The following article was published in N-SPHERE March 2011 issue.


How can we be aware of what we desire or feel, when our world is manipulated at a more or less subconscious level by the media? In the introduction of the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek defines cinema as the most perverted form of art, on account of its ability to tell you how to desire. Thus, the human being becomes false and artificial. In this context we should ask ourselves if there’s any reason to continue our existence in an emotional inertia.

In an attempt to give an answer to this question, the Austrian director Michael Haneke helps us. He graduated from the University of Vienna, where he studied philosophy, psychology and drama. After that he started his career as a film critic and television director. The world described in his movies is often sad and desolate, demystifying the real world. In an interview, he stated “images should not be manipulated in any way, revealing the tricks used to increase the drama”. One of his most famous films is Funny Games, in which he is raising the issue of violence used in computer games and its effects on children. The movie becomes a clear example of gratuitous violence.

Michael Haneke was rewarded for his productions at Cannes Festival for the film version of the book The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, and the Golden Globe in 2009 for the best foreign movie with The White Ribbon.

In 1989, Haneke opens his bleak universe with the movie Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent). This is an inquiry into what inertia means for everyday life. Inspired by a newspaper article that reported the mass suicide of a family, Haneke tries to recreate the last three year of their lives. He creates a certain framework of the story, thus provoking the viewer to gather details, the broken pieces of their world, leaving the interpretation up to the spectator. Not giving an explanation for his characters’ actions, he focuses on cause rather than effect. Haneke manipulates the camera as a surgical knife, which uncovers the damages made by society at a personal level. In this aesthetic simplicity we can see the influence of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

The first frame of the film introduces the characters by using a close-up of the car number, a matter that includes them in a register. Due to this fact, they can be identified by numbers not by features. After the introduction, the image of the family is constructed like a puzzle by observation, analysis or dissection of their daily domestic rituals. Although we can watch their intimate actions, we are still unable to see the faces. The first character revealed to the viewer is the wife, Anna. She is observed while preparing breakfast. The other figures portrayed, Georg – the husband and Eva – the daughter are shaped in the social context in which they operate. To this extent we can see how Haneke gives a visual identity to his characters placing them in the schizophrenic society that forces them to act through a set of rhythmic gestures. The feeling conveyed to the viewer through close-ups, suggests an individuality harmed by society.

Communication is not made through direct dialogue, and, if it exists, it is laconic. Likewise, the figures of the characters are empty, using this lack of expressiveness to convert them into objects. The only emotion present is caused by death. The first character depicted in this situation is Anna’s brother. His affective memory is activated by a song heard on the radio that reminds him of their mother’s death. The end of this sequence shows him in front of the TV, along with his family, looking very calm. So we can see how a television show can repress even strong emotions.

The last part of the movie suggests one escape route. The last 30 minutes of the movie depict the mass destruction of their material items, before committing suicide. We can be tempted to say that this is a fortunate case of a bourgeois family, that realizes its limited views, and does something about it. Protecting themselves with gloves or goggles following the same rhythmic gestures, each object is destroyed one at a time. In this context we are witnessing another metaphor. Eve has a nervous breakdown when she sees her father destroying the fish tank. This reaction could be triggered by two factors. First of all it could be the fact that she doesn’t care about what they are doing as long as living beings are not involved. And second of all that fish tank could be the symbol of their family and its destruction would suggest that there is no escape, and life is meaningless.

As a personal note, my favorite moment and the most intense part of the movie is the final scene. After they commit suicide we can see them laying on the bed in front of the TV, showing only static. This is quite interesting because this electromagnetic noise might be perceived as containing particles emitted during the Big Bang. We could see it as an irony: combing the media with the primordial source of energy makes the suicide in vain, making the alienation of the society through television a normal state of mind/existence.

In the end, I would like to draw attention on the philosophical aspects that Haneke uses for this movie. He is recognized as one of the contributors to the “cinema of existentialism” among Chantal Akerman, Gaspar Noé and the Krzysztof Kieślowski. The most influential thinkers that we find in the work of Michael Haneke are Martin Haidegger and Karl Jaspers. The latter one is constructing his philosophy around the idea of how man is losing himself in the technological progress, which is making him more plastic and conducting him to self destruction. All in all, we can see that Michael Haneke allows a release of emotions only in the context of death, which makes us wonder: what if death is the only thing that makes us human in a postmodern society?

Movie still: Der siebente Kontinent.

by Ioana Stan

Full article here.