Seen and not Heard: The Construction of Childhood in the Psychological Thriller
By Eve Reid
[Trigger Warning: discussions of suicide and violence against children and adults.]
Scandinavian and Western European psychological thriller films differ in form from many of those produced in the United States in the late twentieth and twenty-first century. While internationally the thriller genre is identified by its scenes of heightened emotion, senseless violence, and social commentary, European cinema has a distinctive way of instilling fear through the cinematic form. This approach challenges certain conventions if judged against the Hollywood horror standard. One notable example is the body of work of Austrian director Michael Haneke, particularly his first feature film The Seventh Continent (1989). Here, Haneke's fictional construction of childhood subverts horror tropes in the interest of what German film and culture specialist Alexandra Lloyd calls ‘[undermining] cinematic and social complacency.’ Alongside this I would like to look at the role the child plays in another recent favourite horror watch of mine: Danish director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil (2022).
The Seventh Continent follows the Schobers, an Austrian family, as they navigate their seemingly ordinary life. Anna works as an optician; her husband Georg is an engineer and their daughter Eva a student in elementary school. Nothing appears unusual about the family as we see them at work or at home, eating meals together or in the car. There are suggestions made that Eva is unhappy—such as when she acts out at school pretending that she is blind and itching furiously at invisible rashes on her skin—but these nervous affectations are easily brushed under the rug as evidence of an overactive imagination. It is only until we see strange preparations being made, drugs being prescribed, and weapons being bought, that the underlying tension becomes explicit. The family shuts themselves in their suburban home, destroy everything in it including a fish tank in an excruciatingly violent montage, and eventually each take enough prescription medication to commit suicide in succession.
In contrast, Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil is concerned with familial relations as they pertain to the social conventions enacted by a typical Danish family. Bjørn, Louise and their child Agnes are on holiday in Italy when they meet an extroverted Dutch couple, Patrick and Karin with their non-verbal child Abel. The two families spend some time together and a few months later Bjørn and Louise receive an invite to spend some time in the Netherlands with Patrick and Karin. The Dutch family are unexpectedly inhospitable, much to the dismay of Bjørn and Louise who are polite to a fault; they’d rather die than ‘lose face’ in the words of Tafdrup. Indeed, the Dutch family take advantage of their trusting attitudes and fear of causing offence “because [the Danish family] let them.” In a brilliant twist we find that the Dutch family have been stealing children, cutting out their tongues, killing their parents and taking the children as their own kin –Abel was never their own but a stolen weapon unwillingly helping them carry out serial murders. Bjorn and Louise meet their fate in a very Biblical fashion, stoned to death by the other couple in a bleak Dutch landscape which Tafdrup describes as the literal representation of Hell. Agnes is seen in the final shot in the backseat of Patrick and Karin’s car as they once again enter an Italian villa, ready to repeat their sinister operation.
In both films, childhood is fictionalised to invoke fear. Children symbolise vulnerability and liability, posing a threat to the family unit from within. They need to be controlled, as seen in Eva’s punishment for lying about being blind or in pain and her eventual death at the hands of her parents, and in the violent removal of Abel's tongue to silence him (later followed by Agnes’). However, children also resist control. Eva's unusual behaviour foreshadows the violent events that unfold later, while Agnes disrupts her parents' plans by leaving her toy rabbit behind in the house of the murderous Patrick and Karin. Dominic Lennard, in ‘Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film’ (2014), explains that the horror genre extends adult suspicion of children to the demonisation of their culture. In this context, the culture of childhood refers to symbolic representations of innocence, such as Agnes' rabbit or Eva's lies. These symbols are less ‘spooky’ in the cliché sense of twins from The Shining or Nightmare on Elm Street’s eerie childish chant “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you!” The films rely on the adult-child hierarchy and innocence-violence dichotomy to shift the perspective. The children are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’ characters, as they are typically portrayed in Hollywood Cinema. Instead, they are simply innocent victims of the situations that the adults, who are responsible for them, lead them into. Oliver Speck in, ‘Funny Frames: The Filmic Concepts of Michael Haneke,’ notes how Haneke ‘attempts to show the perspective of the child, which, though it might be flawed, is truthful.’ This is certainly true also in Speak No Evil where the children for the most part are silent components, affecting the plot through their actions. For example, Abel attempts to alert the Danish family to what has happened to him (and what eventually will happen to them) by opening his mouth and showing Bjørn his severed tongue. This, of course, is one of the many instances in which Bjørn and Louise are given the opportunity to see the Dutch family for what they are and escape, but due to Bjørn’s blind commitment to staying out their visit, he ignores Abel’s explicit warning/plea for help.
In both films, children are commodified, used and killed by those who control them. Eva’s parents justify her poisoning by asking her if she is afraid of death to which she responds no. Only when she sees her father destroy her fish tank, leaving the aquatic animals within it to gasp for air on the floor amongst glass and debris, does she understand her imminent death. The children in these films meet illogical ends; Tafdrup offers a half-explanation for Karin and Patrick’s murders –Bjørn and Louise allowed the worst to happen and so it did. Haneke’s answer is similar, Speck describes how:
‘Haneke’s cinema forces the spectator to accept the only perspective that makes sense, the mad perspective of the Wahnsinn [delusional sense]. Second, it employs a pedagogy of the image that teaches its audience new ways of seeing in order to avoid the construction of a finalizing—that is, true and just—perspective.’
The refusal of total meaning in death and evil, as articulated by Haneke through the German concept of the Wahnsinn or ‘mad’ person, echoes Tafdrup's stance. Both directors intentionally refrain from offering a tidy and conclusive interpretation for the occurrences related to death and evil in their narratives. This purposeful ambiguity adds complexity to the stories, compelling the audience to grapple with the disconcerting idea that human folly, driven by an inexplicable madness, may be at the heart of the depicted horrors. Children, depicted as silent conduits for societal critique, become vehicles for this exploration. Their minds, free from the complexities of adult contemplation about mortality, violence, and societal norms, present a stark contrast to the darker and morally ambiguous actions of the adults in the films. By portraying children as diametrically opposed to their adult counterparts, the directors encourage viewers to re-evaluate the conventional notion that adulthood represents a state of behavioural and ethical superiority. Instead, the depiction of adults as architects of chaos, incapable of fully comprehending or controlling the repercussions of their actions, challenges assumptions about maturity and responsibility. In essence, the deliberate rejection of an absolute meaning in the face of evil and death serves as commentary on the unpredictable nature of human behaviour. The utilisation of children as silent witnesses and victims underscores the vulnerability of innocence in a world marked by the inexplicable and chaotic. Through this approach, Haneke and Tafdrup prompt the audience to question established norms and confront the unsettling reality that the madness depicted in their films may mirror the intricate complexities inherent in the post-modern human condition.