A hand scoops coffee. An eye blinks. Gas is pumped. Teeth are brushed. Never full-bodied human beings, never willful agents pursuing their own lives. Bits and pieces operating, being operated upon. Inert documentary chunks suited to the mechanical life they portray.
The first scenes seem so innocent.
The family sits in their car as it is pushed through the carwash. They are placid, plastered, swaddled within four thousand pounds of steel. The carwash is a dark trench. The car is carried through it on tracks. The sense of mechanization is overwhelming.
All this built simply so that decent people shouldn’t have to scrape the grime off their own car.
It is just another thing people do. Millions of them, every day.
It is all part of a normal life.
Being dragged through a dark trench with your family in stuporous silence, a gaze devoid of any sense on all your faces.
What do they think, the father, the mother, the little girl, each trapped in their own fine skull? The only people we see amidst all this swimming machinery.
As the car rolls out of the carwash, there is a sign advertising vacations to Australia. A beautiful, sandy beach. Bright sun.
Soon after, the little girl feigns blindness at school. The teacher informs the mother, who, with great anger, tries to force the little girl to confess. She will not. She tries a different approach. My little dear, do not be afraid, just tell mommy the truth and it will be okay. So then she tells. The mother slaps her crisply. What anger, what hatred of one’s own life in that slap.
The husband and wife shop for groceries in the local supermarket, but it is the shopping cart, not them, which holds the center of the frame. We never see the shopper’s heads, only their arms and legs as they manipulate their nutrition into their cart. Shopping is dehumanizing, it is mechanical; when we later see them eat their steak and drink their wine, we know it gives them no pleasure.
At the table the wife’s brother, who is staying with them for a few weeks, breaks down into tears for no reason. The little girl is confused and afraid. The adults seem no better equipped to comprehend what is happening. No one extends a hand.
They have a huge aquarium as big as a room wall stocked with exotic fish. Every so often we see a family member drop in fish food, and the quick response as the fish dart upward on a diagonal.
The fish swim because they cannot do otherwise. They eat the food because it is given.
The husband edges out his superior at work. He is making good money in a stable job, they have a sizable inheritance from the wife’s parents. They will keep the inheritance in the bank so as not to be taxed on it.
Money is no problem.
Every day they wake at 6:00 am to the same news broadcast, the same toothbrushings, the same coffee and cereal. Even the key in their bedroom door has not moved an inch in a year. They sit in their same car in the same carwash.
Day in and day out. The same. The same. The same. Life lived simply because it must be lived, because there is no other choice.
Oh, there is a choice. There is.
There are the saved and the doomed and Haneke’s people are the latter. I think it is because they are incapable of obsessing over the must-be-livedness of life. What permits us to go on.
What pain in what can never be expressed.
Yet they do go on. It is all they do. This is the horror of their lives. They do not know it yet. As the movie begins they have not yet grasped this horror, but it is there. Their lives reveal it.
We sense it is all slowly flowing downhill, but where does it change? When does it begin to snowball? When does their deranged intentionality dawn upon us? Oh yes, now, things are being done for a reason.
And what is the reason?
We can begin to suspect their purpose. But the truth is that when we have our first suspicions, we also know that there is something else contained within this purpose. Something abysmal that must exist. Because if it does not exist, life is canned.
This thing is why Haneke made his movie. To show us this essential facet of our world. This thing inside this horrific scheme inside them.
Let me break it down:
Here's what Slavoj Žižek says Lacan believes: there are really just three things worth speaking of in the world. These things are:
1) people like ourselves
2) the “big Other,”—society, codes of conduct, laws, etc.
and 3) the “Thing,” i.e. God, truth, whatever you want to call that awful little word Beckett can never quite say
Now the way Žižek sees it is that while we’re off having our relations with (1), relations that only work because of, and are basically determined by (2), what really makes it all possible is the creeping suspicion that somewhere out there we’ll get to meet (3). But if we can't bring ourselves to believe in (3), then we're fucked. “We find ourselves in a 'flat' aseptic universe in which subjects are . . . reduced to lifeless pawns in the regulated game of communication.”
And there you have it. Lifeless pawns in the regulated game of communication.
