Saturday, 1 June 2013

Monthly Film Challenge Part 3: The Seventh Continent (1989)

The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke

This month, we turn our attention to a film that is less formally innovative, but yet serves as a good introduction to a kind of discursive cinema that will return again and again in subsequent articles. The Seventh Continent attempts to have a conversation with its audience, asking them questions and suggesting answers rather than giving them. The film is in many ways a debate about the modern world, though one that is philosophical more than political. Many will disagree with the film’s suggestions yet the film is of value for its willingness to engage its audience, rather than merely sedate them with mild entertainment and easy answers.

The Seventh Continent is the feature film debut of Michael Haneke, the troubling and always controversial director of Hidden and The White Ribbon. This first film bears all the trademarks and preoccupations of Haneke’s later work alongside a deeply disturbing and challenging worldview. The Seventh Continent is the first part of Haneke's 'Trilogy of Glaciation', a term he was to regret, and is followed by the unconvincing Benny's Video and the repetitive 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.

Georg (Dieter Berner) and Anna (Birgit Doll) are a professional couple, each married to their careers and to the accoutrements of life. They are, as far as they know, content. The only thorn in their side is Evi (Leni Tanzer), their young daughter, who frequently pretends to be ill or blind as a form of rebellion from their cold and oppressive existence.

The film is divided into three parts, each following them through one day, one in 1987, one in 1988 and the last in 1989. Georg and Anna awaken to the sounds of the news, always another international incident, which they blithely ignore. While Georg dresses, Anna goes to wake Evi up for school. They all breakfast together before climbing into the same small car to be individually dropped off by Georg on his way to work. Anna writes a letter to Georg’s parents, detailing how fine they all are and how it looks like Georg might get that promotion after all. Back home, they have dinner and berate Evi about her latest outburst. Then they go to bed.

Their second day, in 1988, is almost identical, though the seeds of discontent appear to be growing. The third day, in 1989, details their desperate attempt to escape from the shackles of routine and consumption. However, the odds are staked against them and success, at best, appears unlikely.

In Part One, the critique is strong and convincing. By watching these people going through their everyday activities, it becomes painfully clear how tedious our lives can be. Part Two follows them in another day – one that could have been the exact same day as all the shots are similar and all the actions familiar. While this may sound almost impossibly dull, Haneke lends these events his usual intellectual weight. The shots are usually fixed, with the camera kept tight on it’s subject, so that the sight of Georg tying his shoelaces becomes a mediation on the nature of time, routine and obsession, rather than conveying character or space. As is always the case with Haneke, the passing of time is captured by extremely long takes, which may become tests of endurance to the uninitiated, but remain powerfully expressive nonetheless.

The fact that Haneke not only refuses to cut away from these activities but also shows them twice allows him to create something of a dialogue with the audience. Open-minded audience members are encouraged to engage with the film. By making us watch everyday details, by confronting us with the mundane without any of the usual comforts such as an exciting story or interesting characters, Haneke gives us the space to think about how we lead our lives. The Seventh Continent is certainly conversational, although it is one that is fiercely chaired by Haneke. It makes for a tough watch, and Haneke is certainly a malicious filmmaker, but the result is fascinating and persuasive.

With Part Three, Haneke gives us an alternative to deadening routine and capitalist consumption. Though Georg and Anna may appear content with their lot in Parts One and Two, Haneke uses quiet, ambiguous moments in which a dinner guest and later Anna burst into tears, without any apparent reason. It seems that though, on the surface, everything is fine, once the characters find a moment to reflect, they see things the way they really are. They realize what they have lost and how unimportant the things that have distracted them really are. Part Three shows Georg, Anna and Evi, locked up in their apartment, quietly resolved to sort their lives out. Intended as an attempt to escape, what they end up doing is destructive rather than constructive and it is pursued with the same deadening sense of repetition and routine that had made their lives previously so insufferable. Ultimately, desolation closes this profound and unsettling mediation on the way we lead our lives and the weight of a soulless, mechanized world.

Fascinating as it is, The Seventh Continent is not without its flaws. Many shots do go on too long, becoming merely a measure of Haneke’s own self-indulgence. Part Two is largely a repetition of Part One and somewhat labours the point. As in the majority of Haneke’s work, screens - televisions, computers, windows – are ever present, with the unhappy news of foreign lands constantly being ignored by Georg and Anna, uncaring precisely because they are trapped with their own problems. Though it is an important point, Haneke’s presentation of it may only diminish what is a vital critique.

The film also uses some awkward symbolism. Early in the film, Evi pretends to have suddenly become blind while at school. Though one of her teachers quickly outsmarts her, the metaphor is loud and clear. Evi may be pretending to be blind, but her parents actually are blind, only they don’t know it. As a result, the film is a little hectoring. Haneke would go on to make Funny Games, one of the most pompous and wrong-headed diatribes in cinema, so a touch of the polemic should always be expected with Haneke.

The Seventh Continent is a rumination, an artistic expression of malaise in which it’s characters approach freedom with the same deadening ritual with which they approached their dead-end lives. Critics of the film have suggested that it is merely an intellectual whinge without any real substance or message and that Georg and Anna should just get over it. However, the film was based on an actual case in which an Austrian family committed group suicide. The Seventh Continent plays as an examination of discontent, it is not, no matter how hard Haneke would like you to believe, real life – although it was initially based on an actual murder case in Austria. Not everyone can shrug off his or her problems and the film is committed to showing that the way we live is not necessarily for everyone. As a presentation of the vacuous routines and the inescapable entrapment of a modern, urban society, it remains a powerful work.

The Seventh Continent, despite its flaws, is an essential film for anyone who wants something more from their cinema. Not only will it make you question the way you live your life, it will also chip away at your preconceptions about what cinema is – art, essay or entertainment. Bearing in mind that, with Hidden and The White Ribbon, Haneke was to learn how to be subtle, The Seventh Continent shows an artist who is in the process of becoming the great filmmaker that he is today (that foolish shot-for-shot American remake of Funny Games notwithstanding) and is a valuable film on many levels.

So give it a go and tell us what you think.

Next month: F For Fake

The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke

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