Many people may look forward to a new film by Austrian director Michael Haneke, but it's arguable whether even his hardcore fans actually relish the prospect of seeing one. There's a consistently unforgiving quality to his diagnoses of the Western cultural malaise: his films have addressed the corroding effects of screen violence (Benny's Video, Funny Games), of consumerism (The Seventh Continent), even of fetishising the music of Bach and Schubert (The Piano Teacher). Now, in Time of the Wolf , Haneke evokes the imminent prospect of a Europe in post-apocalyptic social collapse. Little wonder that he's sometimes been accused of setting out to punish the viewer.
"Punish? Not at all!" laughs Haneke, a disarmingly genial figure whose booming laugh and salt-and-pepper beard suggest Santa Claus's beatnik brother. "When I go to see a film, I don't want to leave the cinema in the same way I entered it, otherwise it's a waste of time. I assume the same of my viewers, I take them seriously." Haneke has a reputation for artistic sobriety, and says he finds Hollywood product interesting only from a strictly sociological point of view. He is often depicted as a stern moralist, meting out social lessons in his films, but he insists he is interested not in imparting his own opinions, only in ambiguity. "People are used to seeing things that are totally rounded off, consumable - films that say everything and are immediately forgotten. I want to destabilise the viewer, and teaching a lesson is the last thing I want to do. If someone doesn't get me, they don't get me. That's not my problem."
Time of the Wolf seems a rather low-key film from a director who often specialises in dramatic extremes. Its ostensibly familiar scenario deals with the aftermath of an unspecified disaster, with a countryside filled with marauding loners, and impromptu social groupings huddling under the whip of self-appointed leaders. Haneke has been trying to make the film for 10 years; one reason it was finally funded, he says, is because September 11 suddenly made a film about catastrophe look like a viable venture.
"In films, catastrophes usually happen elsewhere - war in Iraq, hunger in Africa, never at home. This is a film made for wealthy countries. I wanted to see what would happen if tomorrow we had the same situation here that always exists in the Third World. Since September 11, it's easier for people to imagine catastrophes happening here. That's the 'news' element, in inverted commas." Haneke might not be out to punish us, but he certainly refuses to make things easy, even on a visual level. Much of Time of the Wolf takes place in heavy grey darkness, with its characters crouched in sheds or stumbling around in the thick of night. It's wonderfully perverse of him to muster a prestigious cast including Isabelle Huppert and Béatrice Dalle, and leave their faces barely visible for much of the film. (It will certainly make for an interesting technical challenge come the video release).
The darkness also makes for a rather unsettling conception of character. After casting Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, a film which took the heroine's depth psychology right down to entrail level, this time Haneke uses her as one of many sketchy figures in a landscape. "In everyday life," Haneke argues, "we know very little about other people. We meet them, we talk, but we don't really know about them. If you make a realistic film, that's the way to do it - we see fragments of other people and we have to read them in those terms." Everything, Haneke insists, is in the script, and working with actors, he never discusses those traditional standbys, psychology and backstory. "If ever an actor asks me about a character's biography, I say I don't know. You only see a small part of someone, but you have to have it precisely: how do I pick up this object, why now, and what do I do with it? If you're clear about that, it all works."
Haneke's work took a long time to become more widely known outside a restricted art-house circle, but increasingly his influence has been felt - not only in Austria, where there seems to be a post-Haneke school of fractured social grimness, but also beyond. This year, for example, Gus Van Sant made a striking comeback with his Elephant, in which assorted strands all lead up to a Columbine-style school shooting; it's hard to believe it wasn't influenced, indirectly at least, by Haneke's similarly structured 1994 film 71 Fragments for a Chronology of Chance, with its rather more unexpected climactic massacre.
Haneke laughs: "I've often seen films and thought, 'Wait a minute, I have the feeling I've seen this - or made this - already!' I don't mean people are imitating me, it's just that the same themes are in the air. Another composer independently invented the 12-tone system at the same time as Schoenberg. It was bound to be discovered."
Typically, Time of the Wolf ends with an enigmatic shot that leaves the film hanging tantalisingly in mid-air - at the Cannes press show, it was greeted with boos, presumably from people who didn't find the message "consumable" enough. "I'm amazed if people find it mystifying," Haneke says. "Some people think it's pessimistic, some see it as optimistic. That's exactly the sort of dialogue I want."
'Time of the Wolf' (15) is released on 17 OctoberReuse content