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Life, or something like it
Der siebente Kontinent
(The Seventh Continent, 1989)
Haneke's debut, a calm depiction of a Viennese family who form a suicide pact, is not easy viewing, but, as Adam Bingham argues, the film is optimistic in its refusal to console its audience.
Michael Haneke, it is safe to suggest, is the creative force behind one of the most coherent and challenging bodies of work in contemporary world cinema. His films have so consistently and intelligently explored notions of alienation and emotional nullification in modern life, the collapse of communication and the intrusive, desensitising nature of the media that Cineaste's Christopher Sharrett recently called him "One of cinema's important provocateurs" (a term Haneke himself corroborates by noting that his films are intended as a "slap in the face.")
This notoriety and acclaim, however, has been on the back of recent works such as Funny Games (1997) and La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001), and has, to my mind, never truly credited some of Haneke's earlier films with the importance they deserve. Chief among such pictures is his first feature, Die Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989)—one of the purest modernist texts since the height of Resnais and Antonioni, and perhaps the greatest contemporary contribution to what may be termed "the cinema of existentialism": the focus on the actions and morality of individuals in a seemingly empty universe found in the work of film-makers like Chantal Akerman, Gaspar Noé and the Krzysztof Kieœlowski of Dekalog (Decalogue, 1988). Die Siebente Kontinent's significane was recognised in Austria instantly and within two years of the film's release a collection of essays on this startling debut was published, a rare accolade for a new director.
In this film, Haneke creates an entirely original narrative syntax to convey directly the experiences of his characters' as their souls are ground down in the crushing vacuum of modern existence. And also to allow the viewer the space to make their own connections and to draw their own inferences and conclusions as to what the film means and, more crucially, how relevant it is. Shocking in both form and content, this is a film about utter despair born from the everyday, the mundane. As critic Michael Wilmington has termed it: "A calm chronicle of hell."
A life in three chapters
Der siebente Kontinent covers three years in the life and death of an average, everyday Austrian family. Nothing of any real consequence happens to them: the daughter, Eva (Leni Tanzer) feigns blindness at school, and a visit from the mother, Anna's (Birgit Doll) brother reawakens sadness over the death of her mother, but nothing extraordinary. They appear to be a normal, close family unit. That is, until they make the decision (we are told agonizingly, but see no real evidence of this) to take their own lives, which they do. The end.
The simplicity of the above synopsis is perfectly in keeping with the already noted calm, ordered surface of Die Siebente Kontinent, and its rigorous, unblinking focus on the minutiae of everyday life. Haneke, in a manner true to the aesthetic of art cinema as it was developed by Bergman, Antonioni et al, constructs his narrative loosely around scenes that would usually be elided (the characters' daily rituals) and manipulates the audience's understanding of conventional film form, technique and construction in order to draw attention to how they are commonly taken for granted in terms of their signification.
To this end, the structure of the film affords the clearest instance. Scene transitions in Die Siebente Kontinent are entirely punctuated by fades to black; a technique that usually connotes a significant temporal ellipsis but which here serves to connect actions taking place in a short space of time; even, with George and Anna at work and Eva at school, parallel actions.
The essence of this method is to suggest that a temporal ellipsis could well have taken place between the scenes we see of the daily lives of the three characters. The point is that their existence is such that they have very little difference or variety in their lives from day to day, year to year. And though the events depicted in the films first two chapters both take place in one day, there really could be any length of time between them (as is reinforced by the fact that we see two almost identical days a year apart for chapters one and two).
Even more than this, Haneke also de-personalizes the narrative for at least half of its almost two hours' running time. The early scenes of the family getting ready in the morning and going to work/school, the scenes of them going about their daily lives (repeated exactly in the second of the film's three chapters), are all presented in tight, isolating shots (often but not always close-ups) of the action that exclude the character's faces from the frame. Indeed, almost fifteen minutes go by before we see what any of them look like.
