The recent Japanese tsunami has offered up visions of a contemporary world power brought to its knees. The images of towns wiped clean and of Japanese citizens weeping over the loss of family and the ruinous destruction of their communities, or of workers scrambling to contain nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, has made disaster feel very close to home. Real events in Japan have begun to take on the character of apocalyptic fiction and its similar concerns with environmental destruction, enormous gaps between the haves and the have-nots, and how society would reconstruct itself — or not — in the event of societal breakdown, revealing the essential fragility of our world.
In the nightmarish 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, an unnamed disaster has resulted in a complete breakdown of society and a violent subculture from which a young child and his father flee. The Road‘s alternative vision of apocalypse stands in stark opposition to Hollywood films like 2012 or War of the Worlds in which disaster becomes a means of sanctifying heroic behavior and the centrality of the tightly-knit family who bond in the face of disaster.
On the cynical end of the apocalypse cinema spectrum, a film that seems even more relevant and chilling in the wake of the Japanese disaster, is Austrian director Michael Haneke‘s disturbing, thoughtful 2003 dystopian mood piece Time of the Wolf. Like The Road, the film unfolds following an unidentified cataclysm that could be war, environmental disaster, or disease that has left a bourgeois Parisian family, the Laurents, scrambling for shelter and self-preservation at their vacation home.
One of Haneke’s leitmotifs in many of his films is the fragility of the family. That theme is immediately established when another mirror image family of squatters — father, mother, and two children — camped out at the Laurents’ cabin discharge a rifle into Georges Laurent (Daniel Duval). Haneke immediately establishes a feeling of dread and vulnerability by undercutting the solidity of the family by striking at its symbolic heart, the patriarch.
Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children, the young, vulnerable Ben (Lucas Biscombe) and the more resourceful, teenage Eva (Anais Demoustier) flee into the French countryside, scavenging for food and shelter. “It’s your duty to help us,” Anne implores, but notions of duty or responsibility have clearly crumbled. Neighbors are alternately unsympathetic, turning the family away, and grudgingly helpful, like the unseen woman who fills Anne’s sack with potatoes. But for the most part, it is Haneke’s contention that social class, wealth, and privilege are rarely the protection we imagine in the upheaval of modern life. In not only Time of the Wolf but also in films like Funny Games, Cache, and Code Unknown privileged characters find their sense of stability crumbling beneath their feet.
Eventually Anne and her children, after picking up a straggler along the way — an angry, larcenous teenager (Hakim Taleb) — find some tenuous shelter with a group of fellow refugees sheltering in an abandoned train station. The couples and families wait for a passing train and have their lives arranged by their nefarious leader (Olivier Gourmet) who doles out work orders and thuggishly defines the operation of the group. The squabbling and dissent at the train stop is contrasted with another roving band of refugees passing through, who share their resources with each other and spread power among them. In this way, Haneke shows two possible responses to the cataclysm, one a mere refashioning of the old order and another more utopian group.
The film is a shattering — and unsettling — exegesis of innocence and evil, in which children die and other children long to become sacrificial lambs in order to save the group, while murderous adults feign innocence to save their skin. Like so many of Haneke’s films, Time of the Wolf projects his audience into the destabilizing sensations of childhood — in large part by measuring adult behavior through the eyes of Eva and Ben — and the slow-dawning truth that there are bad people, and bad things, in the world. You feel your own preconceptions similarly assaulted and the veil falling from your eyes under the grim persuasion of Haneke’s methods.
At the train station every feature of society — from power structures to racism to financial negotiations — is recast in new form. The men on horseback who dispense water to the refugees lord their power over their underlings. And a shadow economy rises up of bartering, including of sex for goods. Even the old prejudices of village life rear up when a gun-toting man targets a group of immigrants, scapegoating, and separating them from the other refugees.
Haneke’s Time of the Wolf and Japan’s reality remind us how close we are to disaster — and how, in any number of war-torn and impoverished countries, real people struggle daily with the kind of nightmares we ingest as art or entertainment.
There is a sickening authenticity to Haneke’s depiction of the post-apocalyptic breakdown of order and his assault on the false sense of security and stability we live under, even now. It is the potential for violence and evil that artists like Marina Abramović in Rhythm 0 have also examined. In that famous 1974 six-hour endurance test, Abramović placed 72 objects — flashlight, gun, lipstick — capable of kindness or harm, before an audience which was then allowed to use them in any way they chose. Like Time of the Wolf, the piece examined the ability of people — with decorum and codes of social behavior temporarily suspended — to act horribly.
Felicia Feaster is an Atlanta editor and writer who worked, most recently, as the senior editor at The Atlantan. Her writing has appeared in Creative Loafing, Elle, Playboy.com, Atlanta magazine, Art in America, ART PAPERS, Sculpture, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Her column, Ciné 1.0, is an examination of films with relevance to the visual arts that address some of the same issues that concern visual artists today. Ciné 1.0 is also a look at cinema history and cinema present, delving into the at times overlooked or forgotten but nevertheless thought-provoking, artful films that have impacted world culture and altered our perception of life and art.