Review: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

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Cast: Gabriel Cosmin Urdes, Lukas Miko, Otto Grünmandl
Director: Michael Haneke
Country: Austria
Genre: Drama


The follow review is the third entry in Ronan Doyle’s Michael Haneke Director Spotlight.

“On 23.12.93, the 19 year old student Maximilian B. shot three people in a Viennese bank branch and killed himself with a bullet to the head shortly after.”

Haneke’s decision to begin 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance with this simple title card before cutting to a scene labelled October 12th is the perfect reflection of his storytelling style. In describing immediately the events of the climactic penultimate scene toward which such a film would normally build, he discards the typical focus on the what and instead invites us to consider from the very beginning the why; this cinematic crescendo with which 71 Fragments will end is not so much the film’s subject as a means by which to explore it.

The 71 fragments of the film’s title consist of brief glimpses into the lives of a wide range of seemingly unrelated characters, interspersed occasionally with television news reports of various conflicts, accidents, and criminal trials. From a lonely old man to a couple fostering an aloof child, a border-hopping street urchin to an austere and religious security guard and his wife, the film encapsulates many lives and relationships, separated with the same black screens that reinforced the episodic nature of The Seventh Continent. 71 Fragments is the final instalment of Haneke’s “Glaciation trilogy”, and builds considerably on the foundations set by the preceding chapters, incorporating both the disaffection of The Seventh Continent and the depravity of Benny’s Video.

71 Fragments is the final instalment of Haneke’s “Glaciation trilogy”, and builds considerably on the foundations set by the preceding chapters…

Where his previous two films explored cold and closed characters removed from society, Haneke here goes the opposite direction, allowing explicit emotional attachment to take centre stage. This is not a film about a bank shooting, but a film about people; about humanity. These are ordinary people leading ordinary lives, their problems—dealing with a new foster child, managing academic commitments, coping with the loneliness of old age—the elements which drive the film’s central drama. To create a compelling character about whom the viewer genuinely cares and worries is no easy task to achieve in ninety minutes, but one which Haneke here manages several times over. It is a testament to his talents as a writer that he can succeed so wholly in these polar opposites; his work before this would perhaps have suggested him incapable of creating relatable characters. Expository dialogue is eschewed in favour of frame compositions and a mise-en-scène which bespeak the relative characters’ problems in life. Consider, for instance, the old man. His kitchen table houses a sole seat, his isolation conveyed perfectly through this simple visual cue. A scene in which he animatedly converses via telephone with his daughter is, despite being a perfectly mundane and everyday encounter to us, the film’s most arresting scene, his joy at simple human contact simultaneously tragic and uplifting.

The student, too, is an intriguing character—not least of all because of the future we know awaits him—and one upon whom the burden of expectation hangs heavy. Both his parents and society itself expect nothing short of excellence in all academic and recreational pursuits. The frame-spanning expanses that are his study desk and ping-pong table attest to this domineering influence over his life, and the inescapable pressures of conformity and society’s imposing expectations—his story is somewhat reminiscent of The Graduate, albeit considerably more angry and Austrian. Haneke makes us understand this character to the point where we almost forget the crimes he will commit, or at least lament that this was the fate to which he felt driven.

71 Fragments functions remarkably well as an in-depth character study, an incisive look at much the same alienation, pressures, and ultimate lack of fulfilment in life as The Seventh Continent. Fascinatingly, it also manages to develop simultaneously the ideas of Benny’s Video, though in a fresh new way. Where that film focused on the glamourisation of violence in the media and its abundant propagation in cinema, this instead comments upon how we have become desensitised to tragedy through our constant exposure to it in daily life. The news footage of civil wars and terrorist activities, among other horrors, are just minute titbits of the chaos and anarchy of contemporary life. Their separation from the narrative scenes by the lingering black screens reinforces their existence as background items on half-watched televisions and half-heard radio broadcasts (they appear as both within several of the characters’ stories). They have no relation to these characters’ lives, no impact upon them, nor relevance to their own existences. They pay them no notice, nor would we in their position; indeed we wonder why these tangential abstractions continue to interrupt the narrative flow throughout the film. When the climactic scene is followed with a similar ninety second news report of the shooting, realisation dawns and we understand that these endearing lives are like all those of the many others behind every tragedy we witness in the media every day, like all those we have paid little attention to throughout the film.

71 Fragments functions remarkably well as an in-depth character study, an incisive look at much the same alienation, pressures, and ultimate lack of fulfilment in life…

Drawing us into its characters’ lives and encouraging our attachment to them, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance lashes out at the laissez-faire attitude we adopt to the horrors and deaths presented to us en masse by the media. Reminding us of the human lives we so often forget are destroyed by such tragedy, it is a disarmingly impactful and harrowing message that makes one re-evaluate both the film itself and the mass desensitisation of humankind. Building on two incredible predecessors, even managing to surpass them in its power, this cements the Glaciation trilogy as one of cinema’s greatest triptychs, and Haneke as one of the finest directors in the business.

[notification type=”star”]97/100 ~ MASTERFUL. Drawing us into its characters’ lives and encouraging our attachment to them, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance lashes out at the laissez-faire attitude we adopt to the horrors and deaths presented to us en masse by the media.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.