Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Michael Haneke | 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance)

people on the edge
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Haneke (writer and director) 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) / 1994

The characters of Michael Haneke’s 1994 film, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, never released in the US, is a film about people on the edge, ready to spin out of control in the worlds in which they love or are entrapped. In the larger perspective the German-born Austrian director Haneke suggests through numerous news reports that, indeed, the whole world appears to be spinning out of control, with major battles in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. And Haneke’s characters are a local version of that vertiginous collapse.
      An escaping Romanian boy, an illegal migrant from Romanian (Gabriel Cosmin Urdes), arrives in the city via a truck shipping washing machines, is forced to sleep on the streets and eat out of garbage cans. His major crimes include stealing a Disney-like comic book and, later, a camera through which with he simply attempts to makes sense of the world into which he has escaped. One of the saddest scenes in the picture is his witnessing of a lovely woman with her two children and her dog in a park, all of whom receive more love in the few seconds he observes them than he has in his entire life. What we realize is that such lost children exist today in all societies, hidden or made invisible by our inability to concern ourselves with their lives.
       An older man, who visits the bank to receive his pension, is met by his bank-teller daughter as if he were one of her hundreds of unwanted customers. She almost hisses at him, promising to call him that night, but the evening call is more than contentious, as we perceive the lonely man—his wife having apparently died—unable to even have a true conversation with her; he must beg her to put on his granddaughter Sissi, whom he clearly loves. And he makes no attempt to report that the doctor has recently given him a bad bill of health.
       Another man prays each morning in the bathroom that his wife might find a way to love him again, and that he can show her his own continued love. When, at the dinner table, he attempts to admit that love, she reacts like a bee has stung her: this is never something you have said, she seems to indicate, basically ignoring his quiet imploring. On her part, she is clearly exhausted as she holds their child as her husband marches of to work, announcing as he does every day that he will be home sometime after 6:00.
      A student, not as clever as his peers, contemplates suicide, evidentially even chalking in several stories below his office a picture of where his body might land.
      Another man steals a stash of weapons just to financially survive.
      A couple, clearly intent on adopting a child, find the young girl they have selected to be hostile, caring more about the room in which she might sleep than in the people with whom she might now have to make contact. Clearly unhappy with the child they have chosen, they later determine, once the Romanian boy’s existence reaches the pages of the local newspapers, (although we’re never certain) to adopt him instead. They represent, clearly, the clumsy conscience of a culture that has previously ignored the weak and dying among it.
      In a highly prescient way, the director shows images of Michael Jackson, hinting, way back in 1994, at his sexual molestation of young boys.
      These individuals and others are all desperate people, the kind, Haneke reminds us, who live among us every day without our attempting to perceive them or to make contact. In short, this society, pretending to be a caring world, purposely dismisses those most in need. How much this 1994, presumably Viennese world, is so much like our own world today.
       Clearly, Haneke has presented us with a kind of explosive world, a society not only ready to spin away, but to blow up, as it does when, simply told by the owner that the gas-station does not take a credit card for the fill-up he has just pumped into his car, the handsome student runs, with basically good will, to the bank across the street just to get cash—the same bank where the old man was rebuffed by his daughter. But when he good-naturedly attempts to intervene in the line, he is brutally shoved away by another man waiting in that line of patient customers. He returns to his car across the street, pulls out a gun, and returns to the bank, shooting so we are told 3 people, possibly some of the very characters we have already witnessed, before shooting himself and dying. In a sense, he releases all the pent up hurt, pain, and emotional steam that all of Haneke’s characters have been holding in throughout this film. And although his action is a horribly violent one, it is hard to judge him in this world of good intentions given the basic ignorance of the people who live in it.
      The most amazing aspect of this movie, however, is not in its story, but how it tells it. Haneke breaks his film, as the title suggests, into 71 fragmented incidents, mostly without dialogue. The actions of its characters in each of those fragments are basically inconsequential. Perhaps only the early scene of the young Romanian boy slogging through waters to reach his new world have any great significance. The rest of these fragments are simply about survival in a society filled, given the news reports, with horrific acts of violence. The old man about to die, cooks up a pot of stew; the unhappy couple read in bed before turning off their lights; the couple determined to adopt a child show the child her yet unfinished bedroom; the student attempts to create a puzzle of positioning small pieces of paper in different perspectives that might show his ability to be an original thinker. The young Romanian boy stares in at the city’s wealthy diners, probably suffering stomach pains which none of them might have ever imagined. The director, although clearly pointing to the larger problems, basically remains silent, forcing the viewer to fill in the meanings of his images.
      The New York Times Critic Manohla Dargis argued in a 2006 review that this early work was far less accessible than his later films:
“These later, rather more accessible films are very much of an intellectual piece with his earlier work, but Mr. Haneke has in recent years mellowed his tone and adapted a more classical approach to narrative.” But, in fact, I feel that some of the later works such as Code Unknown and Caché, even The Piano Teacher are far more complex and difficult that this simple fragmentary work, which demonstrates, against the behavior of the society’s own behavior, how we are all connected, not only by chance, but in the larger sense by out attempts to survive in communities, local and global. What happens in Vietnam and Somalia, he suggests, happens in different ways in all of our cities and small towns. Violence is not an accident but a result. To ignore the homeless man, woman, boy, or girl on the street is to lose touch with any spiritual connection—which the philosopher-theologist Martin Buber might have argued—is to lose touch with yourself as well.

Los Angeles, May 8, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019)

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