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Violence, coldness, vacuity. These could be the three key words to characterise Michael Haneke’s Glaciation Trilogy. The characters are executioners and victims at the same time. Executioners against other human beings (but also against themselves), victims of a world in which there the human being as such is no longer considered.

In a merciless world

In 1989, something new and extremely important happened in the Austrian and world film scene. It was in this year, in fact, at the age of forty-six, that Michael Haneke, who would become one of the most famous contemporary filmmakers in Austria and who influenced and still influences numerous other filmmakers all over the world, made his debut behind the camera. And indeed, 1989 is a crucial year. The year in which the so-called Glaciation Trilogy took off, but also in which began a kind of cinema that, drawing heavily on what had been made in the past, at the same time created a language of its own. The Seventh Continent immediately shocked audiences and critics alike because of the extreme violence staged. Domestic violence, which could occur in any ‘respectable family’. And which, precisely for this reason, touched the viewer so deeply.

The Glaciation Trilogy would be continued three years later with Benny’s Video, and concluded in 1994 with 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. What do these three works have in common? And, above all, what, in fact, is meant by Glaciation Trilogy?

Violence, coldness, vacuity. These could be the three key words that characterise this trilogy. In these three films of his (but also in his later works), Michael Haneke has precisely staged certain family and social dynamics that result in a violent act. The family members who commit suicide one after the other in The seventh Continent, but also the young Benny, who in Benny’s Video ends up killing a teenager he has just met, as well as the protagonists of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, whose actions culminate in a final tragedy inside a bank, are executioners and victims at the same time. Executioners against other human beings (but also against themselves), victims of an increasingly cold world, in which no one communicates with those around them any more, in which the human being as such is no longer taken into consideration, in which consumerism has now definitively established itself and in which the act of watching takes on increasingly distorted and voyeuristic connotations.

Michael Haneke deals with such complex topics with a directorial composure that might initially denote coldness. But, in fact, there is no trace of coldness. On the contrary, the director is incredibly close to what he is staging, meticulously analysing every aspect of everyday life, directly attacking the capitalist world, money (the scene in The seventh Continent in which banknotes are flushed down the toilet is emblematic), religion (interestingly, the cross itself is observed in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance almost as a sort of ‘divertissement’, as a figure without any particular meaning, to be reconstructed as a puzzle in moments of boredom). In the same way, the director meticulously investigates the inner self of each of his characters, characterising their world and everyday life through repetitive and apparently meaningless gestures, objects and monitors.

Yes, monitors. Whether surveillance cameras, television sets or video recorders, images are constantly ‘filtered’, acts of violence are never shown to us in their entirety before the camera, even sometimes we can only hear the off-screen noises. Perfectly in line with postmodernism, Haneke places the act of watching constantly in the foreground. It is not, however, a simple observation of reality. Despite the coldness of feelings, the constant isolation, the lack of values and certainties in the protagonists, what we see above all denotes a great understanding of the human soul and how the human being himself has become more and more like an automaton. We are what we do. We do what we are. But what are we really? Gestures are performed almost mechanically, without thinking about the consequences. By now, there seems to be no trace of humanity at all, but only a great, great emptiness.

Dark lighting, scenes mainly shot indoors, cold, almost maniacally tidy rooms (like the kitchen of the protagonist’s house in Benny’s Video) before the climax, totally upside down following the aforementioned acts of violence, characterise this Glaciation Trilogy. Objects often speak for the characters and characterise them to the point of becoming almost one with them. Everyday actions are mechanical and devoid of any trace of emotion. Time itself can be shaped at will. Just as Benny does with the video in which a pig is killed, as he plays it over and over again and often at different speeds.

Considering Michael Haneke’s entire filmography, we note how certain constants of the Glaciation Trilogy are also maintained in his later works. This concerns above all an upper-class context, a violence that arrives as the final consequence of a series of tensions that have been too long dormant, a frequent use of the off-screen and a skilful play with the perceptions of the viewer, whose gaze is cleverly directed each time. The human being, the victim of a sick world, is the real protagonist. And only a mature and disenchanted gaze – sceptical rather than pessimistic – can tell us about him with all his complex facets, making long shots, diegetic music (“a film is more like a musical work than a literary one”), precise, perfectly rhythmic noises, almost deafening because of the silence in which they unfold, some of the best narrators there could be.

With the Glaciation Trilogy, therefore, a new way of understanding cinema and observing reality officially began. If it is true that Haneke often drew heavily from what had been made in the past, it is also true that, at the same time, he adapted everything to a purely post-modern context, classifying himself as the first author to conceive a certain type of mise-en-scène. A mise-en-scene that has been imitated over and over again, which, even in all his other works, hits us each time like a punch to the stomach.

Info: the page of Michael Haneke on iMDb; the page of The Seventh Continent on iMDb; the page of Benny’s Video on iMDb; the page of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance on iMDb