If Looks Could Kill
Andrew Tracy on Time of the Wolf
One of 2004’s most potent cinematic visions of apocalypse was also its most disposable. The zombie-wreaked suburban carnage that made up the astonishing first 15 minutes of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was nightmarish, horrifying, and shamelessly enjoyable. Romero, perhaps unknowingly, got it right in the first place: the laughs come first (pasty-blue zombie makeup and overemoting no-list actors), let the horror gradually, relentlessly creep its way out. Apocalypse has become another language of entertainment, the comfortable box of genre safely confining even those films which attempt to return the notion to its roots in religious dread (Weir’s The Last Wave) or reveal its permeation into the cultural and technological mechanisms that have appropriated and commodified it (Kurosawa’s Pulse). What’s left for the apocalyptic imagination to do in a culture that has thoroughly assimilated the concept?
The real and filmic horrors channeled into our living rooms 24 hours a day, the instantly accessible physical reality (actual or simulated) of mass death has paradoxically pushed the apocalyptic further away. The key is to recapture the central concept of apocalypse—moral order and collective punishment—from both the increasingly intolerant language of religion and the increasingly pornographic imagery of the media by a harshly compassionate (tough love?) secularism and by a respect of the image which counters our visual glut with a meticulous selectivity. Apocalypse is not merely spectacle, it’s an injunction—and as the 21st century continues in the proud tradition of its predecessor, drawing people into ever-closer visual proximity while perfecting their atomization, that injunction turns ever more upon the transgressions and responsibilities of spectatorship. Moral parables, real or fictional, seem to have lost much of their power in our era of fragmentation, isolated instances lost in the tessellated grid of modern experience. Perhaps the only route left for parable is to plug directly into that grid, to get at the moral through the sensory—reawakening us to the weight of the things we see and hear, and the responsibility we bear in seeing and hearing them.
Michael Haneke’s unforgettable and unforgivable Funny Games was just such an attempt to alert us to the moral agency of spectatorship, and indeed it was so devilishly successful that it veritably negates itself: the immaculate perfection of its tail-swallowing structure makes it a containable, consumable product even as it lashes out at containment and consumption. Haneke’s own mastery worked against him, boxed him in. Code Unknown, one of the most prescient films of the Nineties, broke out of the box by relentlessly and brilliantly working against its own perfection, indicating its own limits even as it staked out further territory. Echoing the ease with which we flip through any variety of mediations—film, photography, our own blinkered daily experiences—Code Unknown’s dazzling array of perspectives alerts us to the moral burden inherent in this access. Beyond inability of communication is the far graver problem or, rather, accusation—of unwillingness to act; not condition, but choice.
It’s the strength of that injunction that keeps Haneke’s post-apocalyptic and post-humanist Time of the Wolf from succumbing to the dictates of its genre, even as it forgoes Code Unknown’s formal ruptures for an ‘invisible’ camera and presents a world bereft of the omnipresent technological media (apart from a radio and a Walkman) which so often serve to focus Haneke’s critique of modernity. Its dystopian near-future aside, Time of the Wolf is no more fable or allegory than any Haneke film. The repeated invocations of the Just—the 36 people whom God sent upon the earth to keep it aright, the loss of even one tilting it into chaos—announce themselves as red herrings by their very blatancy. This doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant. Rather, they serve the film by revealing their own irrelevance, the meaninglessness of moral absolutes in a world that has defeated them, that has made the absolute obsolete. Haneke’s apocalypse chills because it ends nothing—it tells us nothing about what we will be but volumes about what we are.
Perhaps the greatest conceit of the apocalyptic film is the notion that the end of times will reveal, for better or worse, our “true” selves—a bastardized version of the biblical Apocalypse as act of revelation. On this note, crucially, Haneke is not forthcoming. His survivors neither decisively pull together nor fall apart. Their unions and divisions are merely fluctuations in an incessant state of desperation, ripples rising and falling in the landscapes of cruelty which man has made of this ‘natural’ world. That none of Haneke’s survivors can be classed as truly hateful only underscores the terrifying ease with which the violence we practice upon the world has seeped into our daily relations: in the bonds of kinship (the increasing estrangement between Anna (Isabelle Huppert) and her daughter Bea (Brigitte Rouan); the bonds of love (Anna’s son Ben (Lucas Biscombe) places his canary under his jacket to keep it warm, suffocating it); and the bonds of ‘necessity’ (the killing of a horse and a goat, upon which Haneke’s camera lingers far longer than the few and scattered cruelties performed upon humans). “I thought you’d help me, but you just ruin everything,” says Bea to the vagrant boy (Hakim Taleb) who has violated the fragile unity of the refugee camp, in the most moralistic sentiment expressed in the film. The heedlessness of his action, the thoughtlessness (and, as will be shown, the waste), and the moving simplicity of Bea’s reprimand link Time of the Wolf’s future to our present—apocalypse does not sever our mode of relations, it maintains them. When the couple that murdered Anna’s husband in the shocking opening of the film arrives at the refugee camp, she accuses them in front of the camp’s self-made leaders. “What proof do you have?” they ask. “He’s dead,” she sobs. But physical fact has no place here; the confrontation ends in a stalemate, the dueling testimonies—the accused as genuinely impassioned as the accuser—cancel each other out.
Even in the realm of ultimate moral transgression, Haneke’s survivors are witnesses rather than actors, denying their agency even as they exercise it, making their world even as they refute their authorship. Reflexively, Time of the Wolf is not revelation but recording, and as such, a decisive action—for seeing is an action which habitually denies that it acts. Haneke’s apocalypse neither condemns nor delivers, it simply perpetuates, the self-exculpatory gaze which we disperse through our innumerable mediations continuing to issue its denials even as its refracted vision is reduced to the singular. The effectiveness of apocalyptic cinema (or apocalyptic news) resides in its distanciation: we watch ‘our’ destruction from a safe distance, visual immediacy transformed into abstraction. This is what gives the shock (and the perfection) to Haneke’s final, subtle visual switch, mounting his camera on a train upon which vaguely glimpsed, immovable figures had earlier passed by Anna and her children, deaf to their entreaties. The world will end with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a look, the time of images which we ourselves have conjured, making us mere spectators to the destruction or salvation that awaits us.
This article originally appeared in Winter 2004's Last Gasp issue.