Pazartesi, Ocak 19, 2015

Evocations of a Film: Haneke and the Seventh Continent

Michael Haneke, the Austrian director born in 1942, seeks to expose in his films “the coldness of individuals in the Western world” – the meaninglessness growing in the midst of this coldness and the struggle in the midst of this meaninglessness. Haneke calls this phenomenon “glaciation” and makes three films in this context: “Urban Trilogy”[1].

Having studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna, Haneke, unlike other directors, chooses to stimulate the audience rather lull them. So he works up to disturb the audience as much as possible. Haneke is not the kind of director one would choose to have a pleasant time in the movies.

Haneke, like his fellow countrymen, both writes and directs his films. The Seventh Continent is his first theatrical film. He poses provoking criticism to individual and social life in his films, never offering a readymade formula.

In the first film of his “Glaciation Trilogy”, this most respected and unorthodox director of Austria wanted to portray the “cost of conformism” and where one could end up with “mental vacancy”. The Seventh Continent managed to present the perfect orderly life of the Western urban middle class (bourgeois), which would be envied by all poor nations, like a “hencoop”. The breakfast scenes, shot at great length, seem to highlight the “feeding” time of this class. The diversity and quality of the feed would be dazzling for all hungry peoples.

The “commodity fetishism” surrounding the Western societies is similar to dangling a carrot in front of a mule. This is the tragedy of the educated middle-class individual in the city who has become a simple gear of the system and is valued only as much as his/her contribution to this system, eventually defined by this contribution, and gradually isolated from their own contexts of “meaning”. In order to easily manage people, the system has to drive them to extreme individualization first, only to destroy their individuation afterwards.

Extreme individualization is needed to abrade one’s ability to “coalesce” with others by severing their ties with the resources outside the system (family, extended family, small community, race, class, belief, ideology, etc.), and deindividuation is needed to protect their productivity by abrading their personality (identity). However, this “loss of identity” does not occur by means of a warm coalescence in a large group as it does in traditional societies, but occurs in a different, more modern and colder manner, which we can actually view as a sort of disguised fascism.

Hopelessness is not involved in the first form of disidentification, but inevitably accompanies the second one. Along with the end of individuation comes individual depression sweeping the industrialized Western European countries as a natural consequence of the existential lethargy, for which the system has designed a cure in the form of short-term pleasure-driven motivations, various hobbies far away from the search for meaning, and daily relationships.

From Existential Suicide to Physical Suicide

The film addresses a family that no longer holds the initiative, performs no action other than what the system expects of them, and is thus “already dead” existentially.

As the “existential suicide” transforms into a physical suicide, tedium of the existential death is conveyed to the audience quite thoroughly. Those who are not used to Haneke’s expression may have a nervous breakdown during the film.

As a very alarming phenomenon, suicide rates have doubled over the past two decades [2], and young people choose to commit suicide more than ever before. House, car, computer, mobile phone, camera, play station; better quality, higher speed, larger capacity, newer... While we joyfully climb up these stairs laid in front of us by the system that creates our needs on our behalf with decisive and firm steps, the end of the stairs might well indicate the end of our joy and energy of life - does not the realization of this ominous prediction account for the high suicide rates in welfare societies?

Haneke used not hencoop but aquarium as the metaphor in the film. However, aquarium does not sufficiently allegorize the production-exploitation relationship. It only represents the “entrapment” within the system, which involves an absolute “hopelessness” because there is no possibility of life outside the aquarium. Therefore, the scene of breaking aquarium is a critical scene of the film. Stopping this wheel and getting out of this system means to trash about until you die. The face of reality is that fierce, naked, and cold. Hence, most people cannot dare to consider this option. When the family members in the film decide to “get out of the system,” they think that they have no other option than death. Yet, they are plainly slapped by this reality in the scene of the breaking aquarium. Haneke shows each fish dying at length because getting out of the aquarium and death as its inevitable result is like a simulation of the family’s decision; it is not the fish but the family members who die there.

We hear from the father that their little child, the youngest member of the family, approves of the family’s decision. It is evident in the breaking aquarium scene that a child of this age cannot even understand this decision. The child’s reaction to the breaking aquarium is actually a symbol of her refusal of the family’s decision because such notions as “hopelessness” and “suicide” have no place in such a young mind. Yet, it is not uncommon for parents to kill their children before they commit suicide. They cannot find it in their heart to abandon their children in this coldness that they quit, so they prefer to take them along. In the film, the parents had to rationalize that their child understood and approved the decision they took.

Mechanized Life, Schizoid Individuals

Another important emphasis of the film is the growing mechanical quality of the relationships in affluent societies, and the rise of the “schizoid” [3] both in the family and in the society. Experienced psychotherapists reflect that the schizoid are expanding rapidly particularly in the British society, which was the first to have realized the Industrial Revolution. The car washing scenes in the film highlight the schizoid family. Accented emphasis on the mechanical operation of the apparatus during car washing scenes is also a reference to the “mechanized relationships”.

