A Sheep In Wolf's Clothing

Michael Haneke's new film is noble--and that's a good thing

Make a quick list of all the things that make you you. The crafty but straightforward way you have of attracting sexual partners; your long-honed, subtly surprising tastes in popular culture; the ease with which you navigate managers and bosses and over-controlled workplaces in general. You know what to expect when your door opens in the morning: the car ride, the bagel shop, the first cup of coffee, the first phone call, the announcement of a 10:30 "surprise" meeting. But somehow none of that's there. Your mom's not there to help you, and your boyfriend isn't calling, and the temp you have lunch with is never coming back. Nothing is coming back, for that matter.

When you open that door, your life isn't there. Instead, Sudan is there to greet you with open arms; or you could call it Somalia or Iraq or Uganda or East Timor or some other faraway place you read about in one of those Noam Chomsky books. You see the stolid and enduring expressions on the faces of brown people in "refugee camps" and it's almost too sad to think about. You sometimes go to moveon.org and they tell you which people to write to, and they ask that you write them back when you're done writing your senator or whomever, and you do that. In the back of your mind you know that these displaced people just had the poor fortune of being born in countries that displace people a lot, and you know that however many letters you write, they're probably still going to be displaced--a lot.

But now you're them. You realize that a lot of your life, most of it maybe, has consisted of certain style calibrations in your consumer choices, and then you think, Well, that's unhelpful. There's no more corner bodega to get bottled water from, nor is there a choice of Aquafina, Arrowhead, or Crystal Geyser. You have a certain amount of protein-filled foodstuff and perhaps a few changes of clothes, maybe a week's worth. You don't have gas. All of a sudden, questions pop up that you don't have the resources to answer. How are you going to bargain for food and medicine? How are you going to get on a freight train that might take you to a town where they have fresh water? How are you going to keep your children from being raped?

I have to exhume a long-dead word now: Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf is a noble film. It's shitty that Pauline Kael and her descendants have killed that word and made it synonymous with worthy and virtuous and good for you, which in turn are synonyms for boring and pleasureless and left-wing puritanical. Haneke's long tenure as a theater director brought him close to the highest moral aspirations of drama making. In brief, he has made a movie that makes you feel as if you yourself, living in the present moment, in a never-named first world country, are those very people on television enduring catastrophe. It is possible to feel, as a spectator whirling in a hypertrophic glut of trauma imagery--the stress disorder of a 24-hour news cycle--that Haneke has reinvented dramatic empathy itself. Time of the Wolf reawakens our moral selves in a way that only a great movie can.

We are shown a mother, father, daughter, and son. They enter a country house bearing food, water, and suitcases. Inside, a lower-class man with a rifle appears with his wife and baby. In a single image, in a few lines of dialogue, whole characters, relationships, the political landscape of an entire world, are drawn with a minimum of means. A death happens--and we are propelled in a direction that we couldn't have imagined. But here's the catch: We think that, at least, we will be given the stability of a cast of characters. Here's the anchor; here's the supporting cast; these are the walk-ons. But Haneke takes even this away from us. As the mother (Isabelle Huppert) is plunged into a wasteland of refugees, she grows more paralyzed and ineffective. She sort of drops by the wayside--as a lot of people do in this film, very literally. Haneke forces you to fend for yourself.

Near the end, Haneke stages an extraordinary image. The refugees must share a tiny portion of milk from a rather wan-looking goat that is held outside in the woods. An old man gives a very neat Tupperware bowl of milk to an ancient, ancient woman--a woman in her 90s. She raises it to her mouth to drink--everyone gets just a mouthful. But she drinks...and continues to drink...and drinks until there is none left for anyone. At that moment, the young woman next to me in the theater burst into tears. As her tears went on, the old man in the movie looked at the old woman with a kind of pitiless understanding. I, too, felt I understood--that the young woman beside me felt ashamed that she, too, would be so needy as to drink the milk. Haneke makes us look without flinching at the most undefended parts of ourselves. He is performing emergency repair work on our moral emotion. And he is gently instructing us that there is no shame in having to finish the bowl of milk.

 
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