Funny Games (1997 Austria 103 mins)
Source: Bavarian Films Prod Co: Wega Film Prod: Vit Heiduschka Dir, Scr: Michael Haneke Phot: Jürgen Jürges Ed: Andreas Prochaska Prod Des: Christoph Kanter Mus: Excerpts from Handel, Mascagni, Mozart, Zorn
Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann
Watching Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is like driving down a dark highway punctuated by billboards posting advertisements for provocative local landmarks. You bite, follow the directions, and get lost, only to learn those landmarks are really dead-ends. Yet behind those dead-end signs you see a flickering, which is the muted light of a unique auteur struggling to manifest a complex cinematic vision. Funny Games provokes a tantalising cauldron of conflicting emotions in its audience including confusion, empathy, disgust, respect and disappointment. And we’ve all seen the brew before: a dash of Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972); a sprinkle of Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971); and a final splash of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Throw in a smidgeon of the popular Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, 1992), mix slowly, and you basically have Haneke’s Funny Games. Well, sort of. If this film had emerged 20 years earlier, its reception would have been prodigious. As Maximilian Le Cain writes, the film “puts a naive faith in the confrontational power of the spectacle of sadistic violence, which Tarantino had already definitively tamed and thus undermined in his first two films. By the time Haneke adopted it, it was a redundant gimmick” (1). There is no doubt Haneke was late with this instalment, but he does provide layers of contradictions and perversions that disorient the viewer’s traditional genre-based conceptions of the relationship forged between spectator, director and character. And in a sick, “funny game” way, this disorientation is worth experiencing. As Kierkegaard once said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. Haneke freely dishes out plenty of anxiety; some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, leaving Funny Games as an engaging, noble failure that awkwardly raises important questions all film viewers should regularly ask.
While Haneke’s plot is profoundly simple, making sense of its meaning is not, and this is one of the first contradictions he establishes. A middle-aged Austrian family consisting of mum (Anna), dad (Georg), son, and dog begin their vacation at a posh lakeside summerhouse. While dad and son prepare the sailboat, a young, neighbourly male seeking to borrow a few eggs approaches mom in the kitchen. She gladly provides the eggs, but he refuses to leave. When dad and son return, another young male joins his partner, and after some posturing, he verbally confronts the father, who in turn smacks the young brute. The two males proceed to ruthlessly terrorise the family and torture them in various ways. The final carnage is as unrelenting as it is sadistic.
One of the most popular criticisms of Funny Games is its lack of characterisation. The four primary characters, Anna, Georg, and the two thugs, Paul and Peter, lack serious depth, which is by any standard a sound criticism. Le Cain writes, “Haneke sees no need to characterise his heroes and villains beyond their actions”. We know virtually nothing about them except what we see, and the two sadists’ motivations are absent throughout the film. We have no clue why they are perpetrating this horror, and because we know nothing about their background, they lurk throughout the film like existential silhouettes representing incomplete reflections of our role as Movie Viewers. We need what they don’t have and what Haneke refuses to give. Even when characterisation is attempted, such as when Paul, the leader, dresses in white shorts, gloves, and a shirt, or when the two domestic terrorists discuss Kelvin, gravitation, and alternating worlds of fiction and reality near the film’s conclusion, it is forced, naive, and pretentiously obvious, a desperate attempt to add flesh to meagre skeletons. In the former attempt, Paul’s white clothes blatantly “undermine” his evil actions; in the other, neither character remotely suggests the intelligence needed to grapple with theoretical physics. Hearing them talk about Kelvin is like hearing the pope talking about pornography: the subject simply doesn’t fit the speaker.
Nevertheless, these two thugs do ironically recognise their own lack of depth, motivation, and characterisation. Haneke begs an important point: if these idiots realise this emptiness, why doesn’t the audience? This argument provides a reason for the lack of characterisation, albeit a dubious one. For example, when the father asks Paul, “Why are you doing this?” Paul casually replies, “Why not?”, as if to suggest meaning and motivation are subordinate to action and dependent on the audience’s interpretations. Furthermore, when Paul weaves his multiple lies justifying Peter’s (and indirectly, his) horrendous behaviour, he at one point states that Peter is “tormented by the void of existence”. Casting this justification in a clichéd lie undermines our faith in it, but because it echoes Paul’s nihilistic reasons, it gains resonance. By creating characters that understand their limitations as fictional characters, Haneke engages us to complete the story by filling in their voids.
And what of the family’s lack of characterisation? Le Cain suggests they hold a modest degree of heroism and subsequently reflect the lone modicum of hope regarding Haneke’s characterisations in this film. He writes, “We are back in the territory of Griffithian melodrama: the heroic, beleaguered family battling for their lives and property against an unspeakable, child-killing other. If the film works at all, it is as a touching portrait of family loyalty in the face of all odds”. While this element might exist, it does so fragilely. At their worst, the couple’s actions, particularly the wife’s, are foolish; at their best, they are questionable. One wonders how the two thugs capture the wife outside the summerhouse, especially since she successfully hid in the trees during another drive by. One also wonders why the wife doesn’t act more quickly once the thugs leave. And Haneke clearly paints this couple with all of the trappings of upper class wealth. The “pick-the-classical-composer” game the husband and wife play early in the film establishes this motif, and we quickly learn of their other assets: golf clubs, a purebred German Shepherd, and a sailboat. Of course, it is no coincidence that the dog is killed, and the objects of their wealth are the very weapons used against them. Georg’s leg is broken by the golf club, and Anna’s nightmarish end is directly facilitated by the sailboat. Thus, Haneke characterises the parents by untraditional means. They are characters defined not by who they are but by what they are – foolish, insulated, upper-class citizens who, when called to act quickly and independently in the face of danger, wilt like waterless orchids.