Haneke shows objects rather than human faces in the film. This is especially significant in the house scenes at the beginning. It is as if the actors have no face (identity). It appears like the objects play the leading role, or objects are as important as “objectified human faces” [4] in such a lifestyle. It is the main characteristic of the schizoid that they withdraw emotion interpersonally and experience some sort of “emotional glaciation”. Congruent with this character structure, the letters in the film contain hardly any emotion. In these letters, the family almost only reports to the parents about their physical state. [5]

There are also places that resemble the “people who lost their faces”. These places are no longer qualified to be called “venues,” so we may call them non-venues. High roads, roadhouses, hypermarkets, hotel rooms, ATM cabins, waiting halls, trains, planes, etc. One desperately tries to attribute meaning to these places, yet these are the places of “namelessness” and disidentification – everyone is called the same there: passenger, client, user, audience, etc. Traditional people would hardly come by these places, but not only do modern people almost spend their whole lives around such places but their houses also turn into such “nameless venues,” i.e. non-venues. [6] Proportionate to this transformation, people turn into objects without identities, names, countries, homes, or lands. In societies where people and venues are no longer people and venues, the schizoid will lose their way even more because they already have problems with attributing meaning to objects and thereby throwing a lasso at life.

Haneke’s scenes of car washing also describe how an individual is lost in the routine, how an individual’s life turns out to consist of routines only, and thus how they are no longer individuals (deindividuation). They have become an element of the network of mechanical relationships around them. This “anonymity” and namelessness is the source of the neurotic crises leading to suicide.

The elderly parents of the family that chose collective suicide do not believe what happened at the end of the film, going for “denial”. They tell the police that it is homicide. Actually, this denial is the same primitive defense mechanism that the people comprising the system need all the time and have to utilize in order to maintain their meaningless lives, which can be summarized as heedlessness and neglect.

Destruction of Memories and Pain

So it is not a natural process for such a lifestyle built completely on physical needs and physical safety to go up in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”. Some lives are arrested in earlier layers, unable to climb up, lacking a sense of self as part of a bigger whole. Culture has a significant role in this arrest. Some cultures facilitate going up the layers of the pyramid while others inhibit it. The system, on the other hand, does not welcome any coalescence that would hamper production.

Haneke exaggerates the metaphor of hencoop (or aquarium). The family leaves the phone open towards the end, preferring to stop communication, but the phone company arrives at their door immediately to warn them: “You have no right to do this.” Even the audience who do not approve of the family’s suicide tend to empathize with the father here, and feel distressed. Haneke actually expects his audience to protest this “demanding” and “interfering” attitude of the system.

Haneke’s emphasis becomes stronger and more violent towards the end. All family members begin to destroy their past together. Whether a family bogged down in meaninglessness would bother to do this, we do not know. Would they care about having their pictures looked at and being commemorated after they passed away? This appears to be an excessive effort on Haneke’s part. It seems like a reactive behavior and a form of revenge that originates from Haneke. All pictures, drafts, furniture, and clothes of the family are destroyed in a cold and insensitive manner. The audience sense a disturbing “violence” in these scenes, though. Perhaps their sense of discomfort is due to the fact that their “untouchables” are violated.

The schizoid individual cannot really throw a lasso at his own life, but rather “pretends” to live. He cannot establish a “meaningful connection” with objects/individuals, which is why he has few memories left in his mind. It is as if he was born only yesterday. The furniture, as remnants of the memories, do not mean much to him, either. He does not really feel that he loves or does not love, but “adjusts” his relationship thinking that he should or should not love. Therefore, it is easy for him to write off the past. Actually, he has done so quite a few times in his life unwittingly.

It is neither hunger nor physical pain but “hopelessness” that drags one to “suicide”. The film reminds of how Goebbels committed suicide by poisoning himself, his wife, and six children at the end of the Second World War. For Goebbels and his family, the world was no longer a place where they could exercise their patterns of meaning. It was only great suffering left for them ahead. The family in the film, no matter how different they may seem, must have been dragged to a similar end with a great suffering that resulted from having to lead a meaningless life and the lack of a meaning system they could not develop. Schizoid patients, who may appear to be devoid of emotion on the outside, refer to a great suffering that results from a deep wound inside. Furthermore, an unconscious and profound “anger” sweeps over this pain to aggravate it.

Haneke zooms in on this family with frequent “close-ups” that disrupts an individual’s integrity to show them as consisting of body parts. When meaning is extracted from one’s life, one sometimes has a sense of self as if consisting of “body parts”. It indicates that the gestalt of “self” can no longer perform the integrating function and begins to disintegrate. Haneke must have sought to give the sense of distancing from humanity and reification of the person that he zoomed in on. The close-ups also give the impression of “analyzing” this family under microscope.

