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Finally freed from their art house cage, where they were once sentenced to a lifetime of irregular festival appearances, the first three feature films from maverick German director Michael Haneke have been released on UK DVD. Riding the renewed interest following last year’s surprise hit, Hidden, Tartan’s Michael Haneke Trilogy includes three lesser-known films from the start of Haneke’s film career  (at which point he was already a successful theatre and television director) The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.

Michael Haneke Trilogy
Nicknamed the Glaciation Trilogy, and representing what Haneke referred to as "the progressive emotional glaciation of Austria", these three cerebral but provocative films focus on characters who are alienated from society, and who break the rules with shocking and unexpected acts of violence. Described as difficult and experimental back in the late eighties/early nineties when the films were made, Haneke refuses to spoon-feed the viewer information, which makes them both enthralling and exhausting to watch; "Films that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think. If there are more answers at the end, then surely it is a richer experience" (Haneke).

The Seventh Continent
Based on a true events, The Seventh Continent follows father Georg (Dieter Berner), his wife Anna (Birgit Doll) and daughter Eva (Leni Tanzer) in the three years, structured in three chapters, leading up to their suicide. The characters don’t need names or personalities, they exist more to represent a damaged family unit. As viewers we are aware that the family are terminally unhappy, but are thrown clear of any explanation, and instead there is a strange, uneasy acceptance of their situation and fate. Haneke further distances us and refuses to allow access to the characters using tight framing, often cropping their heads, and sometimes entire upper bodies, from the shot. Tiny moments of intimacy—the touch of a hand or a smile—are given more poignancy because they are made to seem so rare and uncomfortable.

Michael Haneke Trilogy
As he says of the family in his Director’s commentary "They don’t really live, they do things." Their everyday actions—getting out of bed, putting on shoes, making breakfast—are studied in great detail and repeated using lingering close-ups reminiscent of David Lynch, making the mundane seem strange. Haneke plays with the concept of speed, juxtaposing slow music with items being scanned incredibly quickly through a checkout counter, or filming scenes in one shot or in real time such as a carwash to add to the general sense of unease.

However, it is the calm and calculated destruction of the middle-class family life that is the most disturbing aspect to the film. We see the father take a pile of folded shirts and rip the buttons from them one by one, then the daughter systematically cutting up her clothes. Soon tables are broken and curtains pulled from windows, money is literally flushed down the toilet, even the fish tank is smashed causing a cascade of water through the living room and leaving the fish flipping helplessly on the floor.

It is as much an anti-materialist statement, as an ending of their lives. Throughout the film there is suggestion of fleeing the city and moving to Australia, which is intercut with an image from a postcard that soon comes to represent a sanctuary. By the end of the film, we realise this sanctuary the family seek is actually death. The family finally take refuge in the bedroom in front of the television, and consume poison together whilst watching Jennifer Rush perform “The Power of Love”—probably one of the most unsettling juxtapositions of music ever seen in a film.

Michael Haneke Trilogy
Benny's Video
The first clue that your thirteen year old son has mental health problems is the fact that his bedroom looks like a video surveillance lab…

Benny (Arno Frisch) experiences the world around him via video tape—he records what's going on in the street, parties and holidays until real life becomes merely a platform for whatever he wants to film next.  

Michael Haneke Trilogy
Obsessed with a video of his father killing a pig (as well as other violent movies), he re-enacts the shooting and bludgeoning on a young girl. We see the killing through the video monitor—being distanced in the way Benny is. He continues to check back to make sure the body is in shot, before smearing the blood on his chest—is it artistic, is it sexual? Again, we are left with little clue to the motive. The only glimmer of any understanding of what he's done is the fact that he hides the body. He then studies the film repeatedly, and watches it in front of his parents, who gradually realise and come to terms with what he's done. Similarly to Hidden, Haneke is constantly presenting us with different representations of reality, particularly in drawing parallels between the on-screen world and real world. For Benny, the world on screen becomes a kind of hyper-reality, until he is unable to comprehend the consequences of his actions in the outside world. Instead, he switches himself off and experiences life through film.

