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Der Siebente Kontinent, 1989
[The Seventh Continent]

TanzerA faceless and unassuming family waits in oppressive silence, passively watching the rhythmic, mechanized motion of detergent sprays, high pressure washers, and rotating brushes as their vehicle travels through the monotonous cleaning cycles of a car wash before driving away, past the idyllic coastal image of a billboard advertisement for Australian tourism. The drudgery and automated ritual of urban existence would seem to commute to the outside world as the parents, George (Dieter Berner) and Anna Schober (Birgit Doll), awaken at 6:00 a.m. to the sound of a radio broadcast, shut the bedroom door, brush their teeth, dispense fish food in the aquarium, and eat breakfast with their daughter, Eva (Leni Tanzer). One day, Eva irrationally feigns blindness to a school teacher, perhaps out of loneliness, and is punished by Anna in an impulsive act of violence. From this innocuous episode, the emotional cracks within the Schober family's seemingly mundane life begins to surface.

The Seventh Continent is a visually sublime, deeply haunting, and understatedly incisive portrait of alienation, repression, passivity, and loneliness. Reminiscent of the early films of Chantal Akerman, especially in the rigorous disembodied framing of the title character of
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (as the protagonist systematically performs her household chores), Michael Haneke uses narrative ellipses, methodical repetition of tasks, and fragmented episodes in order to underscore the tedium and vacuity of the characters' lives. In contrast to the cropped framing of hands in Robert Bresson's films that evoke transcendence of physical existence through the performance of tactile, manual activity, Haneke's presentation of ritualistic actions reflect the inertia and psychological paralysis that leads further into the darkness of isolation and profound despair (note the extended duration of interstitial black screens throughout the film, and the pervasive, ambient distraction of television and radio programming). The repeated imagery of purification and cleansing further reflect the characters' figurative attempts to transcend the banality of their existence: the car wash, the episodes of George bathing, the rainstorm that pervades the second chapter (1988) of the film. Ironically, as the Schober family collectively strives to shed their empty and meaningless lives, they retreat further into the void of oblivion - disconnected from the physical reality of their oppressive environment - towards the isolating landscape of the indefinable seventh continent.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Bennys' Video, 1992

Frisch A lumbering, full-grown pig, muzzled through a leash that has been tied around its snout, is led outside the barnyard doors of an unidentified farm and into a clearing where a group of apparent bystanders cavalierly await its slaughter. The skittish, herky-jerky video image taken from the handheld camera moves in relatively tight side view close-up to frame the head of the animal as the farmer places the barrel of a revolver onto its forehead between the eyes and, amidst its persistent (and disturbingly unnerving) suffocated grunts and squeals, pulls the trigger - the pig's body immediately collapsing to the ground, its limbs still involuntary twitching from the residual neurological response impulse to the bullet's fatal impact. The video image is then curiously paused and rewound in slow motion, the soundtrack audibly slowed to a cadent, monotonic bass to the point where the origin of the sound becomes strangely alien, disembodied, and haunted. The viewer of the amateur footage is revealed to be its unseen videographer, an adolescent named Benny (Arno Frisch), who shutters himself for hours in his dark, cluttered room perpetually immersed in the self-induced, often compounded stimuli of loud music, rented videos, and broadcast television, his view of the outside world paradoxically reduced to a live video feed onto a monitor from a camera that has been positioned to point out of his shade-drawn window and onto the street. His distracted, emotionally distant father (Ulrich Mühe) and equally disaffected, obliging mother (Angela Winkler) seem tolerant of Benny's hermeticism, even exploiting his estranged, sentinel-like omnipresence in the household and penchant for video surveillance to spy on their older daughter Evi's suspect activities after moving out of the family home, as she uses the well-appointed apartment to host a party designed to generate revenue through a pyramid scheme in her parents' absence. It is a convenient domestic arrangement of tacit mutualism (and mutual disregard) that soon reveals the moral crisis innate in their dysfunctional relationship when Benny befriends a seemingly bored and aimless young girl (Ingrid Stassner) who transfixedly watches the random features displayed from the shop window of a local video store each afternoon after school, and brings her home to share in his obsessive, alienated reviewing of the slaughter footage.

