Conversations about film
October 24, 2021
The Seventh Continent
Directed by Michael Haneke, 1989
Jim Wilson: Michael, you’re back.
Michael Clawson: Hey there, Jim, I am indeed back and ready for action. How are you doing?
Jim: Well enough. Anything exciting to report?
Michael: Let’s see, since we last spoke, the weather in Seattle has turned rainy and grey, I’ve watched a lot of movies – oh, and I got married! Yeah, that’s definitely the most exciting piece of personal news I have to share. My now-wife Gabi and I got hitched in early September, then went to Maui for a honeymoon. It was a great trip with lots of good food, sunshine, and relaxing on the beach. Now we’re settled back into our routine at home and doing well.
Anything new on your end?
Jim: Not particularly. Congrats on getting married. I know you’ve been attending the cineplex a bit these days. What are your favorite new releases? I haven’t seen nearly as many as you, though I did go see No Time to Die. What did you think of that?
Michael: Among the new releases I’ve seen recently, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy is among my favorites. A suspense drama set in Japan on the brink of World War 2, it’s not one of Kurosawa’s better films, but it’s still plenty engrossing.
I liked No Time Die. In fact, I think I liked it a little better than almost everyone I know! Sure, it might not have any more depth than a martini glass, the story is overly connected to the other Craig movies, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t quite enjoy it moment-to-moment. Its pleasures are simple ones for me: cars, clothes, beautiful people, bad guys with a flair for the theatrical. I think I unconsciously keep the bar lower to the ground for this franchise. I hold out hope for the Bond and Mission Impossible movies as ones that still value a more terrestrial kind of spectacle, one that involves flesh-and-blood human beings in action, versus the synthetic, plasticky nature of superhero movie spectacle.
What’d you think of No Time to Die?
Jim: I’m a lousy person to ask, since I don’t care much for the spy genre. I remember watching Bond when I was a kid, because my Dad and my brother loved it, though it left me mostly cold. I remember when Live and Let Die came out because of the title track from Wings, which was hugely popular, but I don’t remember anything about the movie. I like the Sean Connery ones, because I like Sean Connery. The only other Daniel Craig one I’ve seen is Spectre, for the same reason I went to see No Time to Die, because of Seydoux. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about her lack of chemistry with Craig, and I agree, they’re not a convincing couple, and her character, Madeleine Swann, is kind of ridiculous. But my god, she is so beautiful in the new one. No matter what the hell else was going on, I was thrilled just to be in her company.
I guess I’m too removed from the whole franchise to give any of it a fair shake. But there are two things that really troubled me. One, the body count is atrocious. And two, Rami Malek, who is fucking awful, both his character and his one-note performance. From listening to knowledgeable Bond fans talk about it, I know there are a number of things going on around how the franchise is changing, with regards to gender and politics and so on, but I’m too detached to care. That said, I have to praise the spectacular cinematography, which I would only expect from a Bond film.
Michael: I actually do have fond memories of going to Bond movies as a kid. I think Tomorrow Never Dies was the first one I saw, so Pierce Brosnan will always be the actor I instinctively associate with James Bond. Sean Connery is pretty hard to beat. Of all the actors who’ve put on the suit, the character’s charisma seemed to flow most effortlessly from him.
Craig and Seydoux don’t have much chemistry, that’s true, but I enjoy them both individually. Rami Malek, on the other hand, is entirely no bueno, I’m with you there. Bond villains are always a little silly; the more seriously they take themselves, the less enjoyable they are. Malek going for humorlessness was ill-judged.
Shall we pivot towards the main topic of this Collokino, and a decidedly darker film?
Jim: Absolument. But I want to stop you, hold you here, and wait for you to explain fucking Rami Malek to me, but it doesn’t sound like you can, either. Please, someone, explain this actor to me.
We agreed to talk about a film I suggested. I’ve been trying to pry Collokino loose from the persistent grip of favorite films chosen by my guests and me, and move to crunchier ground, but without necessarily losing focus on the directors and performers we love. The b-list stuff, perhaps, including the earlier material, from some great filmographies.
I had just watched Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent again, and it spooked me as much the second time as the first, in a way I really wanted to talk about, so I threw the idea of it first to another guest. They passed it over, so I extended it to you.
