A solid, uncompromising theatrical debut by Haneke, one that would see the auteur continue to shock and challenge audiences in different ways for the next two decades.
Dir. Michael Haneke
1989 | Austria | Drama | 108 mins | 1.66:1 | German, French & English
M18 (passed clean) for scene of intimacy and disturbing theme
Cast: Birgit Doll, Dieter Berner, Leni Tanzer
Plot: A European family planning on escaping to Australia, seem caught up in their daily routine, only troubled by minor incidents. However, behind their apparent calm and repetitive existence, they are actually planning something sinister.
Awards: Won Ernest Artaria Award & Nom. for Golden Leopard (Locarno); Official Selection (Cannes)
Source: Les Films du Losange
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Disintegration, Self-Destruction
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Alliance Francaise – Retrospective
First Published: 9 Mar 2018
It’s hard to believe that Michael Haneke made his theatrical debut at 47 years old, after more than a decade working in television.
His first proper feature, The Seventh Continent, is not just a stunning debut, and Austria’s official submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film that year (though it didn’t make the final cut), it is also a film that in retrospect embodies most of the hallmarks that would become Haneke’s modus operandi and thematic preoccupations.
His style, cold and precise, detached and disquietingly calm, is evident right from the opening credits in possibly one of the drabbest depictions of an automated car wash ever.
But that car wash with its occupants inside, which is repeated a couple of times in the film, shows us how lonely we are as human beings, even in a family unit.
We follow that family of three—father, mother and young daughter—as they awake, have breakfast, feed their pet fishes, go to school or work, buy groceries, return home, and call it a day.
Such a routinised way of life, and set in a larger modernising society of increasing technological reliance, the environment that Haneke subjects his characters to is no different today as it was in the late 1980s.
“Did you like the Mickey your uncle Alex brought you? He loves you very much. You know that? Me too. Do you feel alone sometimes? Do you love Dad and me?”
The repetitive nature of The Seventh Continent isn’t boring, though it could exhaust the uninitiated viewer. Haneke deals with it via frequent cuts to black and a short pause, before image and sound continue.
This technique while seemingly distracting at first, pays off as it regulates the film’s languid pace into a slow rhythm of humdrum that proves absorbing as it captures one moment, then another, then another, like a collage.
The masterstroke is breaking the entire film into three parts—1987, 1988 and 1989—so that we notice the subtle changes in the family even when the scenes are the same.
One could see it like a game, the cruel game of life as it were, like a Run Lola Run (1998) precursor, only that Haneke trades Tykwer’s sense of kineticism and purpose with sheer nihilism.
The performances in Haneke’s film are superb, and of course, the third act is now infamous—the less you know about it, the more shocking its impact will be.
The Seventh Continent is a solid, uncompromising work from a master filmmaker in the making. Isn’t the world a better place with Haneke around? His films over the next two decades truly make you wither like a flower in winter.