Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes me sick–and that is not necessarily a criticism. His best-known films, Funny Games (1997 and a searing American remake in 2008), Cache (2005), and White Ribbon (2009), force viewers to squirm for two hours while the perversities of humanity take revenge on our liberal sensibilities. The most notorious example of Haneke’s cinematic style is the American version of Funny Games in which a happy, little, upper-middle class American family is taken hostage in their summer lakeside cottage by two sadistic, upper-middle class teenagers and tortured over the course of a weekend. Pleasant. Haneke said about the film: “Funny Games was always made with American audiences in mind, since its subject is Hollywood’s attitude toward violence.” In short, he asserted: “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.” So says Haneke the contemporary provocateur.
The Death of a Family: Michael Haneke’s Seventh Continent
Yet, shotgun blasts (a signature scene in Funny Games) do little for me compared to events captured in all their mundane detail in Haneke’s first film, The Seventh Continent. I must confess, this film left me devastated. It took me two weeks to watch it–I found myself so unhappy that I would turn it off–and made me consider Jim Livingston’s and Daniel Rodgers’s books (respectively) on post-industrial America in new ways.
Haneke based his cinematic story on a real-life incident that left Austrian society (momentarily) befuddled. In the mid-1980s, a middle-class Austrian family had been found dead in their suburban home, and even though there was a suicide letter from the father of this family, people involved in the investigation refused to accept that folks similar to them might simply choose to take their lives–including the life of their pre-teen daughter. Among the details of the case, the one that seemed to disturb people the most was something Haneke took particular care to depict in the film (and in the photograph above)–the family had flushed their cash down the toilet before committing suicide. Was this the ultimate expression of alienation in a post-industrial society?
I found Haneke’s film so effective because it is so quiet and normal–right up to the last fifteen minutes, of course. The film begins with the family sitting in their car as it goes through an automated carwash. You can’t see the faces of the people and no one speaks. The next scene is everyone waking–starting a routine familiar to us all, but one that takes on a sense of foreboding because we know how the story will ultimately end–this family will wake one morning and that day they will die. There have been other films that deal with the alienation from a society enthralled by consumerism or the modern state. But this film does not dwell on an unusual situation, decision, or confrontation. As Adam Bingham observes at Kinoeye:
Haneke creates an entirely original narrative syntax to convey directly the experiences of his characters’ as their souls are ground down in the crushing vacuum of modern existence. And also to allow the viewer the space to make their own connections and to draw their own inferences and conclusions as to what the film means and, more crucially, how relevant it is. Shocking in both form and content, this is a film about utter despair born from the everyday, the mundane.
Critic Michael Wilmington found it “a calm chronicle of hell.”
But this is not some dystopian hell, like Blade Runner or The Hunger Games or to use one of the films Jim Livingston points to, The Terminator. Of course, Haneke’s film was no where near as popular–in fact the entire film is available on-line. But the film does get to Livingston’s interesting point about the New Right of the 1980s. “Conservatism in the late twentieth century,” he argues, “was not a blanket endorsement of what free markets make possible; like the radicalism of the same moment in American history, it was a protest against the heartless logic of the market forces created and enforced by consumer capitalism” (The World Turned Inside Out, 56-7). Was Haneke demonstrating his conservatism?
The sadness that pervades Haneke’s film saturates the viewer because this sadness emanates through the family–an entity that we sociologically analyze and politically idealize, but also, in the end, typically use to find purpose in life. To witness the destruction of a family–the family–by means that we (or at least I) take for granted, was frankly hard to watch. The family in the film has some stress: the mother has lost her mother relatively recently and her brother has found it difficult to move on. The father has an opportunity to advance in his career, but at the expense of an older colleague. The daughter seems a bit disassociated from other children at school and craves more attention from her parents. None of these elements are extraordinary and Haneke does not attempt to pin the inevitable tragedy on a collective psychosis. Their lives had routine, but a routine that failed to connect to anything larger than themselves. They seem incapable of knowing how to grieve, why to be ambitious, and how to love.
Livington’s contends that a few “hugely popular movies of the late twentieth century…require us to experience and explain” (57) the collapse of a society that used late-capitalist methods to attempt to secure bourgeois trappings of family and community. As Livingston suggests, that bargain did not work. Daniel Rodgers offers a prognosis: conservative intellectuals “yearned for a common culture…but their ideas of society had been infiltrated by the new market metaphors, the notion of communities of choice, the narrowing of the language of obligation, and the appeal of the idea of natural, spontaneous civil society. They could desire a common culture. But only in fragmented ways could they envision the institutions that might create it” (Age of Fracture, 219).
In The Seventh Continent, family has failed, work has become a sham, and perhaps most tragically childhood is hopeless–fragmentation is complete. The father in the film writes in his suicide letter, “nothing is holding us here.” Indeed, place has become a vacuous idea. He explains that the life they led made ending it easy.
This film is not about people being bored, or an awakening of social consciousness or a heroic act against the soul-crushing authority of the state, system, or cultural mores–it’s not even necessarily witness to the trouble of a time. There was no big idea to explain the death of a family. Haneke asks if we shouldn’t fear that realization.