As with The Seventh Continent, the shocking aspect of the film is not so much the violent action, but the complete emotional detachment of the protagonist. Here Benny talks on the phone to friends and casually eats a yogurt immediately after the killing. The lack of emotion and reaction in all three characters (again, a father, mother, child unit) is exposed in a poignant scene where the mother uncontrollably breaks down into tears, receiving a very controlled reaction from the father. In the concluding scene, Benny goes to the police station where he and his parents are watched through one-way mirrors and surveillance monitors, bringing the story round in a full circle, with Benny as the focus of the on-screen world watched by others.

Michael Haneke Trilogy
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

The beginning titles of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance tell us the outcome of the story. Miximilian B will enter a bank, armed, shoot onlookers and then himself. A slight departure from the other two, the final film in the trilogy stats at the end, and then creates the back stories of various characters in the lead-up to the final event (which is never actually shown). Here, Haneke is expressing that film isn’t solely about the plot or storyline, and in breaking the usual filmic structure, steering our attention even more forcefully towards individual scenes and movements. Again, characters are damaged or lost souls, who seem removed from reality. They are cold, guarded and unable, or at least, unwilling to express themselves in an accessible way. Scenes involving a seemingly unrelated mixture of characters are intercut with news stories—some have the potential for meaning, others seem random and pointless, but all are there to reflect the mundane routine of everyday life.

Michael Haneke Trilogy
Even more abruptly edited than the first two, the film moves from scene to scene as though the camera has lost interest (understandably at times). An old man speaks to his daughter on the phone, purposely entering into arguments so she will speak for longer. Another man watches his ping pong match over and over to assess where he’s going wrong. A homeless boy mirrors the actions of another boy on the opposite platform at a train station. A couple struggle to adopt a child.

Each scene hosts strangely removed interactions between people or representations of people. The fragmentary structure refuses to be restrained by form. Instead, we see a film that plays like a series of photos leading up to the final, fateful moment in each character’s life.

Video


The anamorphic 1.78 transfers are reasonably clear and sharp on all three discs, and seem to have been sourced from a high quality film. There are very occasional signs of grain, specifically in The Seventh Continent, but there is generally very minimal artefacting. Haneke’s palette is deliberately muted, but the colours within that are strong and edges are well defined—as good a transfer as can be expected.

Michael Haneke Trilogy

Audio


The crisp, clear 2.0 Mono soundtrack doesn’t have too much of a challenge to deal with, and presents the basic sound well and without any background distraction. The main point here is that the discs represent the first time these films have been presented on DVD with optional English subtitles alongside the German language film. These are well translated and without obvious deficiencies.

Extras


The extras are unsurprisingly minimal, consisting purely of a director’s interview on each disc. That said, Haneke is incredibly eloquent and insightful, covering everything from the original ideas for the films, to the most controversial scenes and the reactions to them.

In The Seventh Continent he explains that he moved away from an original flashback structure because each one seemed like an explanation (God forbid…), leaving the viewer free to interpret it as too much information, he says, would diminish the actual act of the suicide at the end. The interview on the 71 Fragment of a Chronology of Chance also talks about the trilogy as a whole and the links between the films. All three are well worth a watch and again, come ready with optional English subtitles.

Michael Haneke Trilogy

Overall


Haneke’s desolate wastelands are difficult to access, and there is no attempt to rationalize or explain the characters’ actions or motives. Unions are forced and broken, people unlinked and drifting aimlessly, and the lack of information and sense can be frustrating. The atmospheres of isolation and doom at times seem relentless, but make the small, fleeting moments of uncontrolled emotion ever more poignant. We are never quite sure where Haneke is heading next—the significance and style of each scene seems to differ somewhat randomly, but for some reason, those of us with a little patience and trust, are willing to be blindfolded and led by Haneke wherever he may chose to go.


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