What should one do when they feel dead on the inside? When yesterday, today, and tomorrow all bleed into one another and when society ceases to provide any kind of meaning?
The family at the center of Michael Haneke’s debut feature film, Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent), decides to do what they see as the only logical step. To end their own lives. The crushing weight of modernity, with its dreadful side effects of isolation and monotony, has been at the center of much of the Austrian filmmakers’ work. This 1989 debut quickly garnered attention for its bleak portrayal of bourgeois post capitalist emptiness.
Der Siebente Kontinent opens with a long drawn out shot of an upper middle-class family of three inside their vehicle in the middle of a car wash. Their faces are not visible, and they don’t speak or even move as the car slowly moves through all the spraying and brushing. The viewer is forced to watch this seemingly stodgy and monotonous process in its entirety before the car exits the wash and we are presented with a travel agency billboard displaying the seventh continent, Australia. A faraway place assumed to be a desired breakup of the repetitive hollow life this family leads, presented almost as a utopia of sorts. A dream to attain.
The film is split up into three chapters or more specifically three years. We see one day from each year starting 1987 to 1989. In the first year, 1987, nearly ten minutes goes by before we are even presented with the actual faces of this family. Instead, we are treated to extremely tight and suffocating shots of outwardly meaningless actions. A close up of the clock as the alarm goes off at 6am. A hand picking up the tube of toothpaste. Feeding the fish. Even during breakfast, we only see the items on the table and the hands of Georg (The father), Anna (The mother), and Evi (The daughter) as they eat, pass condiments around, and use their silverware. Their normal day begins as Evi is dropped off at school, Anna at her work, and Georg arrives to the parking lot where he works. As he walks through the property he is employed at, he looks insignificant next to all of the massive machinery around him. In fact, he almost looks lost within it.. As he enters his office and puts on his white coat, he stoically looks through paperwork, combing through numbers on sheets of data with surgical precision and appearing to do what he does hours on end every day. It is never really known what “important” work he is even doing and frankly that leads the viewer to believe that it is not important at all. As he conducts his business, it is layered with a voiceover from his wife, Anna. She is reading a letter that she wrote to Georg’s parents. In this letter she describes the death of her own mother and the mental breakdown of her brother Alexander over her death. Anna also describes how well things are going with Georg’s work. The letter is rather sterile and is merely documenting events in their lives that you would really tell any stranger. It is written as to the point and cold as one could be.
Anna is an optician and runs her own business alongside her brother. Her patient drones on and on about nothing as she tests and inspects her eyes to determine what lens would be a fit. As Anna uses the machine, she looks just as lifeless and mechanical as the machine itself. This is also represented shortly after this as a cashier at the grocery store is no different than the actual register machine. At Evi’s school there is an incident where Evi is claiming to have gone blind. The teacher does not buy this and tries to test Evi. Evi keeps the facade going for a little bit but is then found out. While clearly a ploy for attention, it seems Evi chose blindness in order to get a loving response, or even any response, from her optician mother. When the school later calls Anna to tell her about her daughter’s strange action she confronts Evi. At first, she feigns ignorance but Anna promises her that she will not be in trouble and will not punish her. Anna asks her one more time if she pretended to be blind and Evi answers yes. Anna goes back on her word and the only response to her daughter is to smack her in the face before the shot cuts to black.
The second segment, 1988, is not so much different than the previous year for the most part. That is precisely the point. As we are treated to more of the banal from yet another single day in their lives, we start to see cracks in the emotional state of these characters. Another voiceover of Anna reading another letter written to her mother in law describes more sterile information about the family’s actions. The letter has a fake hopefulness to it. It describes good things, pay raises, promotions etc., but never really comes off as if it cares about these things. It is like reading off of a menu when one isn’t even hungry. We find ourselves back in the car wash with all three of them. This car wash seems rather analogous to their slow moving and mechanical lives. They sit motionless and silent yet again however halfway through Georg looks over at Anna and something is different about her. Her face screams anguish as tears stream down her face and yet he does not ask her what is wrong and that may be because he already knows. Anna reaches back to grasp Evi’s hand for comfort, but she continues to cry before letting go, allowing Georg to silently comfort her. There is no blatant explanation of this moment.
