We’ve come to a point in our study of the films of Michael Haneke where themes can be spotted and a lineage can be formed. The very reason I chose to explore Haneke’s films in a non-sequential order was to create a mystery of Haneke’s progression as a film-maker. Luckily for me he rarely repeats himself (the Funny Games remake aside). But that caveat notwithstanding, lurking beneath the plots of a lot of his work is how bourgeois life suppresses the human spirit. We saw it in Georges’ emotional restrain and secrecy in Hidden and in Professor Kohut’s sexual perversion in The Piano Teacher.
So before we move on to explore more of what have become known as modern classics, such as White Ribbon, I want to take you back to the beginning; to Haneke’s first feature-length film The Seventh Continent.
A director’s first feature often marks their greatest interest. Unless they are a son or daughter of a powerful studio producer they have had to battle earnestly for funding, and to convince a production house of both the script’s worth and their own directorial abilities. All for the chance to debut on the big screen. It could be argued, therefore, that a writer-director would pour more into this first feature than any other that followed.
The Seventh Continent follows the lives of one Austrian family playing out their existences without event. It is no terrible existence; Georg, the father, is successful in his job and has a beautiful wife and daughter. Anna (it is no coincidence that the names echo their corresponding characters in Hidden), his wife, is an optometrist at her brother’s business and although their daughter Evi is having trouble at school she is young and there’s no reason to believe she cannot overcome it. And so their abject demise comes as a surprise; it does not seem a fitting culmination of events.
With no suggestion that they believe in an afterlife, the family choose to commit collective suicide, chalking their deaths onto one wall in their home as they go; we are left to assume that they prefer nothingness over existence.
Although I have emphasised that their lives are not terrible, Haneke does explore the faceless monotony that guides their lives. The film begins with the family car crawling through a car wash and this image is returned to later – it symbolises their lives’ passage: the car is moving but they aren’t in control. There is a fluid but robotic homogeny to their days: their morning routine never varies, Georg and Anna’s sex life is perfunctory, they support one another with care but without love.
Yet monotony can be overcome through change. The image of a poster enticing people to emigrate to Australia looms large throughout the film. Displayed exclusively for the viewer it actually moves dreamily with waves gently washing a beach, and seems initially a viable alternative for the family to begin anew. But it is in fact a mediocre compromise: Haneke’s contention is that modern bourgeois life is so removed from the human spirit that even our idylls are lacking in soul.
Of the few responses to this film out there on the internet, almost all interpret the family’s lives as burdened by monotony; miserable and tragic as a consequence. But I can identify with them, as will you I am sure. They are defeated by the drill of bourgeois life and it frustrates them that their worth is measured by their place on an illusory career ladder or by the value of their possessions. It is unsurprising that most of us desire a life more simple and pure. But this is precisely Haneke’s point! These people are normal everyday city dwellers suffering the ills of the civilised (perhaps over-civilised) world. And if these people not only contemplate but go through with taking their lives then there is a reason for us all to be concerned.
Haneke constantly reminds us of the monetary cost of modern bourgeois life. He itemises each purchase to show us how we are trapped in this circle of earning to subsidise what we don’t need or could grow and make ourselves. Those of you who read our recent article on False Consciousness may find this familiar.
The family’s solution is radical but it is worth noting that this film is based on real events; for once Haneke’s trademark shocking moment is not of his own invention. The family’s unnerving behaviour is the consequence of their need to solve their issues. Earlier in the film Evi seeks her own resolution when she reads a newspaper clipping entitled ‘blind but no longer lonely’ and as a result pretends to be blind at school. And the event that foreruns their collective suicide is a coincidental encounter with a car crash on the side of the road on their journey home. ‘It must be an accident’ Anna remarks. But conviction is tellingly lacking. Georg and Anna are indubitably convinced of their fate. They are already symbolically dead: all that remains is systematically to destroy all that they have ever accumulated; crushing their possessions with a hammer, selling the car and flushing their money down the toilet. Their final ride through the car wash isn’t so familiar anymore. Anna begins to cry; it is as though they are inside their coffin on a crematorium’s conveyor belt.
The Seventh Continent is a film that I implore you watch once but not twice. Having watched it several times a feeling is growing in me that it would be rather satisfying to flush my money down the toilet, rip my clothes to shreds, and begin again. Somehow.