The connotations of such a stark style resonate throughout Die Siebente Kontinent and powerfully underline Haneke's central thematic of the emotional vacuity of modern life. The most obvious way in which this is achieved is in the impersonal narrative reflecting the impersonality of these characters' existence. By showing only shots of hands turning off alarm clocks, hands preparing food etc, the film very effectively states just how mechanically such tasks, the everyday tasks that make up these characters lives, are performed. And thus just how empty their lives really are.
This is intensified by Haneke's complete refusal of any psychological elucidation or insight into their particular states of mind. Behaviour like Anna's sudden breakdown into tears in the carwash in chapter two is left unexplained (narratively at least). And Eva's feigning of blindness, though cued in later by the newspaper article Anna finds in her bedroom about a young blind girl who overcame loneliness, is never explored here in the way a mainstream production would (by looking at why Eva is lonely and what can be done about it, besides family suicide, etc).
All of which creates an interesting dynamic whereby we, the viewers, are, one the hand, kept at a marked distance from the characters because we know so little about them and what their feelings are regarding the extraordinary events of which they partake (perhaps their inability to feel anything is the point, but the effect remains the same). And on the other, we are presented with the diegesis and thematic of the film in a much more direct, immediate way.
In other words, it is not that Haneke is trying to foreground any Brechtian concepts of construction and artificiality with this style: he has never, with the exception of Funny Games, been overtly interested in cinematic self-reflexivity. What is achieved is an extra-textual underlining of the theme of modern alienation, of modernist theorist Marshall Berman  or existentialist Martin Heidegger's  notion of the essential unknowability of anyone in the modern world. Just as there is a barrier between the characters within the film, so one exists between those characters and the audience.
This has been a cause of some concern for certain commentators, who presumably would like Haneke to spell out exactly what he wants to say so as to absolve them of delving too far into his nightmare scenario. Robin Wood, for instance, notes (in an otherwise intriguing and enlightening Cineaction article on La Pianiste) that it is not clear in Die Siebente Kontinent whether or not Haneke is condoning family suicide.
This, to my mind, misses the point entirely and significantly shores the film of much of its uniquely disturbing complexity into the bargain. As I mentioned previously, Haneke is not simply condoning or condemning the family's act, he is objectively presenting an extreme case in such a way that the audience are free to make what they will of it, to truly find their own thoughts and draw their own conclusions.
This is the ultimate, Kafkaesque project of Die Siebente Kontinent (an author Haneke has much in common with and indeed who he has adapted for television with Das Schloss, The Castle, in 1996). The central tone of Kafka's three, posthumously published novels, particularly Der Prozess (The Trial, 1925), is one of everyday reality tinged with dread and unease. And narratively they convey nightmare scenarios that remain elusive to both the protagonist and the reader.
Der Prozess opens in the following way: "Someone must have slandered Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning," and throughout, no further, concrete elucidation is forthcoming. The details of what, if anything, this bewildered, desperate protagonist (like his namesake K in Das Schloss) has done, as well as what his true feelings about his incarceration are, remain elusive, ambiguous at best. It is left to the reader to ultimately decide what his plight means or represents. Whether or not anything of significance can be read into it.
Such a method of narrative construction is also at the heart of Die Siebente Kontinent. Indeed, Haneke himself has remarked that: "I can lead a character in a story in such a way that the sum of his behaviour does not give sufficient explanation for his decisions. The audience will have to find one." To this, one may add Richard Roud's statement about Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959, a film comparable to Haneke's in its explicitly parametric narration), that: "We must make the connections; we participate in the final meaning of the film."
Images of alienation
One aspect of Haneke's films that has gone largely unexplored, even in the work that has garnered the most critical attention, is the great power and charge that his images reverberate with; the meaning that they carry in terms of mise en scène and the way in which this underlines and reinforces his films' central thematic. Die Siebente Kontinent, although a cinematic debut, abounds in such intelligence and depth.
The opening scenes set up the tone and theme in a wordless, synecdochic way reminiscent in effect of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samurai (The Samurai, 1967). After several extreme close-ups of the family car in the carwash, the film cuts inside and holds a long take (under the credits) from the back seat looking out of the front window as the family sit in silence. When the credits have rolled and the wash has finished, the car drives away past a huge, exotic tourist ad for Australia.