To some it may come out of nowhere however one can only be subjected to so much monotony and meaningless before breaking down. Upon my first viewing of this film this vulnerable moment occurred at a juncture where I was even questioning what the point was and I was beginning to even feel fatigued. The color scheme is lacking life, almost every shot of the film is a still shot, and there is rarely use of film score. It dawned on me why this film was becoming so exhausting. It was like a normal day in the average person’s life and for some that is the biggest nightmare of all.
The final year, 1989, is where the film descends into the darkest depths of human nature. One last letter is read in a voice-over, however this time, it is Georg himself writing his parents. They had just come back from visiting his parents in the country, but he writes them the very next day:
“Dear Mom and Dad, here you are receiving a prompt letter even though you always accuse me of not writing and of not staying in touch. Today, one day after our visit, I have resigned from work. My boss was shocked as you must also be, but he said that I must have better prospects and that you should never hold back someone who wants to move on. He’s right…. You must also be wondering why I didn’t mention anything during our visit. But don’t you agree that such discussions would have only spoiled our good time? When you’ve made a decision, you must stick to it. That’s what you’ve always said, Dad. And we’ve made our decision. We’ve decided to set sail, because except for you, nothing else is holding us here. Even before our visit Anna had settled with her brother all necessary details to turn his business over to him. There’s only our little Evi left…and we wondered for a long time if we’d take her with us or if it was better to leave her with you. As you can imagine, Mom, and certainly you too, dear Dad, our decision caused us both heartache and headaches because even though we’re sure of what is best for us, it’s something else entirely to decide the fate of the one we love above all else…..”
During this voice-over we see several scenes of Anna handing off the paperwork from her business to her brother. Georg having a conversation with his boss about him quitting. Anna is at the bank withdrawing all their money and explains to the banker they are moving to Australia. Georg is at the hardware store buying an axe, gloves, and other gear. The letter finishes with:
“…and I know death doesn’t scare Evi at all. Now that we have decided to take her with us we’ve talked about it again with her and it was both beautiful and sad to realize how easy it was for her to agree to stay with us. I think that, remembering the life we’ve led, it is easy to accept the idea of an end.”
This voice-over ends with Evi coloring a drawing she has made of a little blonde girl staring off into the unknown surrounded with beautiful colors and shapes. Perhaps she as well is about to embark on a journey into the unknown.
The family enjoys one last luxurious meal together in a scene shot the same as the stale opening breakfast scene. Even before leaving this world they conduct themselves in the most mechanical fashion. The family then starts the process of destroying every single item they own. Georg starts by breaking down shelves with the axe. “I think the only way we’ll make it is if we go about it systematically.” he says. As if they have ever known any other way. They tear apart every piece of clothing, rip pages out of every book, snap every vinyl record in half, rip the window curtains off of the wall, and Evi even cuts up every drawing she has ever created in her room. What does this say about modern man? Destroying the pointless things we own is akin to destroying the self? Even more interesting is what follows next. George sits by the toilet as he rips up all of the money they withdrew from the bank and continually flushes the ripped up bills down the drain. This goes on for minutes. Following that they smash their fish tank which releases all their fish on the floor and we witness them flop around struggling to breathe. Evi sees this and becomes hysterical. It is the only moment that the family has shown real emotion during this act of destruction. Upon the film’s release however, this emotional outburst was not of importance to the audience. It is reported that at the premiere, the scene people found the most disturbing and offensive was the tearing up and flushing of money. The audience, in perfect concordance with Haneke’s vision and his indictment of modernity’s monotony by way of excess consumption, unknowingly added to the film’s message.
The film leads to its now inevitable destination. The family has killed themselves and nobody but them will ever truly know why. Haneke expertly uses the simple camera work, bleak aesthetics, and lack of dialogue to do the talking his characters never did or ever could. This anti-escapist film comes off as morbid and truly is not for everybody, but I will advocate for its optimism as well as it being a case against modernity. Instead of Haneke coming up with a happy ending to relieve the viewer, he instead splashes cold water in your face and tells you THIS is the world you are living in and THIS is what it does to its people. This is a far more effective way to wake somebody up. Force them to watch their own life on screen and see how they feel about it. I would be willing to wager we’d like to see a better life on the screen for us.