|cast: Dieter Berner, Birgit Doll, Leni Tanzer, and Udo Samel
director: Michael Haneke
90 minutes (18) 1989
|German-born auteur Michael Haneke has spent much of his career chronicling the lives of alienated, disenchanted people who have become emotionally detached from their own lives. In his first feature film, The Seventh Continent (aka: Der Siebente Kontinent) Haneke gives us a glimpse of the genuine despair and sense of isolation that lies at the heart of a modern industrialised society.
This simply shot film follows a simple path: outlining the normal, everyday life of a reasonably well-off family, and watching without flinching as things slowly fall apart. The layers of an average existence are built up carefully and in great detail: weekly trips to the carwash and supermarket, the father (Dieter Berner) dropping off his daughter (Leni Tanzer) every morning at school before going to his nameless job in a faceless concrete office block, the mother (Birgit Doll) working alongside her brother in the family business and sending letters to her in-laws. Haneke uses the camera as an observer, coldly documenting these banal lives. We are shown only parts of faces, walking legs, hands that operate cars, count money or prepare food, but rarely touch another person. Dialogue is minimal, and cold. Relationships are distant.
A black screen separates scenes; the editing is precise, but brutal. We are given the occasional glimpse of beauty in the repeated image of an empty beach, representing the ideal of a better life that no one is actually allowed to achieve. The pacing of the film is painfully slow, deliberate. Nothing really happens. Then, the cracks start to appear. The daughter pretends to be blind one day at school, and upon learning of this, instead of talking to her, asking what the underlying problem is, the mother simply slaps her face. A dinner party with the mother’s brother is stilted; his depression, brought on by the death of his mother, is almost ignored, treated as an embarrassment by everyone present. Still, nothing really happens.
By the time something does happen – something utterly hideous, yet painfully inevitable – we are inured to the ennui of the lives we are watching. And suddenly we realise that these lives are just like our own; and these people are simply having a horribly sane reaction to an insane world where everything is done for us; every process, action and thought is reduced to the level of formalised routine.
The Seventh Continent, then, makes for rather difficult viewing. For the most part Haneke’s detailing of the dull repetition of the family’s life becomes in fact dull and repetitive. If there is one main flaw here, it’s that we are not allowed to see inside the characters – but perhaps this is the point: that there is no longer anything inside them; modern life has hollowed them out, turning them – and us – into empty shells incapable of nothing but one final moment of extremity, a soundless scream into the void.
The Michael Haneke trilogy – The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance – is released as a DVD boxset by Tartan, on the 4th December 2006.