A scene of masterful expositional and thematic elucidation, this opening sketches in the notion of communication breakdown (to be explored subsequently in the way Anna and George can only write letters to George's parents about their lives and, indeed, their deaths). And it lays out both the dialectical style of the film's intrinsic norms—long-take master shots and more rapidly cut close-ups—and its particular manner of usage—to convey both fragmentation and stasis, the second-hand, television-induced acceleration of our experience of the world and the actual, first-hand aimlessness of contemporary, lived reality.
This opening segment in the car also provides another perfect microcosmic metaphor for the family: trapped in a car/cage, moving slowly, silently and mechanically through their lives and dreaming of an impossible escape. The obscure and enigmatic title of the film—Die Siebente Kontinent—can actually be seen as being born from this moment and from that particular image, as it recurs dreamlike at several strategic moments in the narrative, a perfect visualisation of all that is unattainable and unreachable (there are, of course, only six continents).
Aside from the billboard at the beginning, the next appearance of this landscape, filling the frame and replete with diegetic sounds and the aura of a dream, is immediately after Eva is first seen going to bed, saying her little prayer (Dear Lord make me meek so I in Heaven Thee shall meet) and going to sleep. And the final time it is seen is just before the family commit the deadly act itself at the end.
The context for these appearances, then, is that of dreaming and death: the only two viable, even possible escapes for the characters from the drudgery of their existence. The fact of its association with the prayer, with meeting the Lord in Heaven, neatly encapsulates both death (meeting God in the after-life) and dreaming (Eva is going to sleep), whilst the image before the suicide hints that the family may find in death what they so clearly could not in life.
Other moments in the film reinforce the theme of modernity and emptiness just as powerfully. At the very beginning of the second chapter, just before the daily routines witnessed in the first are seen almost identically once again, George and Anna are seen having sex. For a minute nothing seems out of the ordinary, but, as they finish, the alarm clock goes off for them to get up, and their act is shown up for what it is: something to kill the time. The most beautiful act of coming together that two human beings can engage in has been reduced to a meaningless exploit to alleviate boredom.
The most telling moment in the third chapter of the film in relation to the above is the reaction of Eva, who had previously embraced (though had perhaps little understood) her parents' activities, and indeed Anna Herself, when George smashes the family fish tank (another central synecdochic metaphor). In this, one of the film's two tender and emotive scenes, they both scream at George and burst uncontrollably into tears at the plight of the suffocating fish on the living room floor: a particularly apposite way of conveying the chaotic mental state they are in. And, again, the incomprehensibility of what they're doing (they care for the fish but not themselves).
The Sound of music
The music in Haneke's pictures is also something that has often been singled out for special consideration: from the classical/thrash dialectic that continually informs Funny Games to the centrality of Schubert's Winterreise to La Pianiste. Where it becomes, in the director's own words, "an instrument of repression."
Conversely, Die Siebente Kontinent uses Alban Berg's 1935 violin concerto To The Memory of an Angel (his final completed work) over the narrative's only other tender scene: Eva standing alone in a car lot whilst George sells the family car, not so much for thematic ends (although the angel behind the composition—Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler's widow Alma and her second husband, architect Walter Gropius—was a girl who died tragically young) but more for its strikingly mournful, elegiac tone and, typically for Berg, for its spare, haunting melody.
What is particularly interesting about this scene in terms of the music is that Berg's concerto is not clearly either diegetic or non-diegetic. In the soundtrack mix it certainly appears to be non-diegetic (the only such music in the film). But, on closer inspection, it can also be read as playing in the family car that George is selling, as it stops abruptly when the engine is turned on and the car taken for a test drive by the potential buyer.
The effect of this latent ambiguity is that the sense of Eva as lost, emotionally disoriented, is replicated and made manifest at the level of discourse, not un-like the mechanical repetitions of the earlier acts of the film. We feel not overwhelmed, as Eva doesn't (she is a child and does not, cannot, understand the enormity of what is happening), but rather that something implacable and inexplicable has been set in motion, something we can sense in the gut rather than being able to explain or elucidate on or, crucially, rationalise.
