The term ‘time of the wolf’ finds its roots in Nordic folklore and in the most basic terms it denotes a time of the night just before the dawn. Ingmar Bergman once summarized it as a “the hour between night and dawn, when most people die, sleep is deepest, nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their worst anguish, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.” This note was an accompaniment to the screenplay to Hour of the Wolf, his 1968 psychological horror with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann.
Haneke’s 2002 film has very little to do with Bergman’s overlooked impressionistic phantasmagoria and instead borrows this term to further the filmmaker’s lifelong quest to understand, satirize and condemn the privilege of the wealthy. As Haneke describes it, ‘time of the wolf’ is used both literally and figuratively in this story as it pertains to the actual predicament the characters find themselves in at the outset of events, as well as the hopelessness and moral degradation they must endure mentally and emotionally to survive.
As far as the literal meaning is concerned, the film takes place somewhere in France in the wake of a mysterious catastrophe that has enveloped the nation, and perhaps even the entire world. We are introduced to a family who packed their bags and left the city to find shelter in their summer home in the countryside. These circumstances should look rather familiar to anyone versed in Haneke’s work as it parallels somewhat the opening to Funny Games where a similarly privileged family was about to embark on a vacation, not knowing their sheltered life was about to be turned upside down and inside out in a manner of hours. Here Haneke uses the same concept, but his intentions are slightly adjusted. He is still intending on openly punishing the rich for their ignorant assumption that their wealth would somehow shield them from evil, but he opts for a far more graceful approach to achieving his goals.
In contrast to Funny Games or Caché which he ended up following this film with, Time of the Wolf drops its characters at the deep end of the pool in the very beginning. When the family arrives at their destination, confident they would be able to survive whatever crisis the world is going through, they find their house is occupied by strangers. This is when they quickly learn that the rules of the game that have helped them to achieve their status in society (which by the way allowed them to have a second home away from the city lights) no longer apply. There is no rule of law. There is no common decency. When survival is at play, law of the jungle applies. The fittest survive. The strongest thrive. The weakest perish. And the family finds out the hard way that when resources are scarce, societies fall apart. I don’t particularly like the notion of quoting Vladimir Lenin in my writing, but his words fit perfectly here: “any society is three square meals away from anarchy.”
I believe Haneke must have been perfectly aware of these words while assembling this story as it perfectly illustrates what happens to societies when the rug is pulled out from under them. When water is poison and food is hard to come by, the class-based societal make-up we find familiar and perhaps innately comforting – after all we are always told that through hard work and perseverance we can advance through the ranks, better our livelihoods and maybe even amass fortunes – falls apart like a house of cards. The filmmaker seems extremely interested in probing his audiences and asking what they would do if they woke up one day to find the world as they knew it no longer existed. How would you respond to a situation where the money you have accrued over the course of your life no longer has value? What would you do if the skills that brought you immense success in the civilized world as a lawyer or a banker were instantly rendered useless? How would you survive?
These and other related questions Time of the Wolf is littered with, as though to challenge the viewer and force them to reflect upon the very purpose of their existence. Haneke is keen to teach the wealthy and the privileged – who he knows would gravitate towards high art his films are understood to be – about the simple fact their immensely comfortable livelihoods are built on extremely thin ice of social status quo. When this ice breaks, they will be fed to the wolves and survivors will be left to roam barren lands in search of shelter and hope; just like the family Haneke’s camera is shadowing.
However, as much as it is procedurally depicted throughout much of its duration, Time of the Wolf isn’t a revenge fantasy for the proletaryat pining for societal upheaval. It is a humanist sermon about the importance of re-discovering the basic qualities that make us human, which positions this film in the wider cultural landscape much closer to Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind than to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if that makes any sense. Although the film is unrelenting, unflinching, brutal and occasionally difficult to process, its message carries a fundamental hope that we – as a species – may one day wake up from our wealth-induced coma and reappraise our worldview.
Deep down beneath layers of dystopian horror, graphic imagery and disturbing emotional turmoil to which Haneke exposes his characters, Time of the Wolf is perhaps his most optimistic piece of cinema. It pulls no punches, be sure of that, but the film as a whole is not meant to mock or chastise, as much as it is meant to guide toward a subtle realignment the filmmaker sees as necessary for the world to improve. As Haneke shows, life is artificially complicated by pursuit of meaningless success, competitive climbing of the social ladder, leaving a legacy behind and other such trite nonsense that doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. When push comes to shove, all that seems to matter is survival and wellbeing of our children because if they can’t make it, humans will become extinct. And as much as we like our comfortable lives, our sofas, our well-paid jobs, country homes, cars and foreign trips, none of them matter. All that matters is that we take care of our own, look after our neighbours and take life one day at a time. Because tomorrow might just be the last day of relative normalcy.
After all, any society is but three square meals away from total chaos. So, if and when the curtains are drawn on the status quo (however perturbed it might seem now thanks to the seemingly never-ending pandemic), Michael Haneke is asking us to at least straighten our priorities and make sure our kids are safe before we abandon all hope.