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Funny frames

By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 15, 2007

A movie, though, that raises difficult questions. Throughout Funny Games, the victims keep asking their tormentors why they’re doing this. Ever amused, Paul and Peter treat the question as another part of the game. The bloody TV screen suggests that Haneke is attributing the pair’s behavior to the alienating, dehumanizing effect of the media — in particular, cinema’s exploitation of violence.

Maybe so. But why are audiences drawn to such a spectacle in the first place? An answer might lie in Haneke’s early work for TV, such as his LEMMINGE TEIL 1 —ARKADIEN/LEMMINGS PART 1 — ARCADES (1979; MFA: October 13 at 1:30 pm; HFA: October 20 at 7 pm) and LEMMINGE TEIL 2 — VERLETZUNGEN/LEMMINGS PART 2 — INJURIES (1979; MFA: October 13 at 3:45 pm; HFA: October 20 at 7 pm). Arkadien starts in the late ’50s, when the restless teenage children of the war generation — the “lemmings” of the title, as one disgruntled father labels them — respond to their alienation, guilt, and ennui with meaningless destructiveness and soul-numbing conformity. Verletzungen resumes two decades later, as the lemmings, now adults, respond to their ongoing malaise with more destructiveness and conformity. Bookended by suicides, Lemminge makes some of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s works on similar themes seem like larks. These people don’t need media violence to fuel their self-loathing, anomie, or repressed viciousness; rather, it provides relief.

The idea that the bourgeois nuclear family bears the seeds of its own immolation gets a literal treatment in the grueling, amazing, made-for-TV film DER SIEBEBENTE KONTINENT|THE SEVENTH CONTINENT (1989; MFA: October 18 at 5:45 pm; HFA: October 27 at 9:45 pm). Based on a real incident Haneke read about in a newspaper (the inspiration, along with German literature, of most of his movies), the treatment proved so uncompromising that even the relatively lenient Austrians wouldn’t broadcast it, and so it became Haneke’s first feature film.

For the opening hour or so, Der siebente Kontinent repeats shots of the banal routines of a middle-class family, punctuating each with an elliptical black screen that descends as abruptly as a blow to the head. At first these respectable citizens seem unremarkable enough, though the parents might be unusually detached, and little Eva alarms her teacher when she insists she’s blind. But things don’t take a turn for the worse till dad drops by the hardware store and picks up a chainsaw, a sledge hammer, and shears, among other items. Returning home, he says to his wife, “It is best that we go about this methodically.” And over the final 40 minutes, that’s exactly what happens.

Der siebente Kontinent is the first film in a series that Haneke, to his later regret, labeled “the glaciation trilogy.” The final episode, 71 FRAGMENTE EINER CHRONOLOGIE DES ZUFALLS|71 FRAGMENTS OF A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE (1994; HFA: October 26 at 9 pm; MFA: November 3 at 4 pm), a collage of the circumstances and persons involved in a senseless real-life crime, is the weakest. Here, Haneke expands his frame from the basic social unit of the family to embrace a sketchy “cross-section” of society as a whole. Although it’s not nearly as programmatic as recent multi-narrative parfaits like Crash and Babel, the film’s ambition blunts its impact.

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