Post-apocalyptic movies, more often than not, have been schlocky sci fi–the likes of the Mad Max flicks, The Postman and Waterworld. Occasionally, the concept has inspired more thoughtful films like the wry Delicatessen, Werckmeister Harmonies (which doesn’t explicitly refer to an apocalypse, but surely feels like one), or, in a more commercial vein, On the Beach.
The fascination with an apocalypse and its aftermath goes back as far as the Old Testament, when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. The New Testament Book of Revelations puts the apocalypse front and center, anticipating war, famine, disease and earthquakes.It also includes false prophets, the "beast" (a tangible representation of evil), the faithful and witnesses.
Michael Haneke’s film, Time of the Wolf, is set in an unnamed countryside after some unspecified disaster has resulted in severe shortages of food and water. Haneke’s countryside looks perfectly normal, the contrast between the ordinary landscape and the extraordinary conditions confronting its inhabitants resulting in a heightened sense of dread. The ambiguity of the unnamed cause adds to this effect and, to a degree, raises the film from what might have been merely topical (e.g., anti-nuclear) to a more universalized examination of the deterioration of civilization under severely adverse conditions. There are small moments of hope salvaged in those characters who retain a more socialized attitude than purely selfish survival, but Time of the Wolf is as unquestionably as bleak as it is thoughtful, insightful, and brilliantly realized.
Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her children Ben (Lucas Biscombe) and Eva (Anais Demoustier) take shelter in a railway station with other refugees, all hoping that a train will stop that will carry them away to a refuge from the disaster conditions into which they have been thrown. Eva feels particularly drawn to a boy who is never named (Hakim Taleb); they have picked him up along the way, but he refuses to join the group in the station–he’s the classic outsider, trusting no one, focused only on his own survival, without concern for the others.
At the station, leadership has been assumed by one Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet), who, by trading in a nearby town secures scarce supplies of food and uncontaminated water. But Koslowski is not beyond bartering these essentials for sexual favors from the women. Indeed, the assembled group largely seems ruled by primitive parameters of power–the strong, the armed, the "haves" using their advantages in the struggle for survival, with little regard for the needs of others or the general good. Bullying, racist scapegoating quickly surfaces.
Occasional moments affirm more humane values that barely remain–a bit of food is shared by a neighbor, the sharing of water with an aged woman, for examples, and Eva’s concern, and ultimate comprehension and rejection of the asocial nature of the boy outsider. Notably absent for these people is the presence of God or faith or prayer. But the Legend of the Just circulates–the idea that the world’s existence depends on the periodic appearance of men of honor whose piety holds God’s earth together. And later an old man tells of a group of men who sacrifice themselves in bonfires in order to keep the world right. Haneke is suggesting the appeal of the mystical to explain the inexplicable; the seizing on a glimmer of hope when things seem grimly hopeless.
It is the boy, Ben, who becomes pivotal in the end. Already shown with repeated bloody noses, like stigmata that reveal his suffering, the impressionable boy hears the tales and is willing to sacrifice himself to make things right again. Bleak as Haneke’s world view is here, he finishes on an emotionally wrenching suggestion of the possibility of individual sacrifice and redemption.