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Let the Games Begin: A Reevaluation of Michael Haneke's Funny Games
A couple years ago, I wrote a scathing review of the American remake of Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games (which will henceforth be known as Funny Games US). The brilliant performances from Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as poor rich people being tortured by a couple of lunatics played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet notwithstanding, its smugness and overt message condemning audiences for enjoying sadistic violence was a major turn off. It was a task sitting through it, an absolute nightmare in a way. But, you could say, Haneke achieved his goal. However, after avoiding Haneke’s films for a bit, and not bothering to watch the original 1997 Austrian film, I decided once and for all to delve into the Austrian director’s work. After watching Cache, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon, I decided, because I loved the ambiguity, intensity, and subversiveness of those films, I’d give the original Funny Games a go. I was not, however, expecting much. Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games US was a shot for shot remake of his original film, only in English and with new actors. Having explored Haneke’s work a bit more thoroughly and having grown more mature in my tastes, not only does Haneke rank amongst my new favorite directors (subsection: “provocateur”, next to Lars von Trier), I’ve had a change of heart about both Funny Games. That does not, however mean that I love the film, or even like it more than I did. It’s honestly hard to make up one’s mind about a film that has so much fun and takes so much pleasure in serving up a wretched dish to its audience in such a knowing way. Nevertheless, I do appreciate it more than I did. But why? Well...
All in the Family
Michael Haneke has a lot to say about things. Just things in general. And while his opinion of the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie doesn’t occupy the viewer’s mind for long, due to, um, other events, what he says is just as scathing as his message about violence (which is what I will get to later). Only a certain kind of people would play a music game in the car by quizzing one another on what operatic piece is playing. Is it Mahler? No, Wagner. Or maybe… This version of fun and games certainly occupies the mainstream music listener, but as casual as the family in the film does it (in the Austrian film, the parents are played by Susanne Lothar and Ullrich Muhe), there very act itself reeks of pretension. Haneke gives us a close up of the dozen or so CDs in the car, and while the family enjoys their ride with their expensive boat to their expensive lake house, Haneke cuts short the elegiac bliss and drowns the audiences ears’ in what could be assumed to be screamo. This harsh juxtaposition is like a scale. Opera is considered one of the high arts; screamo, within most circles, is usually written off by “that kind of people” as “noise”. But within the mainstream circle, both would be ignored; thus the scale. They’re both two extremes of the same medium. (I bet if Haneke had waited a few years to remake his film, he might use Skrillex.)
When the family get to their lake house, they enter through a gate, a clear sign that these people are not the ninety-nine percent. But that gate seems to hint at the fact that their lake house not only gates them from, you know, strangers, but gates their lives off from other people. Their lives seem so insular with that gate in place. Their lake house doesn’t look like a nice little cottage by the lake. It looks like a two story house. That you live in. Another spit in the face. While Haneke may be smarmy about the upper class, he has a lot more headed for them than they could ever expect.
The Fabulous Sociopathic Boys
The boys look like clean cut gold caddies in a way, which is a little ironic. They do not look completely out of place in the large, wealthy lake houses they break into, but they also don’t look like they were born there or were there in the first place. These sociopaths, though, are your worst nightmare. Not only because they relish the great violence and torture they cause, but because they look “just like you”, albeit younger and maybe snarkier. A lot of horror films stress the “it could be your neighbor” element, but with very little purpose other than hypothetical paranoia in comparison to these two psychopaths. Haneke seems to be saying, “They are your neighbors. And you know why? Because the media has created them.” I mean, where else would they have gotten the ideas for the sick games they play from other than video games, the news, and, yes, the movies.
Even their dialogue has the bounce and rhythm of other writers, like Hawks and Hecht, the banter resembling kind of a slash version of Bringing Up Baby. They’re fairly young, so they are the target audience. They are, essentially, you. Yes, my friends, Haneke is making the audience the culprit. And how he relishes doing that. I am not sure, however, whether or not he enjoys the game itself or the players more.
