71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

Cinema’s basic medium is synchronicity. Events feel cinematic when they take on the magical alignment of the editing room: the sun dipping below the horizon just as a couple locks lips or a stranger just barely slipping through closing train doors with common mechanical ease. The tagline summary of Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance would seem to slot neatly into this sensibility: a group of strangers living unconnected lives are suddenly brought together by a shocking act of violence. But the slick over-determination of big-budget cinematic melodrama is entirely absent from Haneke’s forensic examination of the human condition. “I try to get closer to reality, to get close to the contradictions,” Haneke has said of his dispassionate, almost dissociated realism. “The cinema world can be a real world rather than a dream world.”

The film’s title clues us in on its experimental structure. In static scenes that resemble the newsreels with which they are interspersed, and which always seem to end too abruptly or linger a little too long, Haneke shuffles between the lives of a dozen or so strangers living in Vienna: a resentful married couple, a homeless Romanian boy, a professional ping pong player. Many are never named, and the audience is made to work to establish an emotional connection. They have nothing to do with one another besides their common presence in a bank on Christmas Eve when a young man starts firing a revolver indiscriminately. 

This event, which forms the film’s climactic conclusion, is also announced via newsreel in its opening scene. In Haneke’s steadfast betrayal of the cinematic, there are no build-ups or payoffs, only the unfiltered inertia of life’s ordinary ordeals. A reasonable audience assumption with multi-narrative films such as Haneke’s is that at some point everything will converge in a moment of cosmic coincidence, that we will come to understand that the disparate stories only seemed that way and that we are more connected than we are divided in our common humanity. There is no such sentimentality here. The violence is random and unredeemed, and the characters’ isolation is preserved with surgical care, exemplified by the jarring several-second-long blacked-out pauses that separate the narrative fragments that compose the film. 

In a sense, the characters that populate his film are just a means for Haneke to get to what really concerns him: the space between them. Dialogue is frequently muffled by mechanical background noise, and separateness purveys the composition of his shots, as in the slow shot of a traffic jam with each car spaced at even intervals we see early on in the film. News of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia – a war about regulating borders and what sort of people we are prepared to share a common world with – cuts through the film. A student of philosophy, Haneke seems indebted to Karl Jaspers’ proposition that we can never truly know the other.

But for all its unrelenting bleakness, there is something redemptive about Haneke’s refusal to mask over our mutual alienation. 71 Fragments sees suffering as inevitable and violence as essentially meaningless, but in its sterile disavowal of sentimental cinema that disguises surplus feeling as meaningful connection, the film suggests that if we are to learn to better endure this condition, we must first learn to acknowledge it. Haneke has made his priorities clear: “What we’re doing for another person is more important than what we’re feeling for them.”

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