Midnight Train to Salvation

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Review of 'Time of the Wolf', director Michael Haneke

'This is a film made for wealthy countries. I wanted to see what would happen if tomorrow we had the same situation here that always exists in the Third World. Since 11 September it's easier for people to imagine catastrophes happening here. That's the "news" element.'

So said director Michael Haneke, who also made 2001's The Piano Teacher, of his latest film. Time of the Wolf begins after some unexplained disaster in an unnamed European country. The opening scenes are promising: a nice middle class family drive to their holiday home in the country, the car packed with supplies for a long stay. When they walk in, a man emerges from a dark corner with a rifle pointed at them. As the husband tries to calm the situation by offering him supplies (he also has a wife and child), the man suddenly shoots him, leaving Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her teenage daughter and ten year old son to fend for themselves with only the clothes they are wearing and a bike.

They wander off into the grey, misty landscape in search of food and shelter. We never discover what catastrophe has blighted the country, or exactly how blighted it is. The family walk past a pile of burning cattle, reminiscent of the foot and mouth epidemic, and the water is 'contaminated'. The fields appear to be full of corn, yet no one is tending them. There seems to be life in the cities, but no lines of communication to the countryside. Haneke simply wants us to go with the family and see their ways of coping with the situation - gripping onto their 'civilisation' as it lies in tatters around them.

Most of the film takes place in the dark, in dusty barns, or at best in misty morning half-light. There are no special effects or action scenes - the husband's killing takes place off screen, though we do witness a rather graphic slaughtering of a horse later on. Neither is there a huge amount of dialogue. All we have to guide us are the brilliant performances of, especially, the mother and two children and, later, a collection of characters holed up in a railway barn waiting for the never-never train.

This becomes familiar terrain in post-apocalyptic films - the group of survivors trying to recreate a society in the absence of everyday norms, creating rules by which they must all live, following a self-appointed leader, bartering for food or clothing. Koslowski (the leader) gets extra food and water from his contacts in exchange for sexual favours from the women. When a goat goes missing, a French speaker blames the Pole (though at least, in this case, others step in and stop him). People are trying to retain their humanity, and in small acts sometimes do, but are divided and suspicious of each other. The teenage daughter, who clashes with her mum and befriends a loner, and the ten year old son, who hasn't spoken since his bird died early on, are both on their own personal journeys.

The longer they wait, the less real the train that is apparently on its way seems to be. Myths and legends about saviours begin to circulate. But maybe there is hope yet: an act of self sacrifice seems to bring an escape route - or are they just clutching at spiritualistic straws?

'People are used to seeing things that are totally rounded off, consumable - films that say everything and are immediately forgotten. I want to destabilise the viewer, and teaching a lesson is the last thing I want to do. If someone doesn't get me, they don't get me. That's not my problem.'

There is certainly something to be said for that statement. But if I wanted to observe characters I know nothing about, in a situation of which I have no background knowledge, I could jump on a plane to Timbuktu and sit in the town centre not speaking to anyone.