Funny Games (1997)

Ever since the Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke tossed Funny Games like a bucket of vomit into moviegoers’ faces, the response has been brutally polarized. Some find it an unpalatable, pretentious exercise in stringing the audience along for its own cruel sake. I think it’s kind of brilliant. With one cathartic exception, or unless you count a slap in the face, there is no onscreen violence in Funny Games. It’s all either off-camera or out-of-frame. So what’s all the fuss been about? Well, what Haneke does is diabolically simple. He leaves out the stuff that carnage-addicted moviegoers want to see, and he lingers like a smitten lover over the stuff most thrillers leave out. What you see an awful lot of in Funny Games is emotional violence. You see the shock. The gathering disbelief, and then the chilling belief: Yes, this is all really happening. The aftermath of a violent act. The agony of someone trying to move with a broken limb, filmed in agonizing real time. Most of the movie, in fact, is pretty much real-time, though towards the end Haneke seems to sense that it’s time to start wrapping things up.

The story is basic: A well-to-do family — husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe), wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski) — arrive at their lakeside vacation cottage. Two polite young men, clad in white — Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) — insinuate themselves into the cottage and then proceed to make the family’s lives miserable. Funny Games thus announces itself as being in the same league as A Clockwork Orange, Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, and other, lesser-known home-invasion thrillers. But is it really playing the same sport?

I say it isn’t, and not just because Haneke obviously intends the film as a scolding statement on screen violence — that’s only the surface. Haneke uses cinema to deny the primitive urges of cinema. Early on, Paul coerces Anna to disrobe, and though we don’t want to see her nudity in this context, we are nonetheless primed to see it, because most exploitation films would use the sequence as an excuse for some T&A. But the camera never moves below Anna’s shoulders. It stays on her face, and, here and elsewhere, Susanne Lothar communicates volumes of rage and shame wordlessly. Haneke is tweaking those who would’ve wanted to see Anna’s breasts regardless of the context. He goes on to tweak any of us who want anything from this movie other than what he wants to give us. In a sense, he’s playing Paul and Peter to us, except that unlike the family, we have the option of walking out (and this might be one of the most walked-out-on films in recent memory).

The elegantly simian Paul and the blubbery Peter present a familiar bad-cop-worse-cop dynamic: they’re Alex and Dim from Clockwork Orange. The movie toys with a class conflict here, but it seems that the boys come from upper-crust surroundings, too. They don’t resent this family for having the fancy car and the boat and the summer cottage; there’s really no subtext to what they do — there’s hardly any text. The selection of this family seems to be random. I couldn’t help, though, thinking of the invaders as a reflection of the Anschluss in which Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany in 1933. How’s that for home invasion? (Is the family Jewish? We never find out — tellingly, when Anna is forced to say a prayer, she doesn’t know any.) This only occurred to me fleetingly, though; Haneke seems to have more on his mind than mere political allegory.

A shotgun is used three times, or maybe only twice. Haneke breaks the fourth wall; he breaks rules we may not even have been aware of. Some of the violent response to Funny Games is appropriate, I guess. If Haneke had decided to turn another genre inside out — say, if he’d made a comedy with a slapstick structure in which everyone manages to narrowly avoid tripping or spilling things, or if he’d made an adventure film in which nobody finds the treasure — there wouldn’t be as much at stake, emotionally. But the power of cinema places us in the position of the suffering family, inside this thriller structure that fairly demands catharsis, retreat, revenge, resolution. Haneke gives us the mirror image of all of that.

A knife is used, too, out of frame, and we hear the screaming, but the camera is locked on someone else sitting on the same couch as the victim. We never see the results of the knife’s work. Earlier, the camera follows Paul out to the kitchen as he fixes himself a snack; it stays on him as something horrible happens in the next room, and he continues calmly, slowly preparing his snack. “Goddammit, you’re filming the wrong thing,” you may want to scream at Haneke. But then we return to the living room and find that Haneke may have been cruel to be kind. Elsewhere, we focus on Anna or Georg as they’re reduced to despairing animals. Georg’s delayed-shock reaction to the living-room events is harder to watch than any of the bloodletting that isn’t shown.

The remote-control scene will make or break the film for many. Though there is more torment to come, it is the final outrage, the ultimate middle finger held up to an audience expecting formula. It’s also Haneke’s way of both indulging his control and parodying it. He’s the writer and director, he can do what the fuck he wants. If it’s not what you want, he’s saying, then fuck you, go rent Panic Room. The blasts of thrash metal that accompany the opening and closing credits are no mistake (nothing in the film is). Funny Games is immaculate art-house punk rock. All it needs at the end is Johnny Rotten sneering “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, though the actual final shot pretty much implies that.

I loved it, really, from an aesthetic and analytical stance. I was into what Haneke was doing. It’s not entertainment; it’s something else. Haneke takes a rigidly controlled situation and uses it as a springboard for an assault on movies themselves. Some have complained that the film’s shots at violence-as-entertainment are facile and hypocritical. But what Haneke has actually done is to satirize the complex relationship between the story and the audience. On that level it’s a triumph. And it gleefully succeeds at failing spectacularly on the baser level of delivering what it “promises.” And what, exactly, does it promise? Why are you watching this? You know the basic premise going in; what do you expect the film to be? And do we not usually praise thrillers for surprising us, for not giving us what we expect? And who’s to say the storyteller is wrong just because he doesn’t tell us the story we want to hear, in the way we want to hear it?

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