There is, I imagine, a ton of stuff that can be said about this film, Haneke’s debut from 1989, about how it’s constructed, its color palette, its narrative beats, all of it. I hope we can touch on a good handful of it, anyway. But before brass tacks, what were your first impressions of this?
Michael: I was shaken by this movie. Amour is the only Haneke film I’d seen before watching The Seventh Continent, so I wasn’t very familiar with his work firsthand, but I’d heard and read plenty about his movies and how they’re typically quite grim. The Seventh Continent lives up to his reputation. I’ve seen it twice now, and I wasn’t any less disturbed by it on second viewing. But on both viewings, I was also absorbed by and admiring of how methodically the film is constructed. The formal rigor on display is striking, and the critical distance it affords us from the content essential to how well the movie works. I’m amazed that this was Haneke’s first film; it unfolds with the assurance of an artist who already knows exactly how to use the medium to articulate ideas. It’s a cold, upsetting, clinically detached movie, but one that I’m thinking is pretty great.
What’s your 30,000 foot view of this movie? Has it held up over consecutive viewings?
Jim: It’s extraordinary. It’s hardly Haneke’s best, and I think the rigor you point out is maybe a bit too rigorous overall, but its allure, at least for me, is its nagging elusiveness. I think some viewers can place The Seventh Continent neatly into a box called “modern middle-class malaise” and there you go, it all makes sense, but it refuses to fit that easily into anything categorical, from my perspective. Haneke is always adamant about not climbing into his characters’ heads. In fact, we barely even see their heads, or at least their faces, until some minutes into the story. And as we’re introduced to this small family – Georg, Anna and their young daughter Eva – we get to know very little about them, just superficial stuff, though Eva has some fascinating quirks. Most of what we learn about them is by way of letters Anna is writing to Georg’s mother, which she reads as voiceover at the start of parts one and two. I suppose it’s notable that they’re an Austrian family (as Haneke is an Austrian director), and the film takes place in the late ‘80s as Communist Europe is collapsing, which lends the film a certain backdrop. Austria had a unique position of neutrality during the Cold War, though I don’t know how this plays out in the film, if at all.
Since you brought up Haneke’s formalism, would you like to detail some instances of it setting the scene early in the film?
Michael: I’d be glad to. What better place to start than the hypnotic opening scene, which shows Georg, Anna, and Eva sitting in their car as they go through a car wash. It establishes the clipped visual rhythm that Haneke employs throughout the rest of the film. A series of close-ups directs our focus to the distinct components of the vehicle as soap and water wash over each part: the license plate, a headlight, a tire, the windshield. Eventually, the camera lands in the middle of the backseat, looking out through the windshield from Eva’s point of view for an extended take. Notably, no one in the car says a word to each other; in fact, they hardly seem to even register the presence of one another. On my first viewing, I was less attentive to the absence of conversation and more absorbed by the car wash itself, the vigorous whipping of its brushes against the car’s exterior. The intensity of the sounds make the shot a disquieting one.
More than just an entryway into the movie, I think the scene functions as an opening statement, one that not only lays out the formal principle the movie abides by, but that also suggests the idea the film goes on to study. We go on to see the family as they carry out their daily routines, and Haneke’s fragmentation of the family’s life into discrete and repeated actions – turning off the alarm clock in the morning, putting on slippers, turning the door handle to leave the bedroom and start their day – suggests theirs is a passive existence. They live as if they were on some kind of looping conveyor belt, each of their distinct behaviors just another step in a machine-like process. It’s troubling. What happens if people living like this come to believe the sum of their actions isn’t something meaningful, or is purposeless? One step at a time, the movie follows that possibility to a disturbing conclusion.
Jim: But don’t we all live that way? Can’t all of our lives be edited down to those discrete repetitions. On one hand, the Schobers can be viewed as a somewhat robotic family, doing the same things with impassive remove day after day, but on the other hand we know this isn’t the whole story. We get glimpses of emotional distress from both Eva and Anna’s brother Alexander, who had undergone severe psychiatric treatment following the death of his and Anna’s mother, and there’s a strong suggestion that Georg is involved in some cutthroat work politics at his job. My point is that Haneke is leaving out a lot, except for these rare glimpses, to focus mostly on the routines. But isn’t that a diversionary tactic?
