Michael Haneke could be cinema’s Debbie Downer, if only he had any sense of humor. All the icy gloom of Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, and Caché can be traced back to The Seventh Continent, which may be the Austrian director’s debut film but already contains his themes and styles in place, as if emerging fully grown out of the skull of Zeus-on-depressants. Inspired by real-life events illustrating Haneke’s view of “the emotional glacification of Austria,” the film follows three years in the lives of the Schobers, a purposely unremarkable middle-class bourgeois family, financially secure yet all but imploding from unspoken alienation.
This being a thesis work, the unsmiling hypothesis is stated right off the bat, with husband Georg (Dieter Berner), wife Anna (Birgit Doll), and daughter Eva (Leni Tanzer) sitting inside their auto for a carwash, the event played in real time for maximum deadening effect. The point is clear: People are gliding through life in sealed glass boxes, unable to really connect to anything besides their possessions. Accordingly, Haneke choreographs the introductory session as a dance of domestic fragmentation, disembodied hands and feet in close-up reaching for toothbrushes, shoes, cereal bowls, and assorted appliances. When a shopping cart or cash register fills the frame this ominously, you know it’s merely a matter of time for the other shoe to drop and for the audience’s abuse to commence.
If the first two thirds of the picture are dedicated to making the mundane sinister, the final third reverses the strategies to make the sinister mundane. Finally unable to cope with so much muted Angst (and Angst it is, for Haneke makes it feel like the family is carrying the burden of the modern world upon its shoulders), the Schobers calmly decide to kill themselves, though not before systematically demolishing all their possessions—“a statement of fact,” according to their suicide note. The session, grueling yet rigorously controlled, allows for a pungent indictment of materialistic incarceration (a literal money-shot—bills ripped and flushed down the toilet—is particularly fierce), yet the fact that the characters are denied liberation or even morbid catharsis in their own communal end attests less to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity than to his peevish indifference to their lives as anything other than point-underlining puppets.
A sense of reality has been ruinously deformed, and to Haneke television is the main culprit—at one point, the husband wonders out loud what we would look like with monitors for heads, but Bertrand Tavernier already wondered the same thing in Deathwatch, and was smart enough to craft a satire around it. How one wishes for some of Ingmar Bergman’s sardonic appreciation for absurdity to explore the satirical possibilities of a clan slowly expiring in a decimated home while Jennifer Rush emanates from the telly. By concentration exclusively on humanity’s negativism, Haneke proves to be as damagingly reductive of life’s possibilities as the emotional malaise he sets out to expose.