|Director: Michael Haneke
|Screenplay: Michael Haneke
|Stars: Birgit Doll (Anna), Dieter Berner (Georg), Leni Tanzer (Eva), Udo Samel (Alexander), Silvia Fenz (Optometrist’s customer), Robert Dietl (Oertl), Elisabeth Rath (Teacher), Georges Kern (Bank clerk), Georg Friedrich (Postal clerk)
|MPAA Rating: NR
|Year of Release: 1989
Although it was technically his theatrical debut, The Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent) was actually Michael Haneke’s eighth feature film. For the previous 15 years he had worked in the Austrian television industry, writing and directing seven made-for-television movies, where he honed his skills as a filmmaker and writer. However, outside of Austria, he was a virtual unknown, so when The Seventh Continent debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1989, it felt like the revelation of a new and scorching talent—even though Haneke was already 47 years old. It is no small irony that he had originally pitched it as a television movie and been rejected, surely because of its dark and seemingly nihilistic worldview.
The Seventh Continent centers on the Schober family: father Georg (Dieter Berner), who is an engineer; mother Anna (Birgit Doll), who runs an optometrist office with her brother, and their adolescent daughter, Eva (Leni Tanzer). The film is divided into three parts, the first two of which focus on the general mundanity of the Schobers’ unremarkable middle-class existence, with Haneke’s camera often focusing on daily rituals at the expense of character. We see close-ups and medium close-ups of shoes being tied, toothpaste being put on toothbrushes, cereal being eaten, their car going through the car wash, and so forth. What we learn about the family we must glean from brief bits of conversations, with the majority coming from a pair of letters, one written by Anna and one by Georg, written to Georg’s mother, which we hear in voice-over. Haneke is clearly keeping us distanced from the Schobers, allowing us to see their day-to-day lives without really penetrating the surface.
And that is partly what makes the third act of the film even more disturbing than it already is. (Those who have not seen the film might want to abandon this review here, as it reveals crucial plot information that Haneke strategically keeps hidden until this point.) Throughout the film there have been intimations that things aren’t right. No one in the family seems particularly happy or satisfied. Eva lies to her schoolteacher and pretends to be temporarily blind for no discernible reason. Anna’s letter to her mother-in-law sounds almost desperate in trying to convey how conventionally successful her son is. Georg has some minor conflict at work with his boss, who is not particularly fair to him and later has to take a leave of absence. It is nothing major, but rather an accumulation of small disappointments, resentments, failures, ennui.
So, when Georg and Anna begin doing some strange things, such as withdrawing all their money from the bank and claiming they are planning to immigrate to Australia (the “seventh continent” of the title) and buying hardware such as sledgehammers and bolt cutters, the tension starts to mount. Haneke keeps the purpose of their activities vague for as long as possible, then starts us on a deep dive into the Schobers’ existential abyss, which begins with a torturously prolonged depiction of their systematically destroying virtually everything in their house. As he did with the early sequences involving their mundane day-to-day activities, Haneke depicts this orgy of destruction with close-ups and medium close-ups that deny us any view of the characters doing the destroying. We never see George’s face as he smashes furniture with a sledgehammer, or Anna’s face as she pulls each of their record albums off the shelf and bends it until it snaps in half, or Eva’s face as she takes a large pair of shears to all her artwork, including one we watched her draw earlier in the film. As he has done throughout the film, Haneke holds the camera for almost unbearably long periods of time on the repetitious destruction, particularly the shot where they tear up all their money and flush it handful-by-handful down the toilet (a scene that Haneke rightly predicted would really upset audiences, thus lending credence to his film’s stance on the modern obsession with materiality). The destruction of all their belongings leads inexorably to their own physical destruction, as they each overdose in turn on a medication we saw Anna filling earlier in the film. Eva first, then Anna, then Georg, with the film concluding on a shot of them lying motionless in bed together as the camera slowly moves in on the only thing still working in the house—a television set that has gone to static—which gives way to a final title card that clinically informs us of when the bodies were found and how Georg’s parents refused to believe it was a group suicide and insisted on a murder investigation.