I want to bring up something I encountered in the Wikipedia entry for the film that caught my eye, because it didn’t coincide with the way I read the film. About the Schobers, it asserts that the film “conveys their discomfort with the sterile routines of modern society.” Does it? Do the Schobers seem uncomfortable? The flatness with which Haneke directs Birgit Doll and Dieter Berner (Anna and Georg, respectively) is part of his formalist toolbox. They express little to no emotion whatsoever, whether it’s discomfort or contentment. And is it really “modern society” that‘s the problem here, or is just life? People have washed things, opened doors and fixed breakfast for thousands of years. There’s something a lot more interesting going on here, in my estimation, than disenchantment with the modern world.
There are some fascinating scenes and little moments that seem to offer a peek into the inner selves of these characters. I’m curious what meaning you ascribe to them. Whether Alexander’s breakdown at the dinner table, Eva’s pretend blindness, or the curious tale the woman patient tells Anna and Alexander at their optical shop, there’s a vibrancy, as sad as it might sometimes be, that thrums beneath all the formal rigor of how Haneke directs us to “see” these people. Sight, optics, vision, all are central themes, but hardly exclusive. Which of those episodes that look inside stood out to you?
Michael: To answer your first question, yes, I think Haneke would agree that the Schobers aren’t unique, that many of us do live as they do. I think that’s partly the reason for his frequent avoidance of their faces; it’s a strategy to depersonalize the content, at least to a degree, to make the film not so specifically about the Schobers. And you’re right, we do have evidence of the Schobers having interior, emotional lives, we just don’t see them expressing that interiority spontaneously or in any ordinarily readable way, not often anyway. So I wouldn’t say this is about the emotionallydeadening effect of living in the modern world, but I do sense it having to do with the consequences of losing purpose. I don’t hear the movie saying that only in the modern world could a couple wake up one day and conclude they have no good reason to not kill themselves (spoiler!) and hope to find something better on the other side, but I think it cautions us against the idea that career success, financial security, and access to technological luxuries are necessarily conducive to finding meaning in life.
I love the more enigmatic moments in the film that you bring up. Eva feigning to her teacher that she’s blind made a particularly strong impression on me, though I’m still not exactly sure what to make of that scene. It reminds me of a story my parents love to reminisce about: one time, when I was little, I came home from school, and for no obvious reason, told my mom that a friend of mine had broken his arm. I totally made it up! My mom was embarrassed when she asked my friend’s mom how her son’s arm was doing, and my lie was exposed. I don’t remember why I did that, and it’s not clear to me why Eva does it in The Seventh Continent. I guess kids fabricate things just to see how others respond, but I’m not sure what that has to do with Haneke’s broader themes. Maybe it has something to do with how we understand, or don’t understand, each other’s inner experience. Unlike a broken arm, blindness isn’t something that’s readily visible. She’s exploring the impact of how she expresses, or misreports, her interiority.
I do love how we segue from Eva lying to her teacher into Anna doing her optometry work, in a kind of conceptual match cut that establishes the clarity of vision versus blindness idea that you mentioned. What’d you make of this scene and the story that Anna’s patient tells? That story really flew over my head, to be honest. Both times I watched it, I was a little too distracted by the images, the quick cuts and close-ups on the equipment and eye balls, to really follow the dialogue.
Jim: I take it as an anecdote about childhood cruelty, and how that’s a kind of blindness. Lack of empathy is blindness. A little girl is bullied for her glasses. She curses her tormentors with a future manifestation of the blindness, or poor vision, they already exhibit, and sure enough, they all end up eventually wearing glasses. It’s hard to say why Anna and Alexander react so strongly to the story, but the point is they do.
The reason for Eva’s pretending to be blind is explained by a newspaper article Anna discovers in her daughter’s room about affliction assuring affection. For some reason, she doubts her parents’ love, so reasons that being blind would gather them more tightly around her. My guess is she feels neglected by their careerisms. It’s part of my argument that the film isn’t about becoming dulled or deadened, but precisely the opposite. The Schobers, much like most of us, live too much, they feel too much, for the world of impossible striving they’re a part of. Modern striving may deaden their external selves, but their interior lives, wholly unseen, are vibrant. Your mention of “purpose” is a fascinating one, since I strongly suspect Haneke would hold purpose up as one of the most destructive drives that define Anna and Georg, and through them (because she always seems a direct extension of them), Eva as well.