As “torturous” of an experience it is to watch Funny Games, most of the violence is suggested. And yet that still doesn’t seem to help. The violence is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the film. Even though most of the violence happens off screen, the audience still squirms even though they aren’t watching Hostel or Saw or even Oldboy. And yet they salivate and yearn, unsatisfied with only hearing the screams from the mother, the groans from the father, and the whimpers from their child. Not only that, but here, the violence is real. Or it seems real, too real. Subverting audience expectation is something I’ve become accustomed to when it comes to Haneke. With the ridiculousness of torture porn, it seems so outrageous that it’s just a gross out cliché. However, these so-called funny games are ones that are probably more emotionally savage than physically. Yes, the father’s knee cap is basically hammered in by a 9-iron, but the mother must play “The Loving Wife”. This game involves poor Anna, where she must recite a prayer forward and backwards (clearly mocking religion) flawlessly or her husband will be killed (either with the gun or the knife; it’s her choice). And another game, where she has to undress herself. And another game, where they put the son’s head in a canvas sack. These aren’t just random, elaborate torture devices Jigsaw would use, but truly terribly, emotionally and spiritually scarring tasks that are so diabolical because they are so incredibly simple. It’s all in the simplicity of the thing, and simplicity serves up the realism in a large portion. Why don’t they just kill them? As one of the boys says, “You can’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
However, the problem I had with the films lies in the violence itself, and it isn’t just the violence that makes the film interesting, but also its presentation. These are horrible things happening to good people. And Haneke, all the while, enjoys this. He enjoys seeing his audience both repulsed and gripped by such acts of terror. And what he’s saying, obviously, is that we are terrible people for loving it so much and for loving violence so much. The games are real, and Haneke is playing a game on the audience, not just with this upper class family. But because he enjoys it so much, doesn’t that make him just as complicit as his audience? Isn’t Haneke just as guilty of the loathsome enjoyment of violence as we are, or as any fan of horror? How does on reconcile smugness with what is clearly a grippingly and fascinatingly terrifying film? In his other films, he explores people under pressure, just as he does here, but in other situations. Someone is watching a family; someone wants to act on sexual fantasies after years of repression; more brutal things are happening but in a small German town. But with those films, as subtle as he may or may not be, depending from film to film, there isn’t as much of the impression that he is plainly slapping you in the face and laughing all the while. He subverts audience expectation, but he does not go out of his way to rub it in the audience’s faces. He makes the audience a culprit in voyeurism, but you don’t realize it until after, unlike Funny Games where you clearly know what’s going on, why, and by whom. I guess the ability to forgive Haneke for this arrogance and, I hate to say it, pretension will vary from person to person. I, for one, am still on the fence.
Smashing Down Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall is an act of intrusiveness. It takes you out of the escapism and makes the experience of whatever is going on very immediate. It sometimes is used as a way to connect to the audience and to familiarize the audience with a character’s voice, like Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but here, the fourth wall is knocked down partly out of smugness and partly, once again, to show how reckless and tasteless of a society we’ve become. The two sociopaths every so often wink or talk directly to the audience, which seems unorthodox. Generally, you would think that if a character were to break the fourth wall, it would be one we could either connect to or root for. However, because the thesis of Funny Games is mostly “condemn the audience” and because the sociopaths are an extreme incarnation of “us”, Haneke subverts the aforementioned cliché, making us identify, unwillingly, to the torturers. Although villains certainly have broken the fourth wall in the past, it’s not usually in as much of a self-conscious way, and when they do, it’s because they have appeal and they are the villain we kind of love or love to hate. They are our id that we don’t mind acknowledging. The sociopaths, however, reveal a side of human nature that’s more terrible than we want to admit. Haneke’s other films have explored, to some extent, the terrible things humans can do, but Funny Games rings more poisonous because we don’t want to identify that we could do these kinds of things. We barely even want to acknowledge that there’s a preening yuppie in all of us, never mind our ability to rake a gold club and whack someone with it. Generally, it’s Lars von Trier who likes to slap society in the face with his art films, blatantly but in an expert way. Just look at his biting allegory of America in Dogville and Manderlay. Haneke has no trouble, however, doing that as well.
The painful thing is that these boys control this environment. Not only do the break the fourth wall, they also break the laws of reality. In one scene, where the mother takes a lone shotgun by the coffee table and kills one of the sociopaths, the other searches everywhere he can for the remote control. When he finds it, he pushes rewind, and like a videocassette, the events are rewound and then play is hit. This time, he knows what she’s going to grab for. In this way, it’s extremely frustrating to watch this film. If the villains have the control, why bother watching if there’s no hope for these people? And why, as a matter of fact, do we keep watching after that happens? Again, Haneke points out our blood lust as well as our tolerance for violence.
