Canon Entry - The Seventh Continent (1989)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Michael Haneke has always been a filmmaker I have had trouble with. Not for the opaqueness of his films, which I have heard as a criticism. In fact, I find Haneke a very blunt filmmaker, as in, as deep as his films might be, you could make the point of his films in one sentence. Funny Games - people are sick voyeurs. Cache - people are sick voyeurs. Amour - real love means ugliness, loneliness, and pain. White Ribbon - the more morally upright a society is, the sicker it is at its core. This bluntness is not necessarily a bad thing, but I have more of an issue with the other, more common perception of Haneke - his coldness and condescending view of humanity. Other than Amour, all of these films have very cynical outlooks on humanity.
I went in with these preconceptions when approaching this film that I otherwise knew nothing about. It would have been better if I had gone in as a blank slate altogether. This much I can safely tell to anyone watching this film for the first time. The film focuses on a very bourgeois, comfortable Austrian family. Georg (Dieter Berner) is an engineer and his wife Anna (Birgit Doll) is an optician. They have a young daughter (Leni Tanzer). They are the most picture perfect, white bread family possible. Most of the film focuses on some of their more mundane activities, such as getting their car washed, preparing meals, watching television, etc. Occasionally either Georg or Anna reads letters to their families over scenes of some of their tasks and chores.
And that’s as far as you should know if you want to feel the maximum impact of this film. Many movies are not ruined by spoilers because so many directors make it clear what kind of stories they’re telling. But I think Haneke does a great job of not tipping his hand at all, and I want to honor that restraint, even though I do not think that this film is irrevocably ruined by spoilers,.One of the few times I actually yelled out loud at a film was in Michael Haneke’s Cache, and while this film did not make me yell, the slow burn towards realization was well-executed.
Haneke’s intense focus on the mundanity of this family’s activities gives us a hint as to the direction it will take. We see a family that is slave to its habits and lifestyle. While the family may be wealthy, they are trapped by their circumstances in a cocoon of privilege. A sex scene between the two is about as boring as you would expect from a bourgeois straight couple (missionary all the way). They are even both covered by a blanket, as if to protect them from the people who absolutely do not care that these people are having uninteresting sex.
Haneke litters the film with signs of their discontent. A bored sigh here, a meaningless conversation there, their eyes slowly losing fire as they gain yet even more material success. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious boor, I have had a complicated relationship with the culture of materialism that permeates every modernized society. I don’t think a lot of films quite capture this attitude, except for two films. The first is the scene in The Bling Ring of the teenagers breaking into Paris Hilton’s home and seeing her (actual) closet stuffed absolutely to the brim with designer clothing and purses. While some people might have envied this particular lifestyle, I thought Sofia Coppola brilliantly framed this scene that you could feel disgusted to the core at the sheer excess like I did. The second would have to be this film. While my reaction to Coppola’s film was more visceral (a word I never would have thought to ascribe to her filmmaking), Haneke slowly builds to a queasy disgust at the sheer amount of crap (no other word fits) the family has surrounded themselves with.
I feel I understand Haneke much better when I understand his influences, such as the still relevant Chantal Akerman (whom Coppola was inspired by as well). Superficially they share a lot in common. Long takes that focus on mundane subject matter. Very little direct exposition. The use of voiceover, which is strongly reminiscent of Akerman films such as Je, Tu, Il, Elle and News from Home.
An important way in which they differ is the way that they view their subjects. Akerman is far more opaque and deliberate than Haneke. Akerman presents images with minimal comment, although even she cannot entirely escape subjectivity. She loves to linger on the human body and the different roles that it plays within different environments. Haneke, on the other hand, deliberately dehumanizes his characters, reducing them to processes. When we see the massive act of destruction at the end of the film, Haneke focuses on the objects themselves and sometimes the hands of the destroyers. As Haneke mentioned himself, he wanted the audience to see that the way that these people destroy is the same as the way they create - boring, methodical, uninspired. Even their act of rebellion is not that creative, which is an interesting perspective to take since most people who knew the real-life family probably would have thought quite the opposite - that this was a cry of desperation, or, as the surviving family thought, murder.
Haneke is a director of horror. His work shares a lot in common with horror: slow build-up, nameless, unfightable terror, a deeply nihilistic view of humanity. I still think he tends toward the provocative rather than the truly incisive, but I also realize his value in that by putting us in his point of view, he forces us to examine our assumptions about our security, morality and mortality and realize how tenuous they are. Even from this first feature, it was clear that his work would always be an antidote for complacency.