continues the director's exploration of what he calls contemporary society's "social and psychological wound." (1) This wound, in Haneke's films, is inflicted by the growingly complex systems of mediation and communication found in postmodern societies and iterated through emotional atrophy. Haneke's earlier films, such as The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny's Video (1992), depict the disintegration of middle class families through the violence and ennui which he maintains are the ultimate by-products of the inescapable mediation and emotional glaciations which mark contemporary society. In Time of the Wolf, Haneke, once again, emplots a bourgeois family into a narrative of subdued terror and brutality; the setting of these trials is no longer middle class domesticity, however, but an unexplained, post-apocalyptic world. In contrast to the Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent, 1989), Benny's Video (1992), or Cache (2005), the origin of the wound in Time of the Wolf is not specified at the outset or discovered throughout the film's progression. Unlike the band of survivors in The Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968) or Melanie Daniels in The Birds (Hitchcock, 1964), who encounter a series of portents of the approaching apocalypse, the viewer of The Time of the Wolf is forced to read the apocalyptic event retroactively through symptoms inscribed upon this transformed, traumatized world. (1) This backward-looking take on apocalyptic themes, which has implications for Haneke's formal organization of the film, also abandons the notion, held by literary and cinematic modernists such as W.B. Yeats and Jean-Luc Godard, that this apocalyptic event is a moment of "sense-making."

Surveying American apocalyptic film texts, from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), with their millennial sentiments and fetishizations of the pastoral, to European apocalyptic films, such as Weekend (Godard, 1967) and The Falls (Greenaway, 1980), which position the viewer in an on-going or recently completed apocalyptic crisis, one is advised to heed literary critic Frank Kermode's call for "clerkly skepticism" with regard to the apocalypse as a moment of "sense-making" made in his seminal book. Haneke's post-apocalyptic world, seemingly devoid of the teleological concepts of History and Nation, confronts what Gayatri Spivak, in her article "The Staging of Time," calls the ruse of the "there was" of memory, "the signal toward what is not here," by presenting an inescapable "there is."' Haneke confines his characters, and his viewer, in this unending present. Such confinement is literally true in the second half of the film where a group of strangers wait together in a crowded station room, hoping that somehow provisions -or some other form of salvation--will appear when the train arrives. Much like the suspended existence in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Haneke renders the endless present in Time of the Wolf The narrative structure cuts from fractured, synecdochal scenes through which Haneke threads traumatic images of the Holocaust and medieval ruins conveying the enervation of familial and social structures to brief episodes of human cruelty in this new, lawless world. The film presents the "morbid symptoms" of this post-apocalyptic world for the viewer to see, but what is most unsettling in the film is its suggestion that while the old world has died, whether anything new is struggling to be born is an open question. (3) If the period the characters now inhabit is not the Gramscian interregnum but an unchanging present of scarcity, competition, and violence--as this open story film suggests--the viewer is left to contemplate the mother's irreparable loss, the daughter's stalwart but unsupported idealism, and the boy's sacrificial gesture. The ambiguous final coda further complicates any sense of meaningful action. …

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