On December 23, 1993, a young man walked into a bank in Vienna and discharged a gun, killing three people and wounding many others, before turning the weapon on himself. Inspired by this inexplicable tragedy, director Michael Haneke’s multi-layered mosaic weaves strands from numerous, anonymous stories into a study of the singular notion of chance; how people are magnetized to a particular place and time where an unfathomable act of violence tears chunks from their docile, innocuous existences.
Framed by news broadcasts covering the vast spectrum of international bloodshed from a selection of days leading up to the horrific act, Haneke’s fragmentary visualisation of Austrian life is somehow never less than riveting. Wildly flitting between scenarios – some a few minutes long, others lasting a mere 10 or 15 seconds – it seems, at first, like he’s asking us to decipher a cryptic puzzle, with an odd assortment of pieces strewn across a blank landscape; splintered visions superimposed over one another to form a portentous mélange of blandness. Slowly, however, the threads metamorphose into coherent statements, each fragment with its own, slowly dawning context.
There’s a Romanian street kid who border-crossed in the back of a truck; a dour, middle-aged couple whose misery seems unleavened by their sick infant; adoptive parents looking for a modicum of acceptance in the eyes of a troubled orphan; a bank clerk and her tottering, bothersome father; a young soldier who breaks into a military armory; and the young man who will eventually commit the crime.
As ever, Haneke’s vision is clinical and direct, austere and coolly calculating. He seems to take pleasure in severing his audience from any emotional associations whilst mesmerizing them with a random accrual of subtle inflections in the most minute details. It requires patience to find a way into this film and even then it’s hard to get comfortable. The threat of impending violence hangs heavily like a doom-laden weight over every scene, waiting for these lives to fatefully intersect.
Pivotal moments lay scattered throughout like clues, reflective of the wider malaise hunting these doomed participants down, whilst others wallow in the sheer mundanity that brings them alive. In one, we watch the bitterly ironic ramifications of the words of “I love you”, uttered innocently by a man to his wife at the dinner table; in another, the future killer tests the agonising limits of his endurance by practicing table tennis against a relentless machine.
For Haneke, the point, in piercing the heart of a fledgling, alienating world, is to portray a form of communication that doesn’t actually communicate at all; the elliptical nature of so many fragments positive proof of how we’re privy to very little of strangers’ lives and understand even less. ‘Reality’ takes the form of what is presented to us in fleeting interactions with countless people daily, each leaving behind partial impressions.
Disturbingly, Haneke suggests, these fragments set “the machinery of thought and emotion” into action and so we infer, we surmise – wrongfully, for the most part, fleshing out fictitious details in our fertile imaginations, our grossly exaggerated speculations. Ultimately, are we all just so many chess pieces being arranged by fateful forces?
Ambitious, daring and original, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) still seems a remarkably lucid statement on the grotesque random nature of violence and its perception. Though unconventional it remains one of this provocative auteur’s finest achievements in a career now littered with near masterpieces.