One chilling image is of a lone television screen displaying a NASCAR race or something like it. Pedestrian though it may be, the television screen is covered and dripping in blood. This image stays on the screen for probably thirty seconds or maybe longer. What’s the point? The desensitization of society. We, as a world culture, have gotten so used to seeing violent images in films, games, the news, TV shows, etc. that it is completely commonplace. Blood seems a little out of place for a motor car race, but that’s the point. No matter how out of place the blood would be, we would still be used to it, barely even phased by its presence. This, I feel, is the most chilling, and most accurate, statement that Haneke makes in the film.
The Circle of Life and Death
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the boys came directly from the neighbors next door, whom they’d been torturing. And after they’re done with this family, they’re going to start right back up with another. As one of the boys approaches, asking for eggs (a sign from before that the games are about to begin), we understand that it’s all just a vicious circle. That point being that violence, both in the natural world as well as the audience’s compliance, is cyclical. While stopping by your neighbors and torturing them is hardly normal, the dark side of human nature, however, is. In a way, the end, signaling the beginning, is almost like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that expounds upon the cyclical nature of revenge and love. Horror films will be made, audiences will go in droves, the feast will continue, and begin again the next time. It’s an unpleasant thought, but true nonetheless. Atrocities will occur in the real word, people will watch the news in shock and awe, and then something else will happen garnering similar coverage and, of course, similar ratings.
All in the Shot for Shot
One could say that making one Funny Games, the Austrian one, is bad enough. But, eye rolls must commence when a foreign film gets an American remake. From the disgustingly sappy City of Angels remade from Wim Wender’s existential symphony Wings of Desire to the remake of Godard’s Breathless by Jim McBride, American remakes of foreign films usually garner scorn and bad reviews. (Not always though, for every failure there’s a Magnificent Seven or Let Me In or even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) However, Funny Games US is directed by Haneke himself. What’s more, it’s a shot for shot remake, meaning that every shot from his 1997 film is duplicated here. Unnecessary? That may be up to you, but in remaking Funny Games, he took a film that had pretty much world wide appeal and then focused it, aiming it directly at Americans. For, who else than we to come up with something as gruesome as The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and, of course, Saw? And who other than Americans to make Saw a franchise. One film may have one thing, but seven. What kind of people are we? It’s been noted that our rating system is harsher on sex than violence, while the ratings board in Europe is harsher on violence. Why is that? Why are we so okay with seeing violence? It might be a part of human nature, but what’s with all the reveling and “okay-ness” about it. There are video games, which are an easy target (no pun intended). The thing about the US is that we are slowly losing are ability to truly differentiate between fantasy and reality, especially regarding violence. Violence in film is getting more real, and violence in reality is becoming more prolific and ubiquitous.
But I haven’t addressed the shot for shot thing. In 1998, Gus van Sant remade Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho pretty much shot for shot. He said he did it “so no one would have to”. The point also was that duplicating every scene and every shot would not create a perfect replica of the original. Even if you like van Sant’s Psycho, there is no denying it is a lesser film in comparison to Hitchcock’s. Even though, it’s basically the same thing. When Haneke is remaking his film, not only is he basically articulating the same thing, but he also seems to be making a small statement on American remakes of foreign films. While he may not be ushering Park Chan-wook to take the reigns over from Spike Lee for the new Oldboy remake, he does seem to say that American remakes are, essentially, lazy and generally not exercises of artistry or creativity (again, exceptions notwithstanding, like A Fistful of Dollars). Learn to read subtitles and get over yourselves. But, who knows? Maybe Kurosawa will rise from the grave, destroy all prints of The Outrage and remake Rashomon himself.
Conclusion: Which is Better?
To me, it doesn’t really matter. Although the Austrian original has more of a worldwide appeal with its content, I’ve become fond of having America getting told off through art. The performances in both films are outstanding and so painful to watch, they are what give the film the most potency. They are both technically proficient, of course, with long takes and static shots. But because they are shot for shot, they kind of blend together in the mind from time to time. The biggest thing I can say to you is see at least one of them. It doesn’t particularly matter which (thus the main failure on Haneke’s point, for neither are terribly distinctive enough to differentiate a whole hell of a lot). While the films may be smug in their condemnation of a sector of society that kind of enjoys this stuff, the potency of its message, its presentation, and execution are pretty flawless. It’s a horror film that creates real fear that the average slasher can’t. It seduces you in the most despicable way, seemingly to prove its very point. It makes you relinquish control completely from the situation. It makes your identify with terrible people. And, yes, it plays minds games with you. You know, Funny Games.