Movies · Projects

The 36 Dramatic Situations: The Seventh Continent (1989) and Sacrificing Loved Ones

By  · Published on August 24th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us destroy our belongings and kill our entire family.

Part 16 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones” with Michael Haneke’s first feature film The Seventh Continent.

The Synopsis

Inspired by a true story, The Seventh Continent is about an Austrian upper-middle-class family that experiences the everyday motion of life without joy, finding increasing discomfort with the monotonous routines that never end. Finally fed up with life’s depressing repetition, the family stages a detailed collective suicide that involves carefully destroying each and every possession until ultimately killing themselves as a group.

The Situation

The situation of “Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones” as exercised by classics and religious texts see one family member or kinsman sacrificing another for some sort of greater good, often with the dictation of a greater (i.e., supernatural or God-like) power at play. In its modern cinematic adaptation, however, the moral landscape in which such actions are motivated isn’t exactly so clear or straightforward.

As defined by Georges Polti, this situation involves “The Hero; the Beloved Victim; and the Necessity for the Sacrifice.” In contemporary examples of this situation, the figure standing in for the “hero” element is hardly heroic or protagonistic, while the very necessity of the “necessity for the sacrifice” is debatable. Such ambiguities certainly play a part in The Seventh Continent’s employment of this situation.

The Film

In horror films, especially of the zombie or other post-apocalyptic variety, this situation operates as a means for preserving what remains of human life: one’s kin has become non-human, so that kin must be destroyed for the greater good of humanity to survive. With a unique film like The Seventh Continent, however, the moral justification for this sacrifice is far more complex. The enemy to vanquish here is not an undead-resurrecting virus, but rather the dull parasite of routine; and sacrifice here, in turn, is not a defeat of that enemy, but a pathetic attempt at nihilistic escape in admittance of defeat. When the film’s central family finally gives up their routine and begins to destroy the meaningless objects which surround them, they do so in a way that brings little joy, consolation, or catharsis from the central problem. The family destroys their household emotionlessly, possessing no signs of anger or liberation on their faces – their destruction comes across then, as simply one final routine borne out of necessity, but ironically a routine motivated by a desire to escape routine itself.

It’s quite unclear what the family thinks they are being prevented from possessing in modern existence if, in fact, they think they are missing anything at all. Here the “hero” may be defined as the whole family (father, mother, daughter), except their act of sacrifice contains no liberation, so their actions are mostly inspired by defeat rather than a radical means of overcoming monotony. The Beloved Victim, then, is the same as The Hero, for just as each member of this family sacrifices themselves, they are also complicit in sacrificing one another. Yet the term “Loved Ones” in this situation remains oddly appropriate for this film, for as the collective sacrifice is a family affair, it implies a sort of us-vs-them view of escaping the world’s lifeless reality, suggesting that the family recognizes the demoralizing culture around them but see themselves as unified in that none of them are responsible for it, instead merely victims of it. So as perverse of a film as The Seventh Continent is, at its core there exists a convincing and sincere portrayal of “loved ones” amongst a family who stands united against whatever oppressors may exist until the inevitable tragic end.

The Seventh Continent is quite consistent with the themes explored across Michael Haneke’s array of work. Here, in his very first film, we see the exploration of dissatisfaction with the mundane nature of contemporary bourgeois life, the severance of human connections through stifling routines of social behavior, and – most notably – ambiguously motivated acts of shockingly random violence. In retrospect, this film clearly paved the way for similar issues explored in Cache, The Piano Teacher, or other examples of Haneke’s better-known later work. While Haneke is clearly not somebody known for making films that exist for the purpose of entertainment, it’s amazing how a continued exploration of similar ideas across a broad array of work can revisit those ideas, but each time in a fresh and interesting manner. The film’s use of this particular situation alone means it’s not for everybody, but The Seventh Continent nonetheless stands as a profoundly shocking and unrelenting picture of the futile struggle between human desire and the necessities of living in modern society.

Bonus Examples: Snow Angels, 28 Days Later, A Serbian Film

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

Related Topics: