Okay I admit it. I didn’t watch the whole film. I left with twenty minutes still to go. But please – that twenty minutes would have felt like twenty hours such is the mind-numbingly gloomy tedium of this movie. Never has the idea of watching paint dry seemed so colourfully enticing. I once watched a 90-minute film all about an architect that had no dialogue, no action and just shots of the various buildings he had designed. It was a romp compared to this.
But then you see Haneke wants us to imagine how we would feel if we were stuck in the aftermath of some unspecified mega-catastrophe. Very, very bored is the obvious answer. Haneke commented about his wish to stick rigidly to hyper-realism: "everything which goes beyond the audience’s experience incites a rapid consideration of the story as simple entertainment and so they distance themselves from the film." Frankly, I couldn’t distance myself from this film quickly enough! Besides, there’s nothing "simple" about quality entertainment. Haneke goes on: "Those affected by the film are those who want to be." Is the fact that I have gone to see the film in the first place not evidence of this desire?
But perhaps I should just let the film speak for itself. It begins promisingly with a family turning up at their rustic holiday home in the woods. But an intruding family has already taken up residence in the house and that family’s father kills the other one. The wife and two children are forced to go off with only a bicycle in search of shelter. Like some latter-day Holy Family, they find no welcome anywhere and end up in a barn. This initial section is actually quite intriguing. What on earth has happened to the world? Nothing seems quite as it should be. The family turns a corner and is confronted with a vast pyre of burning cows, but nobody’s talking about BSE. In fact, no-one’s talking much at all. The mother, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) munches away at some morsel of food interminably. Her son, Ben (Lucas Biscombe) wears a very noisy anorak and sadly won’t sit still. He does disappear at one point and everyone screams "Benny! Benny!". The barn burns down but not to worry, Benny the Anorak is not in it, as The Boy (the excellent Hakim Teleb) has appeared from nowhere to keep an eye on him. Everyone is miserable and monosyllabic.
Finally, they end up at a railway station where lots of other people conglomerate to await a train that seems never to arrive. (If it had, by this point, I would have jumped in front of it!). It becomes clearer that some disaster has happened which involves lots of livestock dying, but not horses for some reason. Water is in short supply and a highly tradable commodity. Supplies struggle to get through from the cities. We are in the middle of the countryside but there is nothing arable to eat anywhere, even though the fields are still evidently well-cultivated. There seems to be little food around but nobody seems that hungry. People fight amongst themselves for food, status, recognition and of course everyone blames the foreigners. Virtually no-one smiles or cracks a joke. It must be like a Haneke script meeting.
Much of the film is shot in the dark at night or in the morning mist. It’s all very murky and almost impossible to tell who is doing what. The scenes at the station are all tonally grey – the walls, the clothes, the faces. The dreariness is total.
We are confronted daily with catastrophe news on our televisions. And yes, from my comfortable London viewpoint it’s hard to really identify with what is happening to people far away in distant lands. By setting his film clearly within the West, is Haneke trying to bring us closer to the reality of that experience? Perhaps. He certainly is attempting to show how we might react in those circumstances. But for me this attempt at verisimilitude misses the target. And the root of that failure is in its unremitting dullness. So, I’m left with a question. Everyone (especially nowadays) must have his or her own idea or perception of how life might be post-catastrophe. All those ideas will be different, some will be misguided, unrealistic or fanciful. But if your vision of the future is something as depressingly colourless as this, why on earth would you want to share it with the world through the medium of film?