There’s an especially illustrative scene that points straight in this direction. Together watching television after dinner, Alexander recounts his and Anna’s mother once wondering what would happen if, instead of opaque heads, people had monitors that their thoughts appeared on. I suspect Anna’s, Georg’s, and Eva’s monitor-heads would be bursting with all kinds of images.
At some point I do want to talk about the recurring image of the “Australian” coastline, which we first see as a poster the Schobers drive past after the first car wash scene, since I’ll argue it’s a cornerstone of the film’s meaning, as it were. But for now tell me your other impressions. I know how much you’re always attuned to color. I thought Eva’s bedroom striking in that respect.
Michael: You’re right, I do often find myself attentive to light and color, but in the case of this movie, I was actually much more responsive to sounds. But first, I can’t help but follow up on your reading, because I’m intrigued by it. You think the Schobers live too much, feel too much. Suicide then is a means of ending the pain in feeling overwhelmed, is that what you’re getting at? They want a permanent vacation? I think I agree with you about that, but it is counterintuitive. You would expect a person flooded with sensation and feeling to emote as a means of release, rather than conceal. What I think they come to be overwhelmed by is a feeling that their lives are meaningless, that the mundane routines they carry out every day serve no purpose. Add to that that they are, in a way, eternally unknowable to each other, theycan’t see inside each other’s heads, and existence thus feels like it’s not just pointless, but horribly lonely too. Is it something different that you think they’re feeling too much of?
Jim: Haneke is careful not to offer any explanations. And I want to be careful, too, not to assert anything more than subjective interpretation. But having seen most of his films, I can tell you Haneke is not interested in pat, formulaic plot structures and character motivations. The idea that the Schobers destroy all their personal belongings and commit suicide because modern materialistic society has deadened their souls is absurd to me. That’s a film from a far less interesting filmmaker than Haneke, even if it was his debut.
In many of his films, Haneke is playing directly with audience reaction and audience expectation. Funny Games is the penultimate example of this. There is no clear-cut exposition in The Seventh Continent, of course, but I can pretty much assure you that Haneke wants the film to be about your reaction to what happens. The Schobers express themselves, their inner selves, with the only things they have, which are the trappings of a materialistic society. How does what they do, with what they have, make you feel? Think of the fairly long take of them throwing money down the toilet. There were strong reactions to that scene at the time, with viewers horrified by such a waste of money. That scene was made explicitly to incite that very reaction.
But back to theories about the Schobers’ motivations. It’s actually not counterintuitive that strong emotional feelings would lead to suicide. I know a little about this subject, and more often than not people who attempt suicide are completely overwhelmed by emotion. They can’t process it, they can’t cope with it, they can’t control it, they can’t express it, while it’s constantly assaulting them. I keep thinking of Anna breaking down crying in the car during the second car wash scene at the end of part two. Why, we don’t know, she probably doesn’t even know, but there’s a great depth of feeling there, and it’s buried, repressed by the demands of her life and expectations of the society she lives in. There’s no functional outlet for her to express the emotions she feels, so they burrow deeper and deeper into her, where they turn destructive.
That’s one way of reading it. Think, too, of her brother Alexander, whose deep well of grief was managed by draconian psychiatric practices, probably ECT. This is what I mean about feeling too much, meaning too much for a functioning member of western civilization. The Seventh Continent isn’t a film about people being robbed of their humanity by a soulless society, but instead about people whose humanity is bursting the seams of a society that doesn’t know what to do with pain and grief and depression and sadness, that wants to cover it up, paper over it, hide it, like the victims of the car crash the Schrobers drive past. That’s a moment of raw, visceral human tragedy that is viewed through a slowly passing car window, like an exhibition in a zoo or museum, a horrible trauma that’s being cleaned up and wiped away in the most efficient, sterile and un-traumatizing way possible. We shrink in horror from the tragedies that occur around us all the time. We hide it behind tarps and closed doors, and demand the cameras are turned off, which only distances us further and further from experiencing those tragedies and understanding the elemental reasons why many of them happen in the first place. Contrast that with how you the viewer observe the trauma of the Schrobers. There are no tarps or averted cameras. And I think this is very much the place from which Haneke conceived this idea.
That said, I acknowledge there are inconsistencies, especially regarding Georg, who is really a bit of an unknown throughout, though I could advance a theory about thoroughly ineffective and emotionally muted men, but I won’t go there for now.
I do want to address your idea about the permanent vacation (and that shoreline image), since I think it’s an astute perspective, but please, Michael, talk to me about film craft for a while.
