Michael Haneke’s Trilogy: The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

 The first three films released by legendary, amazing German film director Michael Haneke are considered to be his ‘Glaciation’ trilogy. Thanks for taking some time to read my reviews of these fantastic films.

The Seventh Continent (1989)

What motivates a person to commit suicide? No, what motivates a family to commit suicide? That’s what Michael Haneke examines in his first feature film, a disturbing, spiteful look at middle-class society.

The family in question consists of a husband, wife, and young daughter. Over the course of three years, they go through the normal routine of daily life, which becomes gratingly repetitive and never really changes. The first hour of the film presents this, in a series of cold, haunting scenes of daily life, seperated by brief periods of a black screen and occasional flashes of a peaceful beach scene originally featured on a tourism poster for Australia, where the family plan to visit but presumably never get around to. Then in the shocking final half hour, there are extensive, loud and unflinching scenes of the family completely destroying everything in their home, and inevitably themselves.

The faces of these characters are shown nowhere near as often as you would expect. In fact, no faces are discernable at all within the film’s first ten minutes. To Haneke, the people don’t matter. He wants the viewer to perhaps identify with the film characters, making their unexpected suicide all the more shocking and thought-provoking. The characters are casual, natural, normal; there is nothing particularly special or unique about them, and if you live in a similar bourgeois society it’s likely you know people like these characters.

The majority of the film focuses on their actions, rather than themselves. We watch them wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, drive through the car wash in eerie silence and suppress their emotions casually. Eventually, years of suppression take their toll and hell is unleashed.

But the gradual self-destruction in the film’s latter half is nowhere near as interesting to examine as the scenes that lead to it. There seems to be no real visible or explicitly stated motive. No cataclyst, no big event… nothing really. It’s mostly normality up to the final decision. Their are a few clues, such as subtle and questionable scenes in which the wife inexplicably cries uncontrollably, the daughter pretends to be blind and images an intolerable itch all over her body, and the husband shares an awkward silence when faced with his ex-boss whose position he usurped. But these are moments that might happen to anyone; they in themselves are no reason to commit suicide and destroy your home, but they are hints that something darker has happened in the past that they are still struggling to get past and has forever affected them.

But the more likely solution is far simpler: they are bored with their life, living in a society which values bourgeoisie attitudes as a commodity, money and work as a right, and a repetitive, scheduled daily routine as a modern God. There is no other emotional depth for these people. They exist in a state of living, and that’s it. I can’t remember a single moment where they were happy, and the suicide itself does not seem like they are releasing themselves to Heaven, but a long, pacing struggle into death.

The film is undoubtedly the best in this trilogy, and one of Haneke’s best works altogether. It may sound difficult to watch, but such is the tradition of Haneke’s films, and in my mind that does nothing to diminish their greatness.

Benny’s Video (1992)

The openings to all of Haneke’s films are usually good at capturing the audience’s attention; the opening to Benny’s Video is more likely to make them turn the film off. Not that it’s bad… just that it’s incredibly shocking and likely to disturb. But then again, what did we expect? Benny’s Video opens with handheld video footage of a pig being held and brutally murdered with a cattle gun. We soon find out this is actually video footage (a technique later used in Cache), being watched by the protagonist (antagonist?). He watches it avidly; of his gigantic library of tapes, it is his favourite video.

His parents, naturally, have no idea and are blissfully unaware of their son’s disturbing obsession, nor that it has made him desensitised. One day, Benny meets a girl and invites her back home. He shows her the tape; she is not amused. And then, coldly, and seemingly without motive, Benny murders her with the same cattle gun used in the tape. The murder is very difficult to see clearly; the camera is positioned facing a monitor which is showing a live feed from a camera of what is happening in the room, and the murder occurs in the corner of the screen. It is a long, silent shot that viewers would become used to, and is one of Haneke’s signature shots.

His parents are shocked and unsure what to do. They send Benny away and try to cover the murder up, but it’s clear it’s an event that will be impossible for them to get over. Benny has no guilt or regret; it was something he has always wanted to do, and his motive is that of a thousand movie serial killers, a motive so overused it has become a cliche, but yet when Haneke uses it here this is one of the rare times when we fully believe it: he wanted to know what it felt like. Benny knows what it feels like to watch a murder, but to live it has always been his sick ambition, and with achieving it is satisfaction, and little else.

Arno Frisch (who would later star in Funny Games (1997)) is perfect as the eponymous killer, and Haneke writes and directs his character well. He is a character we cannot love, and yet he seems innocent; his crime was a product of a desensitised attitude, and that is hardly Benny’s fault. Haneke’s film is a criticism of violence in television and film… no wonder that when it occurs in his movies, it is either pushed to the edge of the frame, or occurs off-screen altogether. The shock value, as Haneke has stated in interviews, is in what is NOT seen. It’s almost impossible to determine what will become of Benny; will he grow up and kill again? Has he satisfied his urge? It’s one of the open endings for which Haneke is known, and while we can easily assume that he will do it again, because that is how the story goes for most killers, it truly is difficult to tell for Benny. You don’t trust him, yet his situation never really seems like his fault, and Haneke paints him as a victim, rather than a perpetrator.