The central dramatic and psychological strength of The Seventh Continent and its primary weakness is Haneke’s ruthlessly decision to keep the Schobers at arm’s length. They remain figures, representatives of a staid middle class that has lost touch with meaning in life and see no way out except to destroy everything they’ve accumulated and then themselves. Obliteration is the only option, which, absent psychological or sociological insight, is hard to read as anything other than nihilism. The effect is confounding in its emotional devastation and almost sadistic insistence on presenting such a horrific event while offering no real insight (the plot was apparently inspired by an actual case Haneke read about in the newspaper). The point seems to be that there really is no point; after all, what explanation could possibly suffice for such a profound rejection of modern life? The theme of humanity’s dislocation from itself in the modern world is a constant in Haneke’s films, and The Seventh Continent establishes it with cool, brute force. The recurring image of an impossible, gauzy shoreline supposedly in Australia but really nowhere, comes to stand for the impossibility of connection and meaning in a world dominated by materiality, indifference, and transactionalism. It is not a pretty picture that Haneke paints, but it is one that he clearly sees and conveys with no mercy.
|The Seventh Continent Criterion Collection Blu-ray
|The Seventh Continent is available as part of Criterion’s three-disc set “Michael Haneke : Trilogy,” which also includes Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance.
|1.66:1 (all three films)
|German Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all three films)
|Video interview with actor Arno FrischVideo interview with film historian Alexander HorwathThree video interviews from 2005 with writer/director Michael HanekeMichael H.—Profession: Director (2013) documentaryDeleted scenes from Benny’s VideoTrailersEssay by novelist John Wray
|The Criterion Collection
|December 5, 2022
|According to the liner notes, writer/director Michael Haneke supervised the transfer of all three films in this three disc-set. The Seventh Continent was transferred from a 35mm interpositive, while Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance were transferred from the original 35mm camera negatives. All three films were restored and color graded under Haneke’s supervision. Presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, they all look very good and true to their celluloid origins, with each being given its own disc to maximize the bitrate. The images are clean and well detailed, with a pleasing level of film grain that creates a slight softness. Black levels and shadow detail are especially important to The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video, both of which have extensive sequences that take place in dark interiors. There is little in the way of age or wear on any of the films, and colors look strong and natural. The original monaural soundtracks for all three films were mastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks and restored. Haneke doesn’t employ any non-diegetic music in these films, but sound is essential to their effectiveness. Ambient noises, various sound effects, and heavy silences are all major components of the films’ various soundscapes, and these Blu-rays present them very well.
As for the supplements, Criterion has packed in quite a bit. The biggest inclusion is Yves Montmayeur’s excellent feature-length documentary Michael H.—Profession: Director (2013), which covers the entirety of Haneke’s career up to Amour (2011), although it does so in reverse chronological order (conspicuously omitting the 2007 English-language remake of Funny Games), which helps to illustrate how established his artistic sensibility was from the very beginning. Along the way we get extensive (and unvarnished) interviews with Haneke and actors with whom he has worked, including Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Riva (who talks of how much she wanted to quit in the middle of shooting Amour), Béatrice Dalle, and Jean-Louis Trintignant. It is a fascinating film in its own right that offers a great deal of insight into Haneke’s career and what it like to work with him (Montmayeur has also made documentaries about the history of yakuza films and Japanese erotica, filmmakers Guy Maddin and Takeshi Kitano, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, none of which I have seen). Each disc in the set includes a video interview with Haneke from 2005 that was conducted by Cinémathèque Française director Serge Toubiana (while many critics and viewers may dislike Haneke’s films and the portrait they present of humanity, one cannot argue about how well he is able to articulate his perspective and why he makes his films the way he does). Each interviews runs close to 20 minutes. We also get a 30-minute interview from 2018 with film historian Alexander Horwath that focuses on Haneke’s early career. Horwath, who is currently director of the Österreichisches Filmmuseum in Vienna, was one of the first critics to recognize Haneke’s artistry and wrote a book about The Seventh Continent and his early television films. Also from 2018 is a 25-minute interview with actor Arno Frisch, who played the lead role in Benny’s Video and also had a major role in Funny Games (1997). There is also a 15-minute featurette in which Haneke and Toubiana discuss a few deleted scenes from Benny’s Video and theatrical trailers for all three films. The insert booklet includes a new essay by novelist John Wray (Gone to the Wolves).
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