Michael: Just to be clear, I completely agree that anyone with suicidal thoughts is almost definitely overwhelmed with emotion. I use the word “counterintuitive” only to describe how Haneke paints the Schober’s, who we agree are emotion-filled people, as atypically unemotional, impassive, blank, in how they behave. Hopefully that’s not controversial. And I think you persuasively refute Wikipedia’s suggestion that the movie is about the Schober’s being “deadened” by materialism, if that’s what it says, but that’s not the case I’m making. I certainly don’t mean to suggest it’s a pat or formulaic movie. If that’s how any of my comments or very subjective interpretations read, I’m not doing it justice.
Regarding the craft, there’s no shortage of sonic texture in The Seventh Continent. We don’t just see the Schober’s going throughout their day, we hear their routines (and their self-destruction). We hear the slight crunch of leather shoes as Georg puts his feet up on the bathtub to tie his laces in the morning, the plops of little splashes as fish swim to the surface of the family fish tank for their food, the humming of machines and equipment in the plant where Georg works, the squish of a butcher knife slicing through a hunk of meat at the grocery store. The avoidance of faces heightens my hearing; even when we do see the Schober’s faces, say, when they’re eating dinner, they aren’t talking and their expressions are often empty, so my eyes relax, my ears perk up, and the chewing sounds become a misophoniac’s nightmare. The final third especially is an auditory feast (no pun intended).
My favorite scene in the movie has a lot to do with sound, or more specifically, music. It’s when Eva accompanies her dad to sell their car at a junkyard. There are a few scenes where we hear buoyant diegetic ’80s tunes, but otherwise, the movie is mostly without music. This scene is an exception: we hear classical music as Eva looks out at a boat sailing by, and the music stops the second a car door is shut. The abrupt stop suggests the music was coming from the car, but it just doesn’t sound like it was, it’s too clear, too audibly foregrounded. Did that stand out to you at all? And then, do tell what you responded to in terms of the color, compositions, or any other aspect of the craft.
Jim: Michael, please forgive me. Maybe as my most frequent guest you’ve become accustomed to me holding forth about various vagaries, with which you’re always so tolerant, though I deserve none of it.
I’m not responding to anything you’ve said, or even the Wikipedia sentence, but rather what seems to be the general consensus about The Seventh Continent, among fans and critics alike, some of whom have been guests here. Mind, the film seems to generally get very favorable responses, and though I certainly agree with that assessment, I think a lot of what really makes this film work the way it does is never recognized. It’s not that I think these reactions are incorrect, so much as I think they’re incomplete. The general consensus is that the film is about a family whose pursuit of modern material success deadens their humanity and leaves them despairing and suicidal. As I’ve already made abundantly clear, I reject this. They are certainly a family, or a husband and wife, who are securely on the modern materialist treadmill, but it doesn’t deaden them, or dehumanize them. What it does is create an unbridgeable gulf between the world and the norms they’re compelled to live in and their irrepressible humanity, for which the terrifying conclusion is an answer. I hope that makes sense.
Color? I always think of robust primary colors in often brightly lit spaces with this film, though that may not be entirely accurate. As I said above, I’m always particularly struck by the colors of Eva’s bedroom. There’s a deep, blood red wall beside her bed, with a bold blue wall adjacent, and a general sense of heaviness about the space, all of which is the last thing you’d expect in a little girl’s bedroom. I’m especially fascinated by Eva. She says her prayers every night before bed, though there’s no sign of religious faith anywhere else in the family, so where does that come from? She’s deeply insecure about her parents’ affection, though there’s no clear reason why. And ultimately, she plays along with her parents’ ominous resolution. I guess it all makes perfect sense, when I spell it out that way, but there’s something key about her in this whole narrative. As you pointed out, it’s from her backseat perspective that we first enter the world of the film, during the first car wash scene. The backseat perspective. In a film that’s all about vision, seeing, and frame-of-reference (another thing that isn’t discussed nearly enough), her part seems crucial to me.
Michael: No apology necessary my friend! That makes perfect sense. “Their irrepressible humanity,” I love that phrase. It inspires empathy for the Schobers.