Point of view
This scene is also marked out by the use, one of the very few in the film, of a point-of-view (POV) shot and a traditional five point/two shot (of the character and what they are looking at) POV structure, as described by Edward Branigan in his exhaustive theory of point-of-view in the cinema published in Screen in 1975.
All of which together serves to single this short scene out as different from those around it: one where Haneke works towards a particular, specific viewer response. As Eva looks out through a large fence at night to watch a boat slowly passing, one is made aware of how imprisoned she is by all that is happening around her, how darkly claustrophobic it feels.
As the music strikes a melancholy refrain, Haneke draws us into the world and experience of Eva by using a slightly longer lens, closer than before to a telephoto (which compresses the planes of action and makes the image flatter), to present another visualisation of the shallow modern world and the lives of those within it: although this time we feel more than observe its devastation.
An optimistic realist
After saying all that I have about Haneke's exploration of the alienation inherent in the modern world, it might seem strange, even impossible, to conclude that this man sees himself (much like Heidegger did) as an optimist: someone who wants, as he says: "to shake people out of their apathy."
In Haneke's mind, though, this is exactly what an optimist does. Rather than making glib works that reassure and comfort the audience, that allow them dreams and escape (something that can be argued to be pessimistic in that, logically, it infers there is something to be escaped from—something these works won't confront), his films are concerned squarely with bleak reality.
What Haneke is doing, then, can, ultimately be construed as optimistic. Die Siebente Kontinent cannot be reduced to the mere level of a warning against allowing ones life to degenerate into a state of "emotional glaciation" and inertia, but this is part of why it can be taken as other than pessimistic. It is a film that sets out to challenge, to provoke, and so to wrest from its audience a sense of complacency about living in the modern world. If a particularly passive viewer is constructed by the mainstream Hollywood text, then Haneke is the antithesis. He seeks audience activity both by leaving the ultimate meaning of the film up to us, and by facilitating (by shaking us from our apathy) a sense where we might relate the very everyday reality presented for much of the film to our own lives. And how could we fail to find something positive from such a comparison.
Being and nothingness
Finally, it is worth considering the existential credentials of Die Siebente Kontinent, as there have been many claims for Haneke as a great existentialist film-maker. It is apt with this filmmaker to relate his work to philosophy and philosophical traditions as he studied the subject himself academically, and has consciously tried to translate and assimilate the work of several theorists into his own films.
Of the many schools of thought on the subject (no-one ever considers the multitude of existential theories in relation to film/literature, proceeding as if there is only one grand theory), the film is best seen in the light of two prominent 20th-century thinkers: Karl Jaspers and, as already stated, Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger's notion that we know beings (or "Dasein" as he terms them in his 1927 Sein und Zeit, Being and Time) only partially and in a single given situation is obviously a structuring principle for Die Siebente Kontinent, but the work of Jaspers, particularly Man In The Modern Age  would seem to be the most telling point of reference. In this work, Jaspers presents a diatribe against the disease of contemporary technological progress that has fostered an ignorance of the true nature of human existence. Philip Mairet sums up Jaspers argument thus:
The surrender of man's thinking to rationalism and of his artifice to technics have consequences which console man with the feeling that he is progressing, but make him neglect or deny fundamental forces of his inner life which are then turned into forces of destruction.
This could almost have been written with Haneke's film in mind. The film is full of deadening, stifling paradigms of technological progress: from the car wash (teasingly juxtaposed with the tourist ad) to the TV to the machines Anna, an optician, works with. Also, á la Antonioni (to whom Haneke has frequently been compared), there are several long and extreme long shots of George, an engineer, walking through the industrial environment of his workplace in total isolation, conjuring a powerful image of man the modern automaton.
This, as Jaspers suggests, then leads to despair and destruction. Their inner life and soul effectively killed, there is nothing for George and Anna to do but make this death outwardly, physically manifest, and strive to finally find the unfindable, reach the unreachable. And make one last journey in search of the elusive seventh continent.
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