Chale Nafus, Director of Programming, Austin Film SocietySources
Michael Haneke is the cinema's great contemporary poet of disaffection and, thereby, the filmmaker best equipped to comment on our absurd times. -- Scott Foundas
Not surprisingly there is little in Haneke’s biography that “explains” him as a director. Certainly the background in theater and philosophy tells us something about his approach to life and art. Being born in Munich in March 1942 at the height of World War II must have left some mark, but what exactly? His parents, Fritz Haneke and Beatrix von Degenschild, were both theater people. Soon after the end of the war the family moved to Wiener Neustadt, Austria, where Michael was raised. He took up acting and piano as a child. At the University of Vienna, he graduated in philosophy, psychology and theater arts.
Professionally he started at the age of 25 as an editor at the German TV station Südwestfunk, part of the ARD network which is similar to America’s PBS. By 1970 he was directing plays by Goethe, Bruckner, and von Kleist in Austrian and West German theaters. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and other German film directors of the time, Haneke worked in television, a very creative venue in the 1970s. From 1973 until 1988 that was where he could hone his directorial skills (similar to 50s television in America when New York theatrical directors could work in the new medium before moving to Hollywood and the bigger screen). Then came the decision to direct THE SEVENTH CONTINENT for theatrical release in 1988. Not until 1994 did he commit to film rather than TV.
Beginning with THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, Michael Haneke discovered that he could write better scripts on a Greek island. But even there this first screenplay didn’t come easily. Haneke’s original intention of telling the story of a middle-class couple with a young daughter through flashbacks didn’t satisfy him. Six frustrating weeks passed and the script seemed stuck in neutral. When he realized that the flashbacks would inevitably be seen as explanations for the present actions of the couple (“Oh, they are doing this now because that happened to them in the past”), he decided to start anew. For THE SEVENTH CONTINENT Haneke adopted the idea of the protocol from his studies in philosophy – observation without interpretation. He chose to explain nothing in his film – simply show the couple with their perfect surroundings and their daily routines over a 3-year period and then leave us horrified and puzzled by their decision to obliterate their ennui through drastic means. Haneke decided to provide no answers, no explanations, no psychological exploration. We would have to do that unraveling ourselves. That decision to stay outside his characters and show only details of their lives would become one of Haneke’s stylistic hallmarks. His would be demanding works that trust individuals to “get it” on their own, even (preferably) with varying conclusions.
Once he had determined his approach and framework, writing the script seemed relatively easy. In fact, it was done in four weeks. Although the original idea for this film had come from a series of articles he had read in a newspaper about a couple and their child, Haneke found the journalist’s “explanations” for their actions nothing but rehashed pop psychology -- “He had some debts he couldn’t pay. He had sexual problems with his wife.” Perhaps satisfactory cause/effect explanations for newspaper readers, but ultimately very unsatisfactory to the more philosophical Haneke, who understood that not all motivations for actions can be reduced to money and sex.
With his strict rule to show consequences, not causes, Haneke felt that his conscience could be cleaner than if he pretended to know the reasons for his characters’ actions. He states, “No novelist would want to write a novel today which claimed to analyze completely the reason why the story unfolds the way it does.” Instead, he believes that a sort of explanation comes through the chosen structure, which simultaneously allows the writer/director to remain ambiguous. This is an intellectual approach which trusts the audience to interpret in their own individual ways – the approach of Antonioni, Bresson, Ozu, Bergman, et al.
Considering film much more akin to music than literature, he paid close attention to pacing through long shots and shorter ones packed with details. This steady building up of details is in the manner of the more innovative novelists who present characters through their surroundings, their objects, their actions, more than through dialogue or internal thoughts. In such a way, the audience (reader or viewer) is kept very actively involved in figuring out meaning.
The beginning of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT “shows how much we are dominated by the obligation to do daily tasks.” His characters awaken to an alarm radio, get out of bed, slip their feet into bedroom slippers, open the curtains, brush their teeth, feed the fish, prepare breakfast, etc. Over and over, the tedium of the quotidian routine. Haneke says of his characters, “They don’t live. They do things.” But the benefits of good education, a “good” family background, and good jobs are quite handsome – a lovely modern home, a good car, nice clothes, comfortable furniture, compatible spouse, and a well-behaved daughter. But is it enough? Dare these people ask the dangerous question, “Is this all there is?” Haneke, in directing and observing his characters, says, “We’re enslaved to these gestures” – the movement of hands, arms, legs, feet in starting the day in the same way every day so as to get the child to school and to get to work on time where more gestures will be repeated over and over. It is ultimately the sameness of a bourgeois lifestyle that can lead to a breakdown, a crackup, a lashing out, or worse, especially once we reach the point in which we fatalistically realize that “our whole life is the sum total of these gestures.”
In the final approach to freeing themselves from their gestures and their ennui, the couple use the same intensity and deliberate “methodicalness” with which they have lived their lives. With no political overtones they seem to embody the perfect fascist mentality -- to do things with orderliness, precision, science, economic gestures, and apathy.
But does the couple’s private “final solution” lead to emotional liberation and relief? Haneke thinks not. For him, that is the “saddest thing in the film.” As their every action is chronicled by Haneke’s camera, we likewise feel none of the liberation or even anger that was felt in a similar scene in CITIZEN KANE.
Before showing THE SEVENTH CONTINENT at Cannes, Haneke guessed that two scenes in particular would make the audience scream – the fish and the money. He was right – some people even walked out of the theater as they watched the money being “mistreated.” Haneke realized that he had touched on one of the great taboos of society, whether capitalist or socialist. But that particular touch had not been created by Haneke. It was part of the news coverage that he used as source material. He just made it more visual and visceral.
At Cannes he was asked, “Is Austria really that depressing?” Haneke and most of the audience laughed because, although THE SEVENTH CONTINENT is set in Austria (Linz, to be exact, but with no scenes shot there), this story could take place in any developed country in which material acquisition is no longer a major problem of every day life for a large segment of the population. In that sense Haneke assumed his audiences would extrapolate from this Austrian family to middle-class families in general throughout Europe, Japan, the US, and in other metropolitan areas. He was right. THE SEVENTH CONTINENT is a truly contemporary film, which continues to find resonance within the lives of many who feel trapped by perfection, comfort, and sameness.
• Haneke Biography
• IndieWire interview with Haneke
• Christopher Sharrett, KinoEye interview with Haneke
• Michael Haneke on IMDB
• Interview with Michael Haneke, THE SEVENTH CONTINENT (DVD)Return to Screening Page