15 June, 2010

Movie Review: The Seventh Continent (1989) (Or: "Days of the Living Dead," a Michael Haneke Nightmare)

Without knowing it at the time, we spend the first sequence of Michael Haneke's Der Sebiente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent) in the eyes of Eva, a five-year-old girl who is the daughter of the two main characters, Anna and Georg. From the backseat of the family car,Eva watches the backs of her parents' motionless, silent heads as they ride the car through a mechanical car wash. A part of their routine, the complex innerworkings of the car wash, which regularly cleanses the dirt of the outside world off their little shell, no longer elicit any wonder, interest, or conversation. Indeed, little else does either. They remain silent, staring forward, passing through life from one spiritless routine to the next.

The inhuman, disinterested clockwork of the first segment follows through the first ten minutes of the film, with no human faces entering focus in the frame and scarcely a word of conversation. From an alarm clock radio comes a disembodied voice as from the bed march two voiceless bodies, the camera frame decapitating them as intense close-ups linger on their various rituals--washing up, tying shoes, preparing store-bought coffee with an electrical coffee pot, mindless motions of muscle memory. The car leaves the garage through the mechanical door and glare from the sun across the windshield blinds us from seeing into the family's mobile cocoon. Out in the world, Eva goes to school, Georg to work, and Anna to the grocery store. Pedestrians bustle in the distance, hurrying across the frame, their faces blurred. Georg hurries across his workplace and the grinding machinery across the factory floor is far more noticeable than any of the workers' faces. At the grocery store, we gaze at the pristine, identical manufactured goods filling the shelves and not any of the shoppers.

Throughout everything we hear the cold voiceover of Anna reading a letter she has written to Georg's mother--a letter filled with trivialities and empty words in which she describes the recent death of her own mother in terms of the stress that the unexpected event has burdened their otherwise structured lives with: planning a funeral, dividing up belongings, navigating the minutiae of inheritance law. She appends a post-script: Georg sends his love and is awfully sorry about not writing himself, but his life is much too busy.

Georg's main preoccupation is to advance his career, a drive that overworks him to prove his mettle for an advancement that can only come with the removal of his superior, an older man with failing health.

Ten minutes of normal people living their modern, successful lives pass, a long duration in film time, and not one face--the seat of emotion, the usual indicator of character, the most distinguishable and unique attribute of most people--is captured by the prying camera's eye. Not one meaningful interaction is witnessed. Only grocery store aisles, shoelaces, and traffic.

The first close-up is of five-year-old Eva, who frightfully explains to her worried teacher that she can no longer see. Has she been stricken with a brain aneurysm? Is she symbolically stating that she's already seen everything in her life--the car wash, the breakfast table, the traffic--hundreds of times before? Her teacher tests her, and she fails. She really can see. But why would a five-year-old invent such a disturbing lie?

On the heels of this close-up, this moment of personal contact, the film jumps into extreme, abnormal close-ups and a rather uncomfortable moment of intimate contact as Anna, an optometrist, examines the eyes of an older woman who is one of her patients, using retinoscopes, phoropters, and mechanical prods. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and as Anna prods and distorts the woman's eyes into monstrous shapes, we hear a story from the old woman that reveals the ugly landscape of her soul. As a teenager, she and her peers humiliated her best friend for one day showing up to the school wearing glasses. Still unrepentant decades later, the woman blames her own failing eyesight on an act of karmic witchcraft perpetrated by the degraded ex-friend. In a world where intimate friendships can suddenly sour and many personal encounters result in anger and misery, it's easy to see why many may choose to avoid getting to know others, to disconnect from situations that may result in physical or psychological harm, to remain sheltered and private. Not all human interactions, Haneke shows, are beneficial and inspiring. Even Anna, who later recounts the woman's anecdote with her brother and colleague to Georg and Eva at the dinner table that night, does not gain anything meaningful from the tale of betrayal; she uses the anecdote to mock the woman, an amusing bit of workplace gossip offered up and promptly forgotten.

Why trust your bosom buddy when her own vanity and insecurity can be used as a weapon against you? Why trust anyone when you yourself are untrustworthy and self-serving? When Anna learns about her daughter's prank at school that morning, she confronts the frightened young girl, who adamantly denies having pretended blindness. Anna insists upon the truth, promising the five-year-old that no harm will come to her for confessing, but as soon as Eva admits to the untruth, Anna ferociously slaps her. Will the impressionable child, betrayed by her own mother, ever trust anyone again, or will her relationships remain no deeper and no more dangerous than fleeing encounters with a grocery store cashier, whose fingers race across the register keypad with robotic precision and whose words and thoughts are limited to price tags? Is she destined for the emotionless life of an automaton, reciting memorized prayers at fixed times, filling up the car with gas when the meter runs low, and having passionless sex at regular intervals?

