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Michael Haneke’s Der Siebente Kontinent- Like a Slap in the Face
For me, Michael Haneke’s cinema debut Der Siebente Kontinent (1989), the first film of the trilogy depicting, together with Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), “emotional glaciation”, is one of the most disturbing and alarming dramas. It radically presents coldness and the loss of communication and leaves behind a deep perplexity and helplessness. The film, a contribution to “the cinema of existentialism”, focusses on humans’ actions and on objects and is based on a real event of a disintegrated Austrian family. It describes a typical weekday over the course of three years in the life of a middle-class nuclear family, one which consists of the maintenance and extention of professional, family and material standards, with the accompanying loss of liveliness. It is a film about despair and passivity that is born from the everyday life, about the seduction by the media and about loneliness of modern man and stimulates the viewer to think about his own existence. The family’s emotional rift begins to surface when the daughter feigns being blind and so the family members, being alienated from each other, start isolating themselves from the outer world, deconstruct their material identity by methodically destroying all their belongings and finally commit suicide. Through a mundane and simple mise-en-scène and Haneke’s methodical repetition of everyday jobs and tasks, his use of narrative omissions and fragmented episodes, we accompany a family through their tediousness and the emptiness of their life up till their death.
In three parts Haneke reconstructs a family’s daily routine as a series of mechanical movements repeating themselves throughout the year in almost identically structured episodic fragments. In the very first scene of the chronologically told story, the three main characters – father, mother and daughter – wait in oppressive silence and are inertly watching the rhythmic and mechanized motion of high-pressure washers, detergent sprays and rotating brushes as their car moves through the monotonous cleaning cycles of a car wash before passing a huge, idyllic and exotic tourist advertisement saying “Welcome to Australia”, a motif repeated occasionally during the film. This scene, creating an ambience of banality, is a prime example for one of the film’s ideas that modern life, being full of deadening paradigms of technological progress, is responsible for human’s extreme indifference and alludes to the fact that even the family is like a machine, one with no humanity.
“Destroy what destroys you” one could thus summarize the last tense chapter where the couple goes and gets all its money from the bank, Georg, the husband, quits his job and alludes in a letter to his parents that something sinister is about to happen. Eventually, the family wrecks the household goods with the same constricted meticulousness with which they lived their lives. This destruction scene, lasting about half an hour, marks the very climax of the film and also the beginning of the family’s self-destruction. We watch it with increasing horror and lack of understanding. The fact that there is only a relatively small number of climacteric moments in the sequences before – for example, when the mother’s brother suddenly starts crying and we only hear a bizarre mix of his sobbing and pop music of the 80s – underlines the family’s dull and unspectacular life. Yet, this life deteriorates from the moment on when the daughter Eva feigns her blindness, probably a cry for help that is not heard. And even when she finally cries aloud “No” when her father smashes her precious aquarium – one of the tenderest and most emotive scenes and also the revelation moment, where at least Anna, the mother, and Eva become aware that ending their lives will be painful – this cry is in vain since the self-destruction has now become irreversible.
The movie works because of its elliptic narrative and filming: We are never presented any psychological elucidation of the characters due to the impersonal narrative reflecting the impersonality of the family’s existence itself, and so we have to make our own interpretation of such scenes as Anna crying in the car wash and, of course, the family’s joint suicide and the reasons that cause it, because narratively it is left unexplained. Nevertheless, in each chapter we are provided with background information about the state of affairs. For example, we have statements from either Anna or Georg who are unemotional and lifeless and with a cliché-ridden eloquence reading out a letter in off to Georg’s parents. We are stimulated to think about the events by long, black scene transitions that, although they simply mark a significant temporal omission, also serve the purpose of stressing the repetitive character of the family’s existence. The few mythical, honey-yellow, silent chapter-breaks consisting of a dreamlike landscape empty of humans fill the frame and are like a visualisation of all the things that are unattainable for the family, the seventh continent. It is a continent unattainable even at the time of death when flashbacks – the only ones during the film – not of happy moments but of ritualistic actions like tapping numbers into the supermarket till, getting some gas and washing the vehicle in a car wash pass past Georg. In this last scene we are presented the escape of an apathetic and psychologically paralyzed family from the unbearable alienation from the world and from themselves. An escape where the empty picture of the television is present at, as if to celebrate the triumph of the technical world over human beings.
At the beginning of the movie, we get to know the family only by their movements since the camera focusses tightly on hands preparing food, eating and brushing teeth but avoids filming faces, which underlines the universality of these actions and also that the lives are performed as empty rituals. The camerawork is rather unconventional. The close-ups on ordinary objects such as an alarm clock, a fish tank or a doorknob create the impression that they are people’s “enemies” due to the odd viewpoint. For example, in a breakfast scene the camera remains static on a cornflakes’ bowl while the family eats and unemotionally talks, revealing that objects dominate the human’s world. Even when the family’s enlarged faces are shown – captured with no zoom or movement and thus remaining static which emphasizes that the family is similarly static – one gets the impression that they are also objectified because they show only very few human expressions. In fact, human contact with other human beings is replaced by contact with lifeless things. For instance, when Eva comes home from school she immediately switches on the television giving support and consolation and filling the silence inside her that her dysfunctional family is unable to fill. The family members stagnate in their eventless lives, which is underlined by the unorthodox editing – scenes are often cut off before they end or fade to black, stressing authenticity and immediacy – through which it becomes clear that the family’s life consists not of many splendid sequences after another but of disturbing and irritating moments, like in “real” life as well. Moreover, almost all of the scenes contain of exclusive interior shots in a limited number of settings, be it in the car, at workplace or school, in the supermarket or, in particular, in the family’s bedroom and kitchen. These shots convey the family’s stagnation and enclosure in their urban existence, consisting of labour and mechanical rituals, and also point out that life holds no challenge or interest for them but that they go merely through the motions of living.
