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The Time of the Wolf (2003)

Le Temps du Loup (France), Wolfzeit (Germany)

a poetic vision of society stopped dead in its tracks

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 113 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15


Michael Haneke has built himself a reputation for making films that are uncompromising (‘Funny Games’, ‘The Piano Teacher’), and even the opening credits of ‘The Time of the Wolf’ reflect a refusal to make any concessions to the conventions of commercial cinema. Far from being big, loud and brassy, or even elegantly classical, the film’s credits are written in squintily tiny white letters on an otherwise black screen, accompanied only by silence. This starkly minimalist opening sets exactly the right tone for a bleak, harrowing film which has no musical soundtrack at all, and involves many scenes shot in near darkness or thick mists.

Georges (Daniel Duval), Anna (Isabelle Huppert), and their children Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe) – a typical bourgeois family – arrive at their holiday house in the woods, only to find that another family has taken up residence there. Within the space of a few minutes, Georges has been shot dead, their car and supplies seized, and Anna and the children have been forced out into the night to fend for themselves. In the darkness they find unfriendly locals, dead livestock, and a larcenous teenager (Hakim Taleb), before joining a fragile group of people holed up in a station in the hope that a train may pass through bringing salvation.

Post-apocalyptic films are a dime a dozen (e.g. the ‘Mad Max’ franchise, Waterworld, The Postman), but Haneke has eschewed the sort of sensationalist violence and melodrama which usually accompanies such films, instead opting to depict the breakdown of society in a quietly prosaic manner. Anyone who has followed the unfolding anarchy in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any number of African trouble-spots, will find the elements which make up ‘The Time of the Wolf’ – the shortages of basic provisions, the looting, the lack of justice, the death of the weak, the new groupings and leaders, and the rise of salvationist cults – immediately recognisable. And the film’s central image of the dissolution of normal services – people herded together at a station waiting for a train that may never arrive – will strike an uncomfortably familiar chord with anyone who has ever tried using British Rail. Yet for all its drab realism, the film never bothers to explain what has gone wrong in society, or how such a catastrophe has taken hold so quickly, and this lack of any rationalised frame makes it clear that ‘The Time of the Wolf’ is not so much a speculative documentary as a modern fable.

Reminiscent of Andrei Tarkowsky’s allegorical masterpieces ‘Stalker’ and ‘The Sacrifice’, ‘The Time of the Wolf’ asks what distinguishes human from beast once law and order have been stripped away, and answers somewhat equivocally with the human need for ritual, faith and myth as beacons to see through the darkness – even if it is not clear whether anything is out there. The final long take of a wooded landscape, shot in blinding daylight from a moving train, offers a bright contrast to the dark stasis that has dominated the rest of the film – but we cannot be sure where this train is going, what it is carrying, and whether it really represents the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

It's Got: Naturalistically low-key acting, poetically sparse visuals, dystopian despair, a shockingly realistic image of a horse having its throat cut, and humanity seen in the worst light (in more ways than one).

It Needs: Probably one to put aside if you want your spirits raised.

DVD Extras Scene selection; choice of 2.0/5.1 surround; optional English subtitles; making of feature (20min, subtitled), featuring behind-the-scenes footage and thoughtful interviews with Isabelle Huppert, Michael Haneke and Anaïs Demoustier; Cannes featurette (7min, subtitled) showing Béatrice Dalle, Haneke, Maurice Benichou and Demoustier promoting the film at Cannes 2003, with Haneke commenting "its always nicer to work on a Haneke film than to watch one"; trailer (subtitled); bios (with tiny writing) of Haneke, Huppert, Patrice Chéreau and Dalle. DVD Extras Rating: 6/10


With neither science-fiction nor action elements, the dystopian world presented by 'The Time of the Wolf', for all its disrupted services, isolation and anarchy, is otherwise uncomfortably close to our own world today, and exposes the darker side of our humanity. Confronting, austere, and with a fireside climax that represents the grimmest brand of optimism, this is a poetic vision of society stopped dead in its tracks.