The second installment on the correlative effects of urban alienation and media violence in contemporary society in what would become known as Michael Haneke's trilogy of "emotional glaciation" (along with The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance), Benny's Video is a provocative, confrontational, and indelibly haunting exposition on isolation, rootlessness, displaced turmoil, and human desolation. Using the opening sequence of the animal slaughter home video as Benny replays, hyperextends the moment of death through frame by frame pauses, or otherwise manipulates the resulting images captured on tape into increasingly indistinguishable resolution and textured, decontextualized audiovisual patterns of signal noise, Haneke illustrates the underlying process of cognitive abstraction - and consequently, systematic dissonance - that serve to not only dissociate the innate violence of the act with its logical consequence, but also blur the distinction between the experiential levels of fictional and real violence through the synthesis (and contextual anesthetization) of public information and entertainment in the creation of a commercially viable, commodified consumer media product. Moreover, through the narrative incorporation of Evi's pyramid scheme, Haneke also provides an intrinsic structural correlation to the collapse - and perversion - of the nuclear family in the absence of communication, trust, moral guidance, and emotional engagement as the ever-widening confidence game reveals an overarching socio-behavioral pattern of self-interest, a mindset that compels the individual to become progressively distanced from the initial source of the "investment" in order to realize profit, and the requirement of the participant's covert complicity (and cover-up) in the perpetuation of the scheme. It is this underlying disarticulation of moral responsibility and dissociation of cause and effect in the wake of media saturated infotainment and socially fostered, empty shell games of deflected accountability that is inevitably reflected in the film's eerie prescience on its examination of the consequence of desensitizing technology and the pervasiveness of media violence - a senseless and tragic portrait of empty privilege, alienated communication, and despiritualized bankruptcy.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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Code Inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages, 2000
[Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys]

Hamidi/Yenke/BinocheIn an age of a borderless, new European economy, the volatile encounter of four people on an anonymous Parisian street underscores the underlying social disparity inherent in any increasingly multicultural, contemporary urban society. A brash, impatient young man named Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) accosts his older brother's girlfriend, an actress named Anne (Juliette Binoche), on the street after being unable to reach her on the telephone. Attempting to gain alliance against their father (Josef Bierbichler) from his brother Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a photojournalist on assignment in the Balkans, Jean, without solicitation, begins to complain to the polite, but hurried and preoccupied Anne, of his objection to his father's unconsented plans to renovate the family's farmhouse with the expectation of apprenticing him to assume eventual responsibility for the farm. Pressed for time and unprepared to appropriately address Jean's personal issues, Anne attempts to placate him with a snack purchased from a nearby vendor and gives him the keys to the apartment, providing a terse reminder that he cannot stay indefinitely. Jean's frustrated attempts to voice his grievance leads to a thoughtless act: discarding his crumpled paper bag into the lap of an undocumented immigrant from Romania named Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu) who is panhandling near the entrance of a cornershop. A principled and tenacious music teacher of African descent, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), witnesses the humiliating episode, and confronts Jean to demand an apology. The altercation soon draws the attention of the police who seem to quickly side with the young transgressor, duly noting Jean and an interfering, tangentially aggrieved shop owner's complaints. Eventually, the well-intentioned Amadou and inculpable Maria are officially detained.

Michael Haneke creates an intelligently constructed, compelling, provocative, and relevant observation on social inequity, the untenability of cultural assimilation, and the failure of communication in Code Inconnu. Presented as a series of dissociated (and intrinsically ethnographic) episodes on the lives of the principal characters following the fateful (though seemingly trivial) transection, Haneke examines the ingrained social divisiveness, moral complacency, and created bounds of human interaction. Chronologically indeterminate events, interrupted dialogues (often truncated in mid sentence), prolonged transitional fadeouts, and recurrent episodes of missed (and mis) communication (Jean's unsuccessful attempts to reach Georges and Anne; the mysterious letter left on Anne's door seeking help, perhaps written by an abused child living in a neighboring apartment; Georges' inability to unlock the front door of the apartment building after the access code is changed) pervade the film's fragmented narrative structure, exposing the flawed perception of cultural integration and social equality in the constantly evolving racial and socio-economic demography of a traditionally monoethnic society. The exquisitely wordless, extended final sequence, articulated solely through the consonant rhythm of an outdoor performance by Amadou's deaf music students, illustrates the innately human capacity to transcend the artificially imposed barriers of cultural perception and bias to communicate through the universal language of community and compassion. However, in the frenetic pace and ambient cacophony of a claustrophobic, modern existence, human expression is often only valued for its measured distance and tolerated silence.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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