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71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls

Michael Haneke

Austria / Germany, 1994

Credits

Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 21 September 2006

Source Kino Video DVD

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71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance contains the best and the worst of Michael Haneke. Following on from The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video, it’s the third and final film of his “trilogy of glaciation.” (Amusingly, in his interview with Serge Toubiana on this DVD, Haneke rather regrets how he came up with this “glaciation” title, fearing that it has boxed in and limited potential interpretations. But to be honest, Haneke’s original concepts and the underlying premises for all three films were fairly rigid and limiting in the first place.) The films of the trilogy offer a critique of Austria’s affluent, smug and complacent society, analyse a general breakdown in communication and understanding, and take the media (above all, television) to task for its role in desensitising the society in which it operates.

Like the earlier two films, 71 Fragments is based on a news item: in this case, about a 19-year-old student who for no apparent reason shot three customers in a bank and then killed himself. No surprise is kept in store about this denouement, for it’s announced to us in a title at the start of the film, and — in contrast to the first two films’ concentration on the family unit — Haneke uses this to depict what he himself describes as “a cross section of society.” So, we follow a number of unrelated characters over the course of a few days before Christmas: a young Romanian boy, an illegal immigrant, who is living on the street; a couple who are trying to establish a relationship with a potential foster child; a lonely old man who has a poor relationship with his bank-employee daughter and suffers from his lack of contact with his granddaughter; a security guard and his wife living out a dull, emotionless existence; and a student, training for a table-tennis competition, who buys a stolen gun…

The most striking and effective aspect to 71 Fragments is its formal structuralism, the rigour of its organization into 71 fragments of urban life, each one separated from the other by black. An image of this fragmentation occurs within the film itself, in the form of a game where paper shapes have to be formed into a cross—significantly, there’s a scene in the middle of the film where the student’s failure to complete this game leads to an outburst of anger. This not only hints at the frustration and rage that’s repressed within him but works as a precursor to his final act of violence at the end of the film.

These “fragments” are of varying lengths ranging from brief snatches of a few seconds to one long static shot lasting nine minutes. In the latter case, as well as with a three-minute shot of the student playing table tennis, it’s as if Haneke is being deliberately provocative, testing how much an audience can endure. The 9-minute shot, which shows the old man talking on the phone to his daughter, is unnecessarily long, but its very length gives us the time to truly empathise with the man, feel his psychological state, and understand his loneliness, misery, resentment, and his urgent need for human contact and affection; all this over a one-sided conversation that deals only in banalities.

The clear psychological interpretation that we can get from this shot/scene with the old man is not however to be obtained from the shorter but much more gruelling scene with the student. The single static set-up shows the student facing towards us, working with a machine that shoots balls at him. Again and again, he bats the balls away, with the occasional pause and at fractionally varying tempos, in a shot that feels something like three times its actual length. The student seems to be increasingly distressed by this experience, and we can read this scene as pointing to the unstable emotional/psychological state waiting to break through — as it will break through — his placid exterior. This image of the student is also an image of society at large, where a calm and ordered surface appearance barely hints at the repressed disorder within—a disorder which can find its expression in violence. And this scene offers further images of Haneke’s Austria: the mechanistic nature of modern society, and the dull and unvarying repetitiveness of everyday existence.

In spite of the deliberately disjointed nature of the “fragment” structure and the refusal to illuminate context or back story, the narrative threads that develop are clear and involving. In the character of the little foster child, Haneke reveals a delicacy of touch and emotional depth unseen in his earlier work. The little girl is wary and non-communicative, only briefly emerging from the hard, protective shell she has woven around herself, and making hard work for the couple that is considering fostering her. When she finally asks the official at her children’s home when she can move in, it’s a sign that for once in Haneke’s harsh world a connection, communication has been made.

In this context, the couple’s decision to take in the stray Romanian boy becomes a betrayal of her, although this is never overplayed by Haneke, he never takes us back to the young girl after that decision is made. But Haneke is questioning here the altruism behind the act of fostering a child — the couple do seem admirable in the efforts they make toward this difficult girl — pointing to the selfishness and solipsism that may lie behind it; and he’s also questioning the moral value and use of taking in the Romanian boy, merely on the basis of media exposure (not that the couple, the woman in particular, are not genuinely moved by his situation), when so many others are being ignored and neglected.

In the less prominent narrative strand concerning the security guard and his wife, there’s one scene of probing emotional depth and truth. In a single static shot of the two eating dinner we first see the husband mutter an “I love you” to his wife; the wife react with rancour and resentment; the husband, after a moment, suddenly strike his wife in the face; she make a movement to walk away and then settle back in her seat. This array of conflicting emotions — a move to emotional connection, resentment, misunderstanding, antagonism, violence, resignation — is worthy of Pialat in its unsettling complexity (although I’m sure Pialat would despise Haneke’s aesthetic and his overall cinematic project), and it’s all the more striking for how Haneke so rarely reaches this kind of emotional level.

But in the end 71 Fragments is a lot less original and insightful than Haneke seems to think. In particular, the inclusion of TV news broadcasts (reports on the war in the Balkans predominate) as a repeated structuring device is something of a cliché, overdone, and something that weakens the overall effect of the film. Now, I can certainly understand why an Austrian in the early nineties would want to draw the violence in ex-Yugoslavia into his world. The sight of an atavistic nationalism breaking out in the form of warfare, targeting of civilians, ethnic cleansing, and concentration camps within Europe itself couldn’t seem to a concerned Austrian anything but a horrifying return of all that his country had repressed. This repression is not only a historical one in the way that the events of the Balkan wars clearly echo the Nazi past, a past which Austria, unlike Germany, has never truly confronted. It is also a contemporary one. For Haneke the potential for this kind of violence lies within present-day Austria, and the “meaningless” act of violence with which the film concludes is an illustration of this.

But Haneke’s repeated use of TV news broadcasts in 71 Fragments is unsubtle and overplayed. True, it does allow him to make a point about media, when after the killings he repeats the news reports that had immediately preceded this scene, this time including an item on the killings themselves. It’s a demonstration of how the news media subsumes any disturbance to the even surface of society and integrates it into the unending stream of trivialising information (Michael Jackson and the Balkan wars are made equivalent). This is what truly makes the event meaningless.

Yet the film doesn’t need this media theme; in fact, it becomes something of a distraction. And the connection with the Balkans is made far more effectively — and subtly, of course — through the figure of the Romanian boy. (It seems that Haneke learned this himself, as he made this an important part of the later Code Unknown—which you can read as a kind of remake of, and definite improvement on, 71 Fragments.) It is a pity that this single-minded, sometimes banal obviousness has had to run side by side with the brilliance of other parts of the film, for it means that 71 Fragments, potentially the most interesting, in the end becomes the least successful of Haneke’s “Trilogy of Glaciation.”

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