Eva does seem crucial, I agree. I imagine that high among the reasons why someone might struggle to empathize with the Schobers is the fact that they take Eva down with them. In his letter to his parents, Georg writes about this decision, recounting an experience in church that helped lead him and Anna to conclude that “death holds no terror for Evi.” Do you think that’s true? I believe that Georg believes that, but I don’t think Eva actually grasps what she’s supposedly agreed to. I was more unsure initially, but as I’ve heard you talk about Eva longing for her parent’s affection, the more obvious it seems to me that she’d be inclined to go along with anything her parents invite her to partake in. And how captivating is little Leni Tanzer in the role of Eva? Her expressions, or lack thereof, are so sweetly, beautifully illegible.
Jim: Tanzer’s great. But you just blew a hole in one of my assertions, about Eva’s praying coming out of nowhere. You’re right, Georg does reference church in his letter to his mother.
Well, I think you could hold the premise that death holds no terror for Eva and the probable truth that she has no idea what she’s signed up for in the same hand. Death is an abstract concept to privileged children like Eva, who are constantly insulated from it, so what does she really know of death? Reflecting, though, on Eva’s somewhat melancholy qualities, I’m not going to say that it’s entirely out of the question that she would say “sure, let’s do it.” But I think you’ve got it right that she ‘s going to sign up for anything that wins her the approval of Georg and Anna. It’s a difficult part of the story, to be sure, but I can’t see them sparing her. Like I said before, she’s inextricably bound up with her parents; I think of the three of them as a single entity, really, instead of distinct individuals. Both representationally and realistically, thinking of the three as a combined entity feels right. As a family, they experience everything together.
I want to focus on the third part of the film, as the Schobers prepare for and carry out their plan. The first time we get wind of it is when we hear (but don’t see) Georg say to Anna that they need to cancel the newspaper subscription. It’s curious how their preparations do mimic the way a family would behave if they were emigrating to another country, or continent (that shoreline image we have to get to eventually). They cancel the newspaper, they sell the car, they withdraw all their money from the bank. None of those things, of course, are necessary if one plans to commit suicide, but the Schobers are very responsible about closing up shop neatly, so to speak. They’re admirably civil about it, right? Even when it comes down to the final acts of destruction, they don protective clothing, and we hear Georg tell Eva that she doesn’t want to get hurt. The irony of that statement is blacker than black. And with one of my favorite lines from the film, as Georg and Eva begin smashing things up, and Anna, for whatever reason, seems somewhat alarmed by it, Georg turns to Anna and says “the only way to go about it is systematically”. Indeed! No need to be disorderly about it.
Michael: That’s a good point, Eva can’t really be afraid of something that she doesn’t understand, and she does indeed have a melancholic disposition.
I suppose it speaks to your point about the Schober’s being entirely capable of feeling things that they’re mindful of getting hurt as they methodologically demolish the house. If they had become desensitized robots, I don’t know that they’d care about getting nicked or bruised in the process of smashing all their possessions to bits and pieces. Apparently, adding physical pain to their interior distress doesn’t appeal to them. They don’t want to suffer, they just want their lights snuffed out (but not before a lavish last meal).
The destruction of the house comes to a brief halt after Georg swings a hammer into the fish tank, sending the fishes, to Eva’s dismay, across the debris-filled floor to die. It’s striking that Eva is distraught about the fish’s death, but still goes along with her parent’s plan. Is this just further evidence that Eva really doesn’t know what she’s participating in, because if she did, she’d be panicking? Or, is it just an empathic release on her part; after all, the fish never agreed to any suicide pact. Or do you take something else away from this scene? And then, no more delaying it, give me your thoughts on the recurring shot of the Australian beach, the one that brings the tourist ad seen outside the car wash to life. Earlier, you mentioned the importance of “frame-of-reference” with this movie. That seems relevant to the shoreline image, since it fills the frame, and appears to be seen from the perspective of no one character in particular.
Jim: The orderliness is a huge part of it. I guess I haven’t framed it as such yet, but I see the Schrobers’ plan as the necessary and organic outcome of their lives. It’s their leap of faith, their personal and spiritual commitment to another level of being, or non-being. It’s not natural at all, and barely realistic, but it smacks of spiritual devotion, and personal sacrifice. It’s their ideal outcome.