This is a technique which is not used nearly enough in reference to serial killers, and its originality is part of what makes it work. Benny’s Video is likely to shock and provoke thought, although some viewers might get bored with it. It’s not the best in his trilogy, but it is nonetheless an effective portrayal of media influence.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

This isn’t my favourite in the trilogy; I’ll admit that straight out. But it is nonetheless a powerful movie, full of scenes and moments that have become commonplace for Haneke, and incredibly unique in its structure and storytelling style.

The film is comprised of 71 scenes, following the daily lives of a few different, mostly unrelated characters as they go about their business; an alienated young girl, a homeless teenage kleptomaniac, a ping-pong prodigy and a man who tests and tricks strangers with a trick involving a few pieces of cut up paper, a married couple whose life is mainly tension and unbearable silence, and an elderly man with a fractured relationship with his estranged daughter, among others. We intercut between their lives in scenes seperated by a short period of blackness, as well as random insertions of television news reels that push a message about media that is unclear, but as much of the film is characters watching TV, or shots featuring televisions, there is obviously a connection somewhere.

The film, like most of Haneke’s movies, is not for the casual viewer. It requires thought and needs to be watched carefully and mulled over afterwards. I probably should’ve watched it twice, but I’ll get around to that some time in the future, I expect. It’s difficult to review after only one viewing. There are static shots that will alienate people looking for a normal movie, such as a three minute shot of a man mechanically hitting ping-pong balls thrown at him by a machine, missing the odd one, and never slowing or stopping. The length of the scene is unexpected; sure, three minutes might not sound that long but let’s stop and examine why on Earth Haneke would want to make it that long. The first thirty seconds to a minute we get that it’s about a man hitting ping pong balls, but as the shot continues we begin to notice the raw emotion and mechanical concentration on his face; this isn’t a game, nor a challenge, but an obsession. The man is driven to succeed in ping-pong by an overbearing father who berates him for missing a single ball and the years of abuse he has taken is visible on his face as he whacks the balls, frustrated with it all, but with an expression that suggests he’s worried he’ll be shot if he stops.

The other static shot in the film is one half of a phone call between an elderly man and his daughter. We hear fragments of his side of the conversation, but it is unclear what exactly they’re talking about, only that frustration and mixed emotions are clearly present. The scene lasts eight minutes.

If you read a synopsis, you’re more than likely to read that the film is about a shooting spree. That’s incorrect. The murder is the subject of about thirty seconds of the film’s runtime, and the movie itself, like The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video, focuses more on what leads a person to commit such an act than the act itself. All the films in the trilogy deal with unexpected events and what causes them, and none are more clearer and honest in conveying this truth than 71 Fragments, even if it isn’t the best film of the three.

Well, there they are. My reviews of the three films in Haneke’s trilogy. They are difficult films for the average viewer, and I know that some of my readers are undoubtedly going to dismiss them (I’m looking at you, Custard!), and I can accept that. We’re all entitled to opinion, and so forth. But to me, these movies are masterpieces about humanity; life in seclusion and glaciation, where commercial images on televisions grab us and shake us; products, advertisements, images being thrown at our faces, affecting the way our mind things and processes things, and in some cases resulting in the unexpected. Everywhere we go we are haunted by these persistent images which never cease, and its obvious that Haneke has gotten sick of them. Television is a key image in all three films; a lumbering force that envelops both the characters (the shot of static at the end of The Seventh Continent or Benny’s obsession with the pig-murder video in Benny’s Video) and the viewer (the eventual sucking of the viewer into a static-filled TV screen in The Seventh Continent, watching the pig-murder and the human-murder from the point of view of a screen in Benny’s Video and the long shots of TV newsreels in 71 Fragments) into a world of commercialism and visual ideals designed to interfere with the freedom of the human soul and to crush it and victimise it under the greedy, all-seeing eye of those haunting monitors.

Have you seen any of these films? What are your experiences and thoughts on them? What experiences have you had with Michael Haneke movies? Do you enjoy them or despise them?

If there’s anything you’d like to say on Haneke or his movies, or just this review in general, feel free and welcome to leave a comment below. Thank you.

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Posted on August 7, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think perhaps the reason i didn’t like bennys video is because i don’t agree with the idea media by itself can turn a person into a killer.

    • I suppose that’s fair, though I had no problem believing it. He’s thought about killing for a long time; since he first saw the pig video, perhaps even before that, and with the frenzied attitude of the media constantly desensitizing him with a flurry of images, he has no problem killing and finds it very satisfactory. Sad, I know, but that’s Haneke’s point.

  2. Oh, Benny. I have not seen director commentary on anything of Haneke’s, but it’s obvious that Benny has an issue that has been desensitized (or enhanced) by media and a lack of some parental control/discipline. He may be a tiny Paul (Funny Games), but it is ultimately his parents’ faults for not being there. The disconnect is so thick and obvious. Pig n Pepper.

    • Yeah, it is. Occasionally I found myself feeling sorry for Benny, as if him being a killer was not his fault. And yes, RIP to Ulrich Muhe, one of my favorite Haneke stars. Watching him in The Castle next week.

  3. P.S. – RIP Ulrich Mühe. A Haneke staple, and all around “I could be Spacey’s German speaking brother” kinda guy. He has been, and will be, missed.

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