It cannot be said that the film has an articulated structure, nor does it have a “linear narration”, so much so that it is almost impossible to give a satisfactory summary of the film. We should underline the “anti-psychological” nature of the film. So, contrary to what we do in this article, Haneke attempts not to give us any clue that would allow us to do a “psychological analysis”. He wants the audience to fill in the gaps. Unlike the Hollywood movies that bombard the audience with emotions, there is scarcity of affect in the scenes, which allows the audience to project their own feelings onto the characters. In a way, the characters are left unfinished, demanding the audience to complete them. The work that is required from the audience is unbearable for those who are used to the Hollywood-style passivity. The audience are hereby actively involved in the play, partially determining the characters, and most importantly, putting some part of themselves “actively on the stage”.

Why do people living in the city distance from others and turn impassive? In Haneke’s term, their feeling begin to be glaciated. Is it the city? Probably not, because cities have hosted people for thousands of years. If it is about the crowds, Baghdad’s population was around 1,5 million in the year 900. Haneke only describes the situation in the film without any reference to the causes, or solutions. Again he adopts an attitude that drives the audience to spend effort and engage in seeking rather than taking the easy way out. Those who utilize “denial” intensively may need to be slapped by the state of affairs in such a plain, naked and painful way. However, in our country where a “collectivist” code of life is still partly effective, the film may not be so easy to comprehend.

Dr. Ahmet Corak
Marmara Un.


[1]. The trilogy comprised of The Seventh Continent (Der siebente kontinent, 1989), Benny’s Video (1992), and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (71 fragmente einer chronologie des zufalls, 1994) addresses the struggle of the urban middle class bogged down in meaninglessness.

[2]. It draws attention to the connection between culture/faith and suicide that the countries where the Soviet atheism was dominant for a long time were world champions in suicide rates [Lithuania (42), Russia (40), Belarus (35), Estonia (29), Kazakhstan (28), Ukraine (26), Hungary (27)] while this rate is zero or close to zero in Islamic countries [Iran (2), Kuwait, (2), Egypt (0), Jordon (0)].

[3]. Schizoid individual is one who cannot engage in emotional and close relationships in his daily life in the outside world, cannot metabolize others’ feelings, spends all his life measuring, adjusting and maintaining the distance with others, and cannot establish a proper connection with life and meaning.

[4]. In human body, only the face can represent one’s personality, identity, and self. It seems that the face is included in “res cognitans”, and the remaining (apparent) organs in “res extensa”. There are faces that are deprived of emotions, and reified. Reification emerges as people turn to act in accordance with the laws of things rather than in a humane manner, and reaches the highest level in the capitalist mode of production. In such a society, the planner designs the society like designing an assembly line, i.e. the means of production replaces the social ontology. In such a society (!), all individuals (!) have become commodities that produce and are produced (reification).

It must not be a coincidence that the film’s venue was Linz, an estranged industrial city without a face (identity).

[5]. As the feelings withdraw, the external reality (and meaning) loses emphasis, giving more place to the internal reality. It feels like the external reality (therefore, relationships) drifts to be more indistinct and meaningless while the inner reality grows to be more colorful, bright, and almost more real. As Benny says, in another film of the trilogy, “It feels more real to watch the outside world on a screen.” In that film, Benny kills a girl just out of curiosity. The schizoid individuals are like two-year-olds with regard to real emotional experience. A serial killer who was caught in the US many years ago would lie down next to the bodies of his victims (without sexuality). It indicates that the killer, contrary to his external reality of being distant from people, has a longing for closeness in his inner world; he cannot do it out there, but can only lie down next to a dead person. Because these people try to keep their experiencing inside of them, they can never further emotional closeness with any object in the outside world, so their affective age never goes beyond two years of age. Benny also spends his entire time in a closed room in front of the monitors, preferring to look at the external world “behind a cold screen”. (Photography, for instance, is a favorite pursuit of schizoid patients). This way, he can look at people from a self-controlled distance, away from warm relationships that scare him. The most important threat to their individual safety is when this distance is covered outside of their control. Therefore, they spend their entire lives on consciously monitoring and controlling this distance.

[6]. In these places, people cannot usually analyze the pain gnawing at them. Most pass these places in a flash. As long as they are here, the hysterics protect themselves by dissociation, and the obsessives by isolation. Those who have to wait often escape to their inner world defensively. In New York, activities like “Underground Music Project” are organized by local authorities to save the subway from this “non-venue” gloom. However, in parallel with this comes Starbucksification of original coffee houses that become characterless and standard places. Yet, the most dramatic change occurs in people’s homes, which resemble “bachelor pads” day by day.

Pictures: Tetsuya Ishida
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