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Reviews

The Seventh Continent

The Seventh Continent

Der Siebente Kontinent

Michael Haneke

Austria, 1989

Credits

Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 25 August 2006

Source Kino Video DVD

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What’s essential to Michael Haneke’s filmmaking practice is that he has a point-of-view (moral, intellectual) on the subjects of his films and that point-of-view is expressed visually, through what he decides to reveal to us within the shot and through where he decides to place the camera. That was paramount to the force of the final shot of his most recent film Caché, where what was at stake was not only the narrative content of the shot (picking out the presence of the two sons in the mass of students in this long-shot of a school exterior, working out why/how the two were meeting like this); but also confronting the physical status and source of this shot: Is this another video, or is it part of the film’s authorial narrative? Where is it being shot from? And, who is shooting it? (In the event, I don’t believe Haneke intends there to be answers to these questions, which, depending on your perspective, is either the strength or the weakness of Caché as a whole.)

The Seventh Continent is Haneke’s first feature film and shows his moral aesthetic as already fully formed. Haneke is concerned with the moral implications not only of what he shows us but of how he does that; of what is contained within the shot and what is excluded. In this film, this takes the form initially of showing us only fragments of the bodies of his characters, according these close-ups of hands, backs of heads, etc., the same status as the close-ups of objects, and vice versa.

This kind of approach has led some to talk of Haneke’s work as being non-psychological in the treatment of the characters in his narratives, but I think this is mistaken. Psychological readings of the Schobers, the protagonists of The Seventh Continent, are perfectly possible; it’s just that Haneke is offering a very cool if not cold, distanced, and rather objective view of his characters, where, in the High Modernist tradition, a certain ambiguity obtains, and the audience is never led to one clear interpretation of psychology and motivation.

Still, it’s true that we never really feel for the Schobers in the way that we do for the equally-alienated characters of Antonioni’s films (a primary influence on Haneke). It’s almost as if Haneke has taken the concluding sequence of L’Eclisse as his model, where individual human figures are of less importance than the overriding theme and the formal features of the filmmaking.

The story is simple in the extreme. Georg Schober, his wife Anna, and their eight-year-old daughter Eva are a characteristic middle-class family, characteristic in their absolute mundane banality. Little happens over the film’s three-year course as their everyday life ticks over with its regular routines, although tiny hints are offered of a more profound disjunction from the society in which they live—the fact that the voiceover letters from Georg to his parents are written by Anna, a sign of Georg’s own emotional shrivelling; Anna’s sudden weeping in the car, with no direct motivation and where Georg is incapable of consoling her; Eva’s pretense at being blind at school, leading Anna to slap her in a sudden outburst of dramatic violence. The film ends (the last third) with the family’s systematic destruction of their material possessions prior to their collective suicide, with their decision to take this course never being shown to us—what’s shown is simply the results of this decision.

There’s a certain reductiveness to Haneke’s thesis here, a predictability about the step-by-step depiction of the Schobers’ muted alienation from their world and about the way the narrative is played off against a repeated background stream of radio and television news reports (in the main violence in the Middle East and untranslated in the subtitles on Kino’s DVD). The opening sequence — as effective as it looks and works — is also something of a cliché, with its interior view of the Schobers’ car being taken through a car wash, its occupants isolated from one another as much as they are from the outside world. This is then contrasted with a tourist publicity poster for Australia, whose exoticism and promise of freedom and self-liberation rather obviously underline the numbing effect their society has on the Schobers; and this poster in animated, real-life form reoccurs throughout the film as a repeated motif.

But Haneke’s stroke of brilliance in The Seventh Continent is his visual “angle” on the Schobers. A good quarter-of-an-hour passes before he reveals their faces to us. Instead, we are given a series of tight close-ups on the objects of the Schobers’ everyday routine: alarm clock, door handle, the breakfast table, interior of the car, the supermarket till; and fragmented views of their bodies: a hand, an arm, the nape of a neck, the back of a head, a shoulder. It’s a strikingly effective way of enunciating the film’s theme, of emphasising the loneliness, isolation, sense of disjunction, and alienation of each family member.

In the long final section of the film, stately in its methodic inevitability, this fragmented style is used with full force. As the Schobers literally tear their apartment and its contents apart, we rarely see who is doing the destruction. Instead, Haneke’s camera holds on the hands or the tools that are doing the smashing, breaking, tearing, pounding—or, in the case of the banknotes, the flushing down the toilet.

But this climax of material and physical destruction offers no cathartic release, either for the audience or the participants. The elision of any explanatory scenes of the Schobers’ decision to commit suicide leaves the audience so to speak stranded at a distance, with a sense of disturbing ambiguity. This is particularly so in terms of the morally questionable coercion that seems to be exerted on Eva; and the cries of both Anna and Eva as Georg smashes the fish tank point to the sense of unredeeming desolation that the final suicides do nothing to placate. Where the final act of suicide in both lesser (Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet) and greater films (Mouchette, from another of Haneke’s models, Robert Bresson) will offer a climax of liberating release, the material destruction and deaths here provide no answer, but are merely another side to The Seventh Continent’s grim and forbidding interrogation of the hopeless state of bourgeois society.

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