Amongst this parade of sterile environments, featureless humans, and well-rehearsed rituals arise several opportunities for meaningful contact as troubled individuals, swallowed by the impersonal society around them yet still struggling to breathe, deviate from the preset parameters, throwing out their flailing arms for a life preserver, a piece of driftwood, or a stable friend to hold onto. But Anna and Georg, skilled swimmers at peace in the ocean of inhumanity, know never to enter the grasp of a drowning man, who will frantically pull you down into the abyss in his desperate clutch before you can save him. When Anna's brother's thoughts turn to their recently deceased mother during dinner--a woman who once mused that we might all be a little more peaceful if we had "a monitor instead of a head to see our thoughts"--and he begins to weep, the family, listening to rather loud American pop music from the stereo rather than talking to each other, tries to ignore him and give him time for it to pass before Anna, rather uncomfortably, rises to place her hand on him. The crying abates without any need for discussion, and the family turns to a more acceptable activity: silently watching television. Better to be fed an image, a message, and a distraction than to try to make sense of the chaos inside ourselves. Better to have a television screen than a brain.

Later at work, in a segment that takes place about one year later after Georg has assumed the position of his older superior who has fallen temporarily sick (and hence unprofitable) and been forced into retirement, Georg has an opportunity to share insights with the man he has only ever seen as an obstacle and never has a fellow human being. When the former boss comes to retrieve his belongings only to learn that they have all been boxed up and shuffled off to some unknown storage facility, he lingers over Georg, yearning to speak. Maybe he wants to warn him that one day he too will become old and less productive and his cog will be easily replaced and forgotten. Maybe he has come face to face with death and has learned something about its purpose. Maybe he wants to explain what it's like to suddenly become unnecessary, or maybe he's just lonely and unoccupied and needs a friend to laugh with for a minute or two. Whatever it is we never learn, as Georg remains stone-faced and unreceptive. The boss exits and Georg returns to more important matters--namely, staring at a computer printout of endless numbers.

Most devastating, however, is the failed opportunity for connection between Anna and Eva. When Anna discovers a sentimental piece of journalism about a girl who loses her eyesight but gains dependable companions amongst Eva's belongings, she begins to suspect what may have motivated Eva's strange prank. Eva isn't some drowning stranger, but her own daughter and progeny, so Anna cautiously approaches her, asking her if she feels lonely or unloved. Eva rather unconvincingly denies this (maybe she's still reeling from being slapped earlier in the day for telling the truth), and Anna too quickly accepts her denial. Her daughter is learning to swim.

In the segment that comes a year later (the same year that Georg rejects his boss), little has changed. Georg is still too busy to write to his own parents. The television and the radio still substitute conversation. The same routines must be carried out ad infinitum. Driving home in the rain while listening to soft rock--the closed windows and the surround sound radio sheltering them from the elements, the traffic, and the outside world--the family passes a car accident and a covered corpse. Rushing to the car wash to cleanse themselves of this close contact with impure reality, the family finally reveals a shred of the humanity and mortality they once did and still do possess. Anna breaks down in tears. Georg, who feels nothing, says nothing. Anna cries harder, turning to the backseat (unlike in the opening segment) and grasping her daughter's hand, smelling it, squeezing it, tasting it, trying to perceive and connect with warm, loving flesh in any way possible. Eva does not withdraw, and eventually even Georg enters the group hug, coldly touching Anna's face with the back of his hand--a hard and cold spot on the body where there are few nerve endings.

Another year passes and despite the breakdown things are worse than ever. At dinner, Eva quickly eats cold, colorless corn flakes in an extreme, static close-up that reveals how little effort and love went into preparing and consuming the meal. Anna's uncontrollable brother no longer attends these now silent meals. In bed Eva hugs a stuffed animal rather than her mother, and in a long shot at a doctor's office waiting room, five people sit quietly waiting without speaking to each other more than salutations.

