The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke) and the Freudian Death Drive – Part 1.


Michael Haneke’s debut feature set the tone for the majority of his interests that would be explored over the next few decades.  The Seventh Continent (1989), though part of the Glaciation Trilogy, stands on its own for questioning a very specific and brutal form of philosophy; that of Freud’s Death Drive principles.  Though Haneke would address philosophical issues in a lot of his films (this site has argued in the past for a Nietzchean reading of The White Ribbon (2009) and Andornian view of The Piano Teacher (2001) ), The Seventh Continent is almost unique in his canon for questioning so specifically an ideal (they are often smuggled into a cacophony of ideas rather than a pure, singular vision).

This essay aims to demonstrate the basic thinking behind Freud’s Death Drive principle and how The Seventh Continent uses cinematic grammar and narrative tools to address and contend the issues that Freud originally encountered.

The Death Drive.

Freud first addresses the idea of the Death Drive in his 1920 work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Though it has several ties with the work of Schopenhauer, Freud argued for a base, primal desire to achieve a more inanimate state of life, provided through the division between life and death.  In modern terms, this seems to imply a longing for an end though far from that of a religious wanting for an afterlife or a new, pleasant realm.  This is a basic urge towards suicide and oblivion.

This drive is the opposite of the manifestations of Eros; the life drive leading to propagation and sex, both for pleasure and for the furthering of life.  Eros seems an odd choice for opposition, perhaps suggesting that Freud’s writing and theories were greatly affected by the turn of the century’s obsession with the erotic (rather than the other way round as is often suggested).  It implies that the lack of eroticism, sex and basic drives towards pleasure and distraction are far more damaging and can lead to a wanting for an end; especially ironic considering the many negative implications that sex can have in other theories of his such as Hysteria.

There is perhaps a natural balance between these two opposites (the positive later renamed Thantos) but the situation of interest to this essay is when there is an imbalance, either in reality or in narrative worlds. The consequences of the this imbalance sees a running desire for an end take over, not just the basic ideas of Thantos, but even general sanity.  The sheer power of the idea of the Death Drive taking over is one that has been used in the works of several writers.  Edgar Allen Poe almost manages to predict and predate the theories of both Freud and Schopenhauer in a number of his short stories that exemplify the consequences of a Death Drive being followed through.

Freud’s views on the Death Drive seemed to thin and become less specific as he gradually aged though there’s a strong reading for his original ideas in a number of films, The Seventh Continent being just one of them.  He seems unsure as to the all-encompassing nature of the drive but the medium of film allows these ideas to be presented in a pure form, almost as a control sample with the worry of the influence of the “wider aggressive” instincts held comfortably at bay in fictional narrative worlds.

The Seventh Continent therefore can be seen in a number of ways to show the worst case scenario for the dominion of the Death Drive over someone’s psyche.  In this case the example is colder and more horrific because it seems to take possession of a family unit; the most basic form of western, bourgeoisie safety. It is also doubly effective in showcasing the drive because of the latent repression that the safety of this unit can create; the scenario in the film being almost inconceivable to viewers in a similar familial situation.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell

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