After many years directing films for television, Funny Games director, Michael Haneke, made his debut with what is the first in the trilogy of his “emotional glaciation” films. 1989’s The Seventh Continent makes stylistically and thematically explicit the nature of his filmmaking in what is a work which, as you can glean from the trilogy linkage, a bleak and haunting piece. This “based on a true story” film places a family as the subject of a subdued and paradoxically pointed social commentary drama, where the mundanity of modern life proves insufferable as the film breaks to be a familial and societal horror story.
Husband Georg (Dieter Berner), wife Anna (Birgit Doll) and daughter Eva (Leni Tanzer) are the family unit living a middle-class existence in suburban Austria. Their lives are that of conformity, aided by the usual trappings of modern living. The parents both work and Eva goes to school. They rise to the sound of the alarm clock at 6 each morning, ready for another day. Dressed and breakfasted, they each unquestioningly attend their respective institutions. They wash their car, go to the supermarket, listen to the radio, watch TV, the parents have sex. Eva, though, feigns blindness in a move which proves an eye-opener for the mother, an indication that you only have to scratch at the wipe-clean surface to reveal the stench of disaffection. Maybe a move to Australia is what the family needs.
Similarly to American Beauty, Haneke’s own tale of existential alienation sees the introverted vacuousness lead to a shock conclusion. Though the drama of cultural disaffection is played to like effect, The Seventh Continent is vastly different from the Sam Mendes film which came a decade later. There isn’t the gloss, plot or characterisation to Haneke’s film. Strangely, we barely know this combusting family, though we bear witness to a very personal destruction. The social displacement experienced by them is conveyed with a stark voyeurism which feels conversely both uncomfortably open but also detached. It is almost with gratitude that we receive this detached status as Haneke works away toward a conclusion that leaves you feeling emotionally winded. Those who cannot abide an unhappy ending will not be catered for here, as the plan for emigration to Australia is confounded by a turn which gives an emotional punch of such severity that it almost feels below the belt.
Bluntly put, this is a very depressing film, though one which rewards upon reflection as the almost imperceptible set-up yields gentle indications. But you can perceive Haneke’s leanings, you just must detect through the grey areas and the edges for what is purposefully lacking in conformed narrative construction. In an emptiness that portrays the family’s social isolation and cultural dissatisfaction, we have very little expressionism of any form, including dialogue. Voices seem as if disembodied as shots focus on objects and tasks. Much of the film takes place in real-time as we are forced to feel just how dully draining this repetition can be. Some will find this boring, but, surely all will feel successfully emotionally glaciated by the end of it all.
Not for the emotionally squeamish, this downbeat and stark family drama acutely portrays the futility of modern life. An unassumingly powerful film.