Furthermore, the small number of exterior shots shows that the outer world is an ever-present menace for the family. Either it is an unpleasantly loud world, for example, when we hear pneumatic drill noises in front of Anna’s workplace, or a completely silent one, for example, when we do only hear Georg’s exaggeratedly loud footsteps while he is walking through the industrial environment in total isolation – an image of a man in the modern automation. The amplified sounds underline the family’s interior emptiness, because with nothing “happening” inside them they perceive exterior sounds much louder than they actually are, while the silence intensifies their existential loneliness. This alienation from the outer world is also emphasized with high angle shots. When Anna and Georg are in the supermarket, the camera looks down at the busy cashier which underscores the different worlds they live in. The alienation of the family members towards each other is emphasized by the use of colours – cool, neutral and desolately colourful – that underline and intensify the cold and indifferent relationship among them. Although Anna, for example, wears a gaudy yellow pullover and red shoes being like a façade for the outside world, we know that it is colourless inside her soul. The lighting has a similar effect of separating each individual from the other. It actually concentrates on each single person und thus underlines their isolation from one another. For instance, when the family sits in the car or when they sit on the bed just before their suicide, the lighting is very gloomy, pointing out that the family is unable to really see each other, while it is bright when Anna prepares the breakfast, conveying a faked glimmer of hope – the brightness almost offends the eye – that is highlighted by the radio playing in the background. The viewer, too, feels distanced from the characters on account of the stare of the camera often avoiding to film the face and thus to create empathy with the characters. Additionally, through long take master shots where the whole family can be seen at once – mostly in uncomfortable situations like just sitting in a car wash or at a dinner table – the family is also alienated from the viewer, because he or she is not close enough to the characters to be sure about their feelings.
Through such shots it is the viewer who takes the role of the editor, for she herself chooses which things in a particular scene are worth interpreting. In fact, interpreting is something we must do, because we have no establishing shots so that we are not provided with any explanation why Eva, for example, feigns her blindness and why her mother slaps her afterwards in the face. The audience involvement is thus much greater than in a typical, artificial Hollywood movie where everything is explicable in the end.
The distraction of television and radio programmes, the only two sources of the film’s music, are the only hope it seems. And yet this hope to flee from the world cannot be fulfilled. Rather, the television’s and radio’s music becomes an enemy depriving the family of their emotions towards each other. It is a so-called friend accompanying the family not only throughout their lives but also while dying. Indeed, throughout the film we are provided with symbols like water, the seventh continent and the sound of the horn of a ship. The water imagery, a symbol of purification but also of life, reflects the family’s effort to surpass the triviality of their existence. For instance, in the first part of the film when Georg takes a shower it is as if he tries to wash away the commuting in the outside world. Another image is the seventh continent, a place that is never defined throughout the film. One might interpret it as the family’s longing for something new and mysterious as the mystical chapter-breaks might suggest. However, actually the seventh continent is Antarctica, which is why it might simply represent a place that is as cold as the family’s emotions. Also, it might allude to wintertime in Antarctica where there is 24 hours of darkness, so that this symbol reflects the family’s interior darkness and the incapacity to perceive each other. Another symbol is the horn of a ship that appears several times during the film and that might allude to mythology, where a boat attended dead people to bring them to the other side of the shore, and thus to the empire of dead people. For example, when we hear the horn after Georg has destroyed Eva’s aquarium this could already foreshadow the family’s death. And this sound makes their death definite when we hear it for the last time shortly before Georg dies. Consequently, cleansing themselves by water does not work, but the family will till their death be captured in their emotional coldeness and ignorance, in the seventh continent.
Der Siebente Kontinent is an unsentimental description of a concrete situation in our world, and due to the presented suicide we might become still more aware of our own state of stagnation in our social, professional and family life. There are many questions that this film, “a calm chronicle of hell”, poses, not directly but in a very subtle way. It is a film that provides no solutions, but it is rather a means to find one’s own explanations for alienation, for emotional coldness and for distance towards each other. Indeed, we as the viewers participate in the final meaning of the film and are ultimately led to the revelation that living a life in apathy can lead us to emptiness, so that we might also end in a state of emotional coldness and eeking out a miserable existence. We must take care of ourselves but also of others, especially of those whom we love. Life may sometimes be hard and not worth living, but what is the sense of stagnation and giving up on oneself if we can still create a new concept of life? We were shown where alienation can lead one to. We heard the empty footsteps, the ringing bells and telephone and were surprised by their exaggerated loudness. We were shocked that Anna and Georg allowed themselves to kill their own daughter. We could hardly respire when we saw the fish laying on the floor and gasping for breath. And now it is up to us to avoid such an emptiness, where we do only hear exterior sounds and don’t listen to ourselves. This is what the film does: It shakes us out of our apathy.
- Quote paper
- Hanna M. Stoll (Author), 2005, Michael Haneke, Der Siebente Kontinent - Like a Slap in the Face, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/109896