But an impossible ideal all along, as are all ideal outcomes. The idea of the Australian getaway is first presented as a poster the Schrobers pass while exiting the opening car wash sequence. It appears several more times throughout the film, during transitional phases, as a moving image, meaning the ocean actively laps against the still shore. It’s a weird, fakely animated tableau of mountain and seaside terrain that is physically impossible. Mountains and oceans don’t work together that way, ever, anywhere. It resembles the kind of mash-up holiday getaway poster typical in any airport or travel agency, though it seems to be promoting a grim land of madness and bruised purple skies, where reptile-shaped igneous boulders embellish the animatronic shoreline. It’s hideous, and it’s the ideal future. I don’t know how more explicitly Haneke could put it.
Frame-of-reference is something I think every bit of this film addresses. The moving “Australia” poster is easily the central image of the entire film, the ideal of the permanent vacation, or paradise, around which ideas about striving and accumulation and hopeful outcomes circulate. The moving shoreline image annihilates individuality, since no one of our characters is visualizing that nightmare. Something that deranged can only be hallucinated, and sustained, by committee. And maybe that collectiveness, that melting and blending together of the family’s individuals, adds a lot to the film’s overall unease.
Michael: You’ve very nicely captured the image’s strangeness. Earlier, you said there was a “heaviness” about Eva’s room; I’d say the same thing about the beach scene. The tourist ad wants to sell relief, relaxation, tranquility, but Haneke’s animated version has this gloomy, portentous weight to it. It’s compelling because it seems to contradict itself. When we see the image is mysterious too. The first time we see it, Anna has just put Eva to bed. Anna tucks her in, turns out the light, and leaves the room, then Haneke cuts to the beach. He cuts from the beach to Georg’s bedside table, and we see Georg turn on his bedside lamp. Anna asks, “What’s wrong?”, to which Georg replies, “Nothing.” It’s as if Georg was startled awake by a dream of the beach, but the sequencing suggests the image just as well could have been in Eva’s mind after she drifted off to sleep. That it could be a shared mental image supports your theory of a kind of unified, familial consciousness. The second time we see the shoreline, if I’m not mistaken, is right after Georg and Anna return home from the junkyard, ready to seal themselves inside. The shots on either side of the beach image are less instructive in this case. Lastly, we see it as a whole series of images race through Georg’s mind as he stares blankly at their TV and passes away. Does that bring us to the film’s final few moments, or are there things you’d like to touch on before going there?
Jim: No, let’s do it. As for the timing or placement of the beach image, it seems to work as a kind of transition marker, but I’d have to analyze every instant it appears to arrive at a confident theory, and my memory of them is fading, so… It’s a haunting and unsettling image that works as a visual representation of the physical and psychological destination the Schober’s are headed for.
Which is death, collectively. After destroying their belongings, Georg, Anna and Eva overdose on a drug prescribed to Anna. Earlier in the film, we see her sitting in a waiting room, though we don’t know for what or why, since the scene doesn’t complete itself. Later, we see her in the same waiting room, and then get to go through the door with her and into the doctor’s office, where a physician or psychiatrist tells her he’s giving her one more refill, but no more since she’s “okay now”. I presume it’s an antidepressant prescribed to her in the wake of her mother’s death, but it’s not explicitly stated, so who knows. Can you overdose to death on an anti-depressant? Whatever the case, they crush the pills in water and drink it. Eva is the first to go, for logical enough reasons, I suppose. She complains about the bitterness. What follows are some pretty harrowing scenes of Georg’s and Anna’s slow demise. You wanna describe how it struck you to witness those moments?
Michael: I found them viscerally upsetting. It’s a nauseatingly sick joke that as the three of them, Georg, Eva, and Anna, sit in the dark, their house a complete and utter disaster, they stare blankly at the TV, watching Celine Dion perform “The Power of Love.” Dion sings about finding solace in a lover’s arms “when the world outside is too much to take.” It’s a slap in the face, since the world is too much for Georg and Anna, and evidently, they don’t see each other, or their daughter, as something worth living for. Or, what solace they do find in each other isn’t enough to relieve their distress. I find that breathtakingly sad. Anna’s passing is the most excruciating, since she not only tearfully fumbles with the concoction in the bathroom, but then also audibly suffers off-screen. What were these scenes like for you?
Jim: Actually, I find the pop tunes in the film hilarious. They’re so vapid, and underscore the impossibility of expressing genuine emotion in the mechanical and affectless world of the film. At least the material objects and the food and the currency have some nominal value, but the Meatloaf tune, the Gunter Mokesch tune, and the Celine Dion tune, all speak to sentiments that are impossible to attain, and are given phony emotional heft precisely because they’re belted out into a world that just stares at them impassively. They punctuate the film brilliantly.