Georg finally writes to his parents, and the voiceover recitation of this letter contains perhaps more words than he speaks throughout the rest of the film, but the letter is a one-way monologue rather than an invitation to communication, a suicide note that can never be responded to because by the time it reaches his mother he and his family will be dead. The family runs through a checklist of removing themselves from society--withdrawing their money from the bank, excusing Eva from school, quitting their jobs, and selling their car--and they do this under the guise of moving to Australia. The implication is that Australia is the seventh continent of the title, but Australia is more properly the sixth continent. Antarctica is the seventh continent, a frozen, silent wasteland unfit for human survival. Georg and Anna, as frigid, fixed, and speechless as glaciers, are true Antarcticans, and it is to a frozen, barren hell that they prepare to disembark.

Even in death they are "systematic" and emotionally uninvested. Materialistic, they destroy the belongings that mean so much to them prior to destroying their physical selves--dismantling furniture, smashing electronics, ripping clothing, shredding books, records, papers, and photographs, cracking mirrors, and crushing clocks. In a society where the dress shirts you wear mean more than the body that they clothe, it is no longer sufficient to suicide to merely kill the body. One must also murder the accessories, and this murder is done with the same rigid, mechanical organization as all their other routines. As pristine as their actions are their emotions, which remain sterile throughout the complete disintegration of their lives. They do not discuss fears, regrets, or nostalgia. They do not discuss anything at all. When the phone rings, they dismantle it, and when the doorbell rings, they mute the doorbell. Only when Georg kills Eva's pet fish by smashing the aquarium with a sledge hammer do they exchange a few words, but at this point a few words cannot melt the icicles that have crystallized and hardened their souls.

They flush their cash, they have their last silent meal, and they drink poison while watching American pop music videos (ironically, "The Power of Love") on television--the one possession too important to destroy. Eva says her prayers and dies. Anna faces a death as messy as any life should be, though she tried so hard to keep it clean. And Georg, at last as literally alone as he has always metaphorically been, slips into unconsciousness while staring at television static. The chaotic static is a monitor that reveals the thoughts in his head, glimpses of all the people he could have interacted with but never did, all the moments that could have been meaningful but never were--the gas station attendant he could have chatted with, the brother-in-law he could've consoled, the retired boss he could have listened to, the strange dream he could've shared, the daughter he could have learned from, the wife he could've loved.

But these regrets are at best hunches, like flashes of inspiration that come to one in a dream but slip away in intangible threads when light strikes the eyes. In a society where dependence on humans and social interaction is not necessary and is sometimes detrimental to survival, where people work together but separately, always replaceable, and never deviating too far from the normal and productive center, Georg has never learned the language of emotion. These frantic impulses can no more be acted upon than a dream about flying.

Fear of death, of mess, of rejection, of heartache, of loneliness, of meaningless, and of failure forces us to dehumanize ourselves. If we latch on to a world of tangible, permanent objects, if we hoard these objects and make them an important, definitive part of who we are, then we can survive through their permanence much longer than one hundred and twenty years. If we keep them clean and well-polished, our lives can stay clean. If we dutifully fulfill the same obligations and behaviors every day, we can erase our sense of time and by erasing time we can erase our feeling that time is running out. If what we do today is the same as what we did yesterday and what we did the day before and what we will do tomorrow and the day after, then we can imagine that we are timeless, that we will always be able to do these things. If we keep ourselves constantly distracted with these routines and with television and with work, then we need never think about death or despair. People die and force us to think about our own eventual demise; even though we knew them day after day, eventually they ceased to be and so will we. Best not to have people in our lives. Best to keep our noses as close to grindstone as possible, lest the view from above be too terrifying and unfathomable.

Michael Haneke presents a portrait of life in our times that is prophetic and disturbing. With a methodical and exacting eye, he shows that our attempts to prolong life by not living too fully has made life nearly an extension of death. The actions of the family in the third act remind me of people preserving their own tombs and preparing their own bodies for purification and mummification, like a newborn infant crawling into a jar of formaldehyde to stave off decay. Decay, messiness, pain, and death are the price of action, meaning, love, and life. Better to burn brightly and briefly than never to light the flame at all. Through his brutal examination of emotional frigidity, meaningless existence, and alienation, Haneke exorts us all to reenter the realm of the living.

Der Siebente Kontinent isn't on the TSPDT? list of the greatest movies of all time. In fact, none of Haneke's films are. But this one, at least, certainly should be.

Der Siebente Kontinent (1989)
d: Michael Haneke w: Michael Haneke, Johanna Teicht
(Birgit Doll, Dieter Berner, Leni Tanzer)


Anonymous said...

thank you. I've been struggling with my emotions and impressions after watching this film, your analysis has been truly helpful.


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