Review: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

By Ronan Doyle

Among the most well-known of international directors on the art house circuit, Michael Haneke has captured glimpses of the vacuousness of modern middle class life, the casual brutality of mankind’s very nature, and—most recently in his Palmes d’Or winning The White Ribbon — the malleability of childhood and the peril of authoritarianism. Often forgotten amidst the more highly ranked of Haneke’s impressive oeuvre is his 1994 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, a delicately structured film worthy of retrospective consideration.

An opening intertitle details for us a bank shooting perpetrated by a young student in which three people were killed; immediately we can conclude that this cinematic crescendo toward which 71 Fragments will build is not so much the film’s subject as a means by which to explore it. What follows is a collection of apparently unrelated stories unfolding before us: 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.

The decision to immediately alert the viewer to the film’s conclusion represents a bold statement on Haneke’s part. 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 a substantial task to achieve in ninety minutes, but one which Haneke here manages several times over. 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, 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. It is not the characters’ realism which makes 71 Fragments remarkable, however, but rather what Haneke employs them to achieve. Interspersed regularly throughout the film is news footage of civil wars and terrorist activities; minute titbits of the chaos and anarchy of contemporary life. These are separated from the narrative scenes by a lingering black screen, reinforcing their existence as background items on half-watched televisions and half-heard radio broadcasts. They have no relation to these characters’ lives, no impact upon them, nor relevance to their own existences. Yet when the climactic scene is followed with a similar ninety second news report of the shooting, realization 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.

Concluding with a revelation more breath-taking and shocking than any narrative twist in recent cinematic memory, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance lashes out at the laissez-faire attitude we adopt to the horrors 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.

90/100 - To create a compelling character about whom the viewer genuinely cares and worries is a substantial task to achieve in ninety minutes, but one which Haneke here manages several times over.

Senior Editor and Film Critic. Having spent the vast majority of my life sharing in the all too prevalent belief than cinema is merely dumbed-down weekend escapism for the masses, I was lucky enough to turn on a television at the exact right moment to have my perspectives on the medium completely transformed. Those first two and a half hours marked the beginning of a new life revolving around—maybe even depending upon—the screen and the depth of artistry, intellectual stimulation, and emotional exhilaration it can provide.
  • Christopher Misch

    Can’t say I’ve seen that Haneke myself, but you’ve certainly made a strong case for it.

  • Julian Carrington

    Big fan of 71 Fragments, nice to see it getting a little love. Haneke reprises his fragmented style in Code Unknown (full title: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys), which is among my favourite films, full stop. 

  • Baron Ronan Doyle

    I think it’s very interesting the way Code Unknown takes the opposite approach, starting with one incident and following the ripples outward. The two work really well as companion pieces.