A year after the movie began the wife is in the carwash again, smothered in a shadow black as night. We see her profile, but not a single feature of her face. The shot shifts to the husband, indicating we have just seen his point of view. The shot jumps back to the wife who is moaning uncontrollably in a fit of sobs. The husband sits and watches. The car shifts by the advertisement for Australia.
They take their daughter to see the husband’s parents. His elderly father and mother smile. They have reached life’s end. They have outlasted the horrors of the 20th century. They bid their son goodbye and ask that he drive home carefully. We see him dangerously passing cars on the snowy road home. Someone puts out a bowl of cereal for the little girl and sprinkles a generous amount of sugar on top. She eats half of it and declares herself full. Mother tucks her in, the little girl asks God to watch her soul should she not wake. Can we keep the light on just a little longer? No, the journey home was long. To bed.
This is all these people ever do.
The husband writes a letter to his parents: he did not want to say it during the visit, but he has decided to quit his job. The scene shifts and they are at the bank, withdrawing the inheritance. Are they in need of money? the teller asks. They might take a loan instead, it might make more sense financially. They tell him they are emigrating.
They write to the husband’s parents. They have had a tough time deciding, but they will take their daughter with them. In church she said she was not afraid of death. It is a sign she should come with them.
As we hear these words we see the daughter coloring in an abstract drawing.
Is Haneke telling us here that humans make art, which means we are not animals, and that therefore we deserve dignity and meaning?
Or is he saying that this how humans pass their life, carefully filling in the forms given them?
It all happens fast now. For the second time we see the mother at the doctor filling her prescription.
The father buys severe tools: a sledgehammer, a power saw, an axe.
The mother buys an exorbitant array of delicacies. The shopgirl asks her who is getting married. No one. It is just for them to enjoy. Oh, she replies, then they are having people over? The mother is consuming a rich chocolate when the girl asks, and as she swallows it, she snaps at her: No. There is no occasion.
It is as though she doesn’t understand.
The husband sells his car. At the junkyard we hear dissonant music playing from the car stereo. It is Alban Berg, “To the Memory of An Angel.”
Alban Berg was capable of seeing the beauty in the death of an innocent young woman.
It is though he is challenging us.
They take a cab home and in an extended point of view shot we see the husband take a long stare down one end of his street and then down the other.
How many times he has stared down this street. How many times you have stared down your street. But this time you do it knowing you will never do so again.
What passes through his head in these instants?
As they eat their dinner the phone rings. The husband takes it off its cradle and lets it hang.
The next morning the mother is setting out an enormous platter of rich cheeses. There is a crash from the living room. The husband has crushed the shelf above the TV with the sledgehammer. If we are to have a chance, he says, we must be systematic.
Systematic destruction. Yes, Michael Haneke surely knows who engaged in systematic destruction.
They eat a gluttonous breakfast. They sip wine even as they fill their coffee cups. There are rolls, butter, chocolates, cheese, fruit.
But I wonder, what meaning does this food have for them?
With chilling deliberation the husband picks up the top shirt off a stack of shirts and cleanly rips it down the middle, spilling the buttons on the floor. Then the next, and the next, and the next. It is an utterly controlled series of movements, but the violence is unmistakable.
How he loathes those shirts.
Cold, dispassionate rage. What horror.
They rip every last piece of clothing to tatters with the same methodical violence. They snap records in half. They tear up photo albums. They pull down the curtains and eviscerate them. They destroy the little girl’s drawings. We see the one she had worked on earlier as it is torn firmly in half. We, of course, recognize it, just as we recognize that they do not.
It is a bitter and fascistically thorough renunciation of the very fact that they have ever walked the earth.
WE must have a system if we are to achieve our aim. My God, even this, they must do it like automatons.
They move from small to big. They bash the TV into itself. They hammer chests of drawers to splinters. They buzzsaw their walls.
There is silence but for the sound of their work.
Not a sound at all but the whisper of demolition.
This demented work goes on and on. It is a vision out of hell.
The mother screams NO! While the voice still sounds the scene cuts from her twisted mouth to a shot of the husband swinging his axe through the glass wall of the fish tank.
It is a brilliant moment. At one stroke the entirety of what is happening is punctuated, sublimated, and embodied.