I don’t find the climax of the film to be particularly sad. To feel sad about something is to pity it, and I do not pity the Schobers. They’re doing what they feel compelled to do, pursuing their impossible utopia, as they’ve been doing since before the start of the film, to its a logical conclusion. It’s macabre, it’s ghoulish. Anna’s rasping, labored breathing makes my hair stand up on end just thinking about it. It reminds me of Pialat’s The Mouth Agape a bit in that regard, where end-of-life is perceived from an entirely disaffected perspective. Death is present everywhere in The Seventh Continent – the death of expression, the death of empathy, the death of influence and transformation – so that the physical, bodily death at the end simply feels complete. I know that may make me sound cold-hearted, but I’m confident that’s entirely what Haneke intended. It’s all kind of a joke.
I’ll add that I don’t like the title card at the end, explaining the aftermath, as if this were a documentary. I know it’s very, very loosely based on a real-life story Haneke read about, but the conceit of framing it as one at the very end bothered me, and contributed nothing. Just let it end as coldly and unexplained as it began.
I would like to summarize my thoughts on the film, but want to give you the opportunity to add more or do the same first.
Michael: I fear I’ll resort to repeating too much of what I’ve already said if I attempt to summarize my thoughts overall, but I did want to circle back to a reservation you expressed towards the beginning of our conversation. You mentioned that the filmmaking was maybe “a bit too rigorous overall.” I think you’re right about that. As much as I admire Haneke’s highly methodical approach, there is a way in which it makes the film feel overly insulated, or a little too neat. As a point of comparison, Code Unknown also showcases uniquely disciplined filmmaking, but I find that there’s more room for air in that movie. It makes me curious to see how Haneke’s style developed in the years between the two movies. Has his direction gradually loosened up? Just drawing a line between the two movies leads me to think so, but I realize that’s not a lot of information to make any conclusions with.
Back to you, for your overarching thoughts on The Seventh Continent.
Jim: This has all made me want to immediately rewatch every Haneke film, lol. I think it’s safe to call this Haneke’s most rigorous, yes, and in this case rigorous equates with academic, and that’s why I can’t respond to it sympathetically. Emotionally yes, sympathetically no. It’s too intellectually detached for sympathy, much less empathy. Haneke’s vocabulary certainly grew in the films to come. Its immediate follow-up, Benny’s Video, is very much in the same camp as The Seventh Continent, and even grimmer, and truly horrifying, in my opinion. Whatever the case, just watch The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon. Those are pure genius.
My thoughts on The Seventh Continent have developed, or expanded, in the time we’ve been discussing it, Michael. You come at it in ways that are very different from how I see the film, which has compelled me to reconsider my basic assumptions about it. I can understand how some can view it as a tragedy, or a movie about a family in despair that makes a sad decision, since that’s an entirely normal and healthy way to observe it. I give more room to that reading than I did previously, though I still consider it false, or incomplete. What’s truly changed about my reaction to The Seventh Continent is that I can now identify what is the central idea, or concept, that the film is built on, when before it was more a feeling than something I could spell out.
The Seventh Continent is about the impossible, in the most intimate context possible: the life of a family. That includes things that should be entirely possible rendered impossible because of unreconcilable disparities, all having to do with how people construct worlds, from the family level to the societal, that become more and more wishful, because we keep striving for greater complexity, and accepting greater abstraction. It also includes the simply impossible, which humans are infatuated with.
After impossible is the word striving, which is key to both the Schobers and their world. I kind of hate the term modern society, because I have no idea what it means, and what it means to others is an illusion. Materialistic, meritorious, virtue-driven, describe it better, and striving is the muscle that propels it. I find no point in ascribing relative value to those things, since they’re arbitrary – we could have chosen from a million other things to build our worlds upon – and I love modern artists who can examine them with the cold-eye they deserve. And that’s why I love Haneke, and this movie.
Thanks for digging into The Seventh Continent with me, Michael, and for putting up with my little tempests. It’s been fun as always.
Michael: Thanks for suggesting this very interesting movie! As always, it’s been an enlightening chat, and you’ve deepened my appreciation for the movie considerably. Already looking forward to our next Collokino.