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No way out
A region 2 DVD review of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT / DER SIEBENTE KONTINENT by Slarek
 
This film is available as part of Tartan's Michael Haneke Trilogy, which also includes Benny's Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which will be reviewed separately.

 

Cinema is famous for provoking debate about issues on which it offers no answers, but this is acutely true of Michael Haneke's first feature, The Seventh Continent [Der Siebente Kontinent]. The film observes the slow disintegration of a seemingly normal bourgeois family, but records only the symptoms of their decline and never attempts to examine the causes, to explain what drives them to behave as they do in the final act. Action without supplied reason – the whys and wherefores left for the viewer to decide – should make for largely superficial viewing, but it doesn't. Haneke's meticulously crafted film is loaded with suggestion and observational detail and is far from the potentially pedestrian experience it would undoubtedly have been in less capable hands.

I have to admit that my first viewing of The Seventh Continent a while back was something of a jolt, but not for reasons of content. A few years previously I had planned, scripted and storyboarded a video piece comprised entirely of short close-ups of the everyday activities of a normal middle-class family, the intention being to examine our reliance on and peculiar adherence to everyday routine and ritual. I eventually abandoned the project over concerns that I was taking a somewhat condescending attitude to my subject, passing judgement on the emptiness of lives that I actually knew little about. Haneke here uses that very technique for much the same end, and yet he makes it work, in part because it is not the be-all and end-all of the film, but also because the process itself is subject to narrative evolution. The three years covered by the film's time frame are divided into chapters, and the repeated close-up sequences show both the continuation of the daily routines that define family life, and yet at the same time hint at the breakdown that is taking place beneath the surface calm.

What should act as a distancing device miraculously connects us with the family in an unexpected way. Like friends or relatives you see only occasionally and in whom you perceive changes that they either attempt to mask or refuse to explain, the natural reaction is to wonder what is wrong and be concerned for the consequences. Constructed largely of non-sequiturs of varying length, the film documents the process of familial collapse as a series of briefly glimpsed iceberg tips, leaving us to figure out for ourselves just why, for example, Anna breaks down and cries uncontrollably at the car wash shortly after passing a fatal road accident. Did the sight of the plastic-covered bodies revive unhappy memories, or bring home the reality of decisions made and action to be undertaken?

As the family systematically set about destroying their flat and its contents (an extraordinary scene in its own right), the metaphoric implications are explicit but unforced, as they turn their back on materialism and its baggage, the last crutch in a society in which the false comforts of religion have already proved ineffective. It's a downward slide to a final scene that is as sobering as any you'll find on DVD this year. That it is also an emotionally affecting one is due in no small part to a trio of very fine performances, communicating so much in the small windows that are opened onto their world. We may not understand exactly what is going on but we feel for the consequences, and as they sit in the dark, grimly watching music performances on the TV that is their only remaining possession, Jennifer Rush's 'The Power of Love' becomes the saddest song in the world.

What on the surface could be seen as a formal and sterile cinematic exercise actually proves a compelling and meaningful (if seriously downbeat) experience. As with all of Haneke's subsequent features, we are left with a pile of unanswered questions, but like the best of his more recent work, the emotional wallop is nonetheless keenly felt.

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is for the most part a pleasing transfer, a clean, clear presentation from a decent print, although there is a very slight softness to the image, despite the good detail and contrast levels in many of the scenes. The quality drops off a little in low light shots, but these are rare. There is some grain evident throughout, but this is never distracting.

Sound is never used to flashy effect, and the Dolby 2.0 mono track here serves the film well enough and is clear of problems.

extra features

As with the other two films in the set, this DVD features a Michael Haneke Interview (16:43), in which the director looks back on the film in question. A very interesting piece in its own right, I couldn't help feeling a sense of stolen thunder, as Haneke discusses all of the points I had made a note to cover in my review, though I was at least left feeling that I'd read the film as the director had intended I should. Haneke is a good talker and this is a useful companion to the film, but should be watched afterwards if you don't want the ending given away.

Also included is a Funny Games Trailer (1:09), and it's for the original not Haneke's own upcoming English language remake.

summary

Haneke's first feature is an experiment in form and approach that impresses in its filmmaking and delivers a surprising emotional clout, given the distance the technique should by rights put between us and the characters. The presentation is largely fine, and the interview with Haneke a useful extra.

The Seventh Continent
Der Siebente Kontinent

Michael Haneke Trilogy

Austria 1989
104 mins
director
Michael Haneke
starring
Dieter Berner
Birgit Doll
Leni Tanzer
Udo Samel

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
German
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with Michael Haneke
Trailer
distributor
Tartan
release date
4 December 2006
review posted
16 December 2006

related reviews
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
Benny's Video
Benny's Video [single disc version]

See all of Slarek's reviews