Part one of Michael Haneke’s “Glaciating Trilogy” is The Seventh Continent, and it’s also his feature film debut. It’s a difficult film to watch and to fully comprehend, but it’s also remarkable for laying down the foundation of pretty much all his films to follow.
The Seventh Continent contains many of his trademarks (not least of all a mother and father named Ann/Anna and George/Georges/Georg with a daughter named Eva) and stylistic touches that would evolve into being his identifiable style of filmmaking.
The plot follows George and Anna, and their young daughter Eva, across three days over three years. The first two days, set in 1987 and 1988, follow them through their daily grind of mundanity. Going to work. Getting the car washed. Getting groceries. Cooking dinner. Doing that strange thing where they spend time in the same room with another person that some folk refer to as “interacting”.
The first two days are mainly focussed on what is happening, not who is doing it; it’s some time before we even see the characters’ faces. Instead Haneke shows us the phones they’re using, the groceries they’re buying, the table set with different utensils and food, the door handle being used rather than the person going through it, the shoes being tied rather than the person wearing them.
The film opens with the family car being washed – and we sit through it in the same amount of time it would take for the car to be washed, save a few merciful seconds. The result is effective; the scene works to show how mundane something like washing a car can be, but also presents it in a quasi-ceremonial fashion, but the sort of ceremony that one is obliged to sit through, not to enjoy.
The characters are stuck in their lives, and also with each other it seems. Eva pretends to be struck with blindness at school – her lie is caught out, and the school phones Anna to let her know. Anna is so out of touch with her young daughter that when Eva admits it, Anna smacks her across the face, in an act that seems born out of the irritation of having been disrupted by the school. She never asks Eva why she was pretending to be blind, although the fact that Anna is an optician and the way Eva clings to her teacher when she briefly carries her might suggest something on that front.
The day in 1987 is establishing the mundanity. When things haven’t changed all that much in 1988, it sets up a theme, and the mundanity becomes tense. There’s clearly something that the characters and film are building towards, but it’s not immediately clear.
The payoff is in 1989, and if you’re curious about the film at all, stop reading here and go and see it.
In 1989, things are different. Anna and Georg start going about some radical changes. They buy gourmet foods instead of their usual groceries, they sell their car, quit their jobs, and withdraw all the money from their bank accounts. They tell people they are emigrating to Australia, the titular continent. Australia is only briefly represented in the film through an unsettling billboard, depicting an isolated beach near a set of foreboding mountains. Eventually, as they near closer to their plan, the water at the beach is depicted in motion, with small waves breaking on the shore – but in such a way that the geography presented in the picture wouldn’t naturally allow.
The first two days are interspersed with narration from Anna, reading a letter she’d penned to her in-laws. The third day has the same setup, only with narration from Georg in a letter he’s writing to his parents. Along with his narration, the characters seem happier, or at the very least driven to a new purpose. But we suspect that Australia is not truly their destination.
They have a lavish dinner of their gourmet foods, luxuriate in their company, and call the school to tell them Eva is sick and will be staying home with them. Then they set about destroying everything in their house, including tearing up all of their money and flushing it down the toilet. This is played less for catharsis, and more out of necessity (Georg instructs them to go about it systematically). Once the house is in pieces, filled with the debris of a lifetime of posessions, the family then commits suicide, one by one.
The letter Georg has been writing is in fact a suicide note, detailing that despite a familial connection to his parents that’s never acted on, the family has nothing tying them to their lives. Their lives have lacked any purpose, and the endless mundanity depicted in the first two days was too much to continue with. The horror of including a young child in these proceedings is addressed when Georg writes that Eva declared herself unafraid to die.
The Seventh Continent is a bizarre film, an oddly silent construction dealing with issues that would be screamed about by most filmmakers. There’s no romanticising the actions of its protagonists, no condemnation or judgement, and no support. This style alone would become the staple point of Haneke’s later films. He presents his characters not as people, but as facts to be considered. He offers no answers, only an abundance of brief situations that might help an individual viewer form their own individual assessement and reasoning to the characters’ actions.
The style of the film, composed of brief segments from each character throughout each day works to provide a series of vignettes as moments with each character, rather than delving into their psyches too much. It works to distance the viewer from the action, as well as keep them baited on to what might be next.
Performances are fine across the board, with Birgit Doll and Dieter Berner as Anna and Georg conveying the unspoken rage with their mundane lives convincingly, even given the out-there things their characters later do. Leni Tanzer isn’t really asked to do much with Eva, but manages to make a captivating component of the film – the greater mystery of why exactly the family chose to kill themselves rather than simply change up their lives (even through something like a move to another country) is greater beguiling through the uncertainty of how Eva fits into her parent’s plan, how much of a willing participant she was, and how her life might have turned out if she’d grown to the same age as her parents.
The Seventh Continent is a bold and confident film that works its way up to an unpleasant climax but gets there with logic and appropriate build-up. It’s not a film for everyone – the third day is likely to offend a great many, and the fragmented style of the film is likely to grate with a lot of viewers – but it’s a remarkable film both in and of itself, but also as a clear indicator of where Haneke would be taking his films in later years.