“I’ve left the world behind
I’m safe here in my mind
I’m free to speak with my own kind
This is my life, this is my life
I’ll decide not you
Keep the world with all its sin
It’s not fit for living in.”
-Judas Priest, “Beyond the Realms of Death”
“Controversial” and “provocative” are adjectives that best describe Michael Haneke. Unlike some who only strive to entertain, the Austrian born director finds ways to challenge us. The barrier separating a film from its audience has existed since the earliest days if celluloid. As a spectator, we assume the role of voyeur, allowing a world far removed from our own to play out in front of us. We can escape. We can face our deepest fears and indulge in our wildest fantasies. Yes, that barrier has always existed, except with Haneke. The relationship he forges with his audience is one of deconstruction. By eradicating these boundaries, we find ourselves completely immersed within the narrative. He wants us to think. He encourages us to come to our own conclusions based on the material he presents us with.
This relationship is nowhere more visible than in Funny Games (1997). The scenario of a home invasion is turned into a macabre spectacle, one that eradicates our expectations entirely. At one moment in particular, an assailant breaks the fourth wall, taunting the audience that they expect a positive resolution. More than that, we are made complicit with the psychological and physical torture the victims are made to endure. Personally, I think anyone who claims to like horror needs to experience this film at least once. For all the times one has witnessed manufactured violence, you’ll feel the filth grow upon you for participating.
Haneke’s debut feature, Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent,1989), is no less provocative. Like many of his films, it’s a work open to interpretation. My duty as a writer is reporting my experience objectively and honestly. In dealing with anything remotely abstract, there’s bound to be more than one conclusion. After all, if you ask six different people about Eraserhead (1977), you’ll get six different answers. Take my hand, friendly reader. Together we shall gaze into the wretchedness of society and confront something within ourselves.
Before we examine the film, something needs to be addressed. I’ve come to loathe inept terms in criticism such as “dated” and “good for its time.” More often than not, they come from people who are illiterate when it comes to describing film as an art form. There’s a difference between those vapid phrases and exploring how a film reflects the time period in which it was released. In the case of The Seventh Continent, it arrived at the tail end of a decade fueled by selfish excess. Going against the grain as it were, Haneke paints a portrait of life in the 1980’s as a tedious marathon of forced consumerism.
The characters in the story are recognizable to anyone. Georg (Dieter Berner) and Anna (Birgit Doll), a middle-class working couple and their young daughter Evi (Leni Tanzer), seem to be the picturesque family unit. They’re the ones who live next door to us. Possibly belonging to our coworker who we make small talk with. The first images of the film that we’re confronted with seem rather ordinary. Georg driving through a carwash isn’t exactly what one expects from a provocateur. Upon closer examination, this establishes tedium. He’s confined to a situation that moves at a dreadfully slow pace. It brings to mind the opening In Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), where the main protagonist being stuck in his car illustrated isolation and a need to escape reality. As Georg departs from the carwash, he passes a poster advertising Australia as a travel destination. This will come to represent escape for Georg and his family from the mundane.
The Seventh Continent is built upon a narrative that separates each act by year. (1987,1988, and 1989 respectively.) As 1987 begins, it’s not so much the events that occur but the method in which they’re presented. The monotony of middle-class existence with its tiresome routines are displayed in succession. Brushing teeth, brewing coffee, feeding pet fish, driving out of a garage, arriving at work, they’re all so droll and tedious. Shot in close up with unbroken takes, the boredom that comes from them is vividly expressed. Even at the supermarket, the cashiers’ slow conveyer belt displays the tired existence of the middle-class consumer. Harsh and abrupt edits which space some of the scenes out from one another mimic the transition of night and day. If we take anything away from this, it’s the feeling that this is perpetual process, much like that of an assembly line.
Aside from their daily lives being dominated by routine, Haneke is rather subtle in the way he depicts the family in regards to their mental state. This part of the film requires some inference on the part of the viewer. With Evi acting up in school by pretending to be blind, we have a slight glimpse as to what her upbringing might be like. A trait sometimes associated with a neglected child is acting out for attention. Coinciding with this is George refusing to write his parents, leaving the responsibility to Anna. This provides narration to the audience regarding the details of their personal life. We can almost assume that there’s a cycle of neglect or abuse being passed down from parent to child. Considering how much repetition is used throughout the film, it’s something that’s almost impossible to ignore.
1988 begins. The Monotony continues. Anna once again writes Georg’s parents. Despite receiving a promotion at work, little appears different. The family continues their slow, methodical routines. Although I hate to use such an overused expression, this is the perfect example of “money not buying happiness.” Much like the fish tank which sits in their living room, they find themselves trapped, completely isolated in a world where their entire purpose is controlled by materialism. A possible escape from this ordeal is alluded to then the family witnesses a car wreck as they travel in the rain. The scene of them looking upon the carnage is eerily similar to the Georg in the carwash, with the water cascading down in front of their view. The sequence of the carwash from the beginning of the film repeats itself. With the whole family present in the car, it establishes their collective state of hopelessness.
At last, we enter 1989. The beginning of a grand deception is in the works. The family begin what we assume are the final preparations before departing for Australia. They all appear to coincide with someone emigrating. The car is sold, money is withdrawn from the bank, Georg and Anna both leave their respective occupations, and Evi is pulled from school. As George’s voice narrates a letter written to his parents, describing how they’re taking their daughter with them, a subtle thought slowly creeps into our mind. The previous letters have been written by Anna. Why the sudden change? It could possibly represent someone finally addressing their abuser. Considering what lies in store for the audience, this letter ultimately takes the form of last rites.
There’s no denying that the final act is both disturbing and provocative. t’s here where Haneke declares his contempt regarding the materialism of the decade. The long takes and closeups of the family’s middle-class toil return. This time they’re utilized to depict deconstruction. They go about destroying their possessions. Records, clothes, even Evi’s drawings are decimated and cut to pieces. It’s rather easy to see that this act is the emancipation of being ruled by material possessions. This is most apparent when Georg smashes the aquarium, epitomizing the liberation from confinement. Water cascades like the carwash and rainstorm from earlier in the film, while Evi agonizes over the death of the fish inside.
Haneke famously predicted that audiences would be most shocked when the family flush their money down the toilet. He was right. If this proves anything, it’s the apathetic side of human nature and the gross realization of the greed that permeates it. As we slowly come to the fact that this family is intent on taking their own lives, we reflect on the events leading up to this. We wonder about the lengths they’ve gone to. This is easily the most provocative aspect of The Seventh Continent. In a film where we’ve had to make our own conclusions from the start, we attempt to fully understand this spectacle. One of the final moments of the family before ingesting poison is them sitting in front of a television, destroyed property all around them. The polished pop music video playing before them contrasts almost too well with the bleakness of their situation. If I take away anything form this moment, it’s a matter of perception versus reality. What the decade presented itself as, versus the reality of excess gone awry.
In the thirty years since Haneke shocked audiences and provoked thought, it’s astounding how little the world has changed. The Seventh Continent retains these aspects all of these years later. The next time you see a family together, smiling and projecting an image of contentment. When you look at the nice house and material gains of your neighbor, just remember you’re only seeing what’s on the surface. Perhaps, what you’re really observing are the walls of an elaborate prison. Beneath that exterior, there just might be someone striving to escape to their own seventh continent…whatever it might be.