The entire film is here.
Water floods the room. Shots of the dying fish trying desperately to flip themselves back into the water. Their desperate agony. The little girl runs into the room. She is immediately in hysterics. The mother holds her back as she attempts to scramble to the fish. The scene goes on and on, the little girl screaming, screaming.
I want to tell her: please, do not prolong this atrocity.
I just want this to be over with.
Why do I not just stop the film right here? It is obvious what remains to be done. Why do I force myself to see this?
Do I want to see it happen? Am I intrigued?
Somewhere in me, do I agree?
The fish’s thrashings become slower and slower. They strain for life with complete futility, and this makes them poignant.
Things are things, but life is life. No living thing really wants to die.
Do this man and woman feel doubt? This is their one chance.
Shots of the house in tatters.
Someone is at the door. The husband stalks up to it like a thief.
It is the phone company. They tell the husband that it is not permitted to leave one’s phone off the hook. It interferes with the line. He apologizes quite sincerely and says he will replace it immediately.
Might they come in to have a look at it? they ask.
No, he says.
What might have happened if they had come in?
They flush money down the toilet. Thousands upon thousands of marks. Enough to buy groceries for years. It goes on and on.
It is as though they are flushing away the years of hard work.
Haneke said that of all the horrors in this movie, this one elicited the greatest shock in his audiences.
I am aghast to learn that.
They watch a cover of Celine Dion’s ballad “The Power of Love” in their darkened living room to pass the time as they wait for their little girl to succumb to the poison they have told her to drink.
It’s bitter, she says, so trustingly.
This scene, of parents poisoning their daughter: it is the dark back that hangs behind the iconic family together in their room.
Why Celine Dion? Because it is so unbearably, patly stupid and universally beloved. Mass culture has no answers. It cannot even offer us comfort. All it can do is help pass the time spent waiting for death.
The wife is next. She dissolves the pills with the butt end of her toothbrush. She moves with such impatience, as if annoyed that her poison takes so long to prepare. She slugs it with such rancor it spills out the sides of her mouth. We see her shuddering in her death throes over the body of her little girl, and it seems as though at the very last moment she has realized it was all a terrible mistake.
The husband cannot keep his poison down. He vomits it up.
To be the last alive. What thoughts would one have?
What if one wanted to live?
Now one would really know the meaning of choice.
He goes to the bathroom and fills a syringe to inject himself.
He sits in a stupor staring at a TV, its static a stand-in for his fuzzing consciousness. As the camera zooms into the static we cut to previous shots from the movie. His wife sobbing uncontrollably. His daughter smiling.
Last thoughts before death? The very last thought he has? How impossible, how despicable it feels to think that anyone would ever have a last thought.
That you will have a last thought.
That your most cherished human on this planet will have a last thought.
That yours might be of her.
That it might be of you and her on a Greek island staring at a sunset that you told yourself in that moment you'd like to be the last thing you ever think about.
A coda tells us that despite a suicide note and no evidence to the contrary, the father's father insisted it was murder. He simply would not believe his son and daughter-in-law could do this.
This is the real father's father who said this.
The father's father of the Austrians who actually did this.
What are we to make of Haneke's story? There is no hint that redemption is a possibility. There is no indication of why they did it. There is only documentation of the world that drove them to death and their immense hatred of it.
How long did they harbor these feelings? What finally put them on the path to suicide? Why them and not someone else?
Or, I suppose, what I really mean to ask: Why are they different from me?
Was it better to take the daughter or leave her an orphan?
Was it better to live or to die?
This is our world.
Or perhaps not quite. Because in our world we have Haneke, we have someone to show us these people who have no hope. Their struggle presented as art becomes precisely that horrible Thing whose lack made their lives unendurable. When we see them lack it we know that it exists—because, of course, how could you lack something that doesn't exist?—and that is what lets us go on without sipping our own poison.
Haneke makes no attempt at answers. It is very plain that they are immaterial. It is all immaterial. This movie only means to tell us one Thing.
The credits roll. We return to our own lives. What else is there to do?
Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books). His writing has appeared recently with the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Music & Literature, Southerly, The Kenyon Review, and Tin House. He is a Senior Editor to the journal of translation Two Lines.