Paradoxically, by creating shallow characters, Haneke also engages the viewer. By constantly seeking motivations for the characters’ on-screen actions, viewers are invited to identify and construct them, even if such identifications are negative. After all, a foolish or heartless character is one we have nevertheless identified and ascribed traits to. We may not identify with them, but we certainly identify them. Haneke establishes this point by engaging viewers through a variety of extended extreme long shots. While we struggle to get close to these characters, so does the camera. Early in the film, an aerial shot of the family driving home sets this tone. We get somewhat closer, but not much, through the tracking shot that follows their car along the lake’s shoreline. These extreme long shots separate the director from the directed, and by doing so create distinct lines of demarcation between viewers, actors and the director. In a sense, the camera tries to sever the relationship between viewer and viewed, but the narrative keeps getting in the way. This point is exemplified later in the film, when the first murder is committed. The narrative should draw us toward the mother and her anguish. However, she is filmed sitting in the living room from a disturbing distance. We cannot feel her pain because we simply cannot see it. Because the narrative is ultimately controlled and driven by the two thugs (after all, they orchestrate and direct the funny games), they assume a peculiar directorial control over the whole film. We are closer to the killers, and it is they, not the director, who try to engage us, particularly when they directly address us throughout the film as if we were the director, audience, and a fellow character combined.
While much of this demonstrates technical dexterity, it also smacks of bullish self-referentiality. Haneke’s meta-cinematic techniques are almost too aggressive. As Mattias Frey writes, “Haneke employs a number of self-referential devices to, as the director once said, ‘rape the spectator to independence’” (2). This solipsism emerges everywhere. At one point, Paul winks at the camera while playing a game of “hot and cold” with Anna, who is searching for the family dog. He later turns to the camera and asks, “What do you think? Do you think they’ve a chance of winning? You are on their side aren’t you? So who will you bet with?” More disturbing, when the father orders the thugs to kill him and his wife and end the insanity, Paul responds that he couldn’t do this because the film’s length doesn’t meet feature film requirements. Finally, and most brilliantly, when the wife kills Peter, Paul instantly rummages for a remote control so he can rewind the action and eliminate that awkward plot development. He does so and controls the plot the way he controls the family. His friend cannot be killed.
Thus, what makes the games funny in Funny Games is their contradictory resonance. Haneke provides us with a labyrinth of contradictions containing varying degrees of value and texture that obtain their resonance from the conflicting roles of director, character and viewer. The musical soundtrack early in the film is classical, but it quickly shifts to discordant heavy metal. Here the aims of character and director clash. Although as viewers we are haunted by the two thugs’ lack of motivation for torturing this family, the father also reminds us that in a naïve sense, he does literally strike the first blow. Once again, the pesky narrative undermines the camera’s intentions. And perhaps the biggest contradiction is that although this film is profoundly violent, we don’t directly see much of the violence. The characters’ reactions replace the graphic cinematic violence we are programmed to expect in such genres. “Haneke concentrates on the suffering of victims, rather than allowing the spectator to identify with any pseudo-psychological motivation of the perpetrator”, Frey writes. Thus, the victims communicate the violence to us, and, in a sense, are responsible for what viewers feel.
The biggest disappointment in this film is its “void of existence”. Its anger, like jealously in Othello, “mocks the meat it feeds on”. Nothing exists innocently in this film because Haneke mocks virtually everything. The film indicts packaged thrillers by defying their conventions. In fact, Frey suggests it is an “anti-thriller” and that
The threat to family bliss comes from within the upper class, rather than from a rogue element at the edge of society…there is no rescue sequence, revenge scenario, or happy ending to the story – the last shots show the two killers ready to strike the next vacation spot.
Furthermore, Frey also effectively argues the film criticises action films for their “practice of selling violence as a consumer good (i.e. violence as spectacle, dramaturgy)”. The film also trashes consumer culture itself. It is no coincidence that before committing the first murder, Peter watches the violence caused by tsunamis and demolition derby-like races on television. By calling each other and the family cartoon names like Beavis and Butthead and Tom and Jerry, and even the moronic “Fatty”, the thugs portray themselves as caricatured by-products of a pop culture, consumer society gone wild. And the consumer culture that Haneke most vehemently attacks is the film industry.
Funny Games aggressively confronts viewers and challenges their choices as film consumers. This is perhaps Haneke’s fatal flaw because it is difficult to accept criticism from someone who uses the very subject he is criticising to deliver the criticism. Most film fans simply don’t like being critiqued as aggressively as this. Such discomfort is better left for reality. However, although I dislike being criticised by a stranger for almost two hours, somehow, I believe these attacks were worth experiencing. After all, these games are only for fun.