Funny Games

Haneke’s original Funny Games (1997) is a powerful, unforgettable film. It’s suspenseful and provocative. It implicates its viewers in its transgressions, forces them into the position of voyeurs, and challenges them on other levels. It is an extreme counterpoint to glamorized Hollywood violence. All these things sound positive, but in fact I cannot in conscience recommend this film.

The primary problem with Funny Games is that it insults and punishes its viewers. In its violence and themes it is unpleasant, but nowhere near the worst film on either front. But the total effect of the film—its pacing, performance, cinematography, and overall disregard for dramatic and narrative conventions—is to perpetrate a spiteful assault on its viewer. Several unbearable scenes are filmed in apparently real-time, with extraordinarily long takes of characters doing nothing at all or suffering horribly. The viewer, like the film’s victims, is even directly mocked by Paul, one of the perpetrators of the on-screen violence. In an infamous sequence, when one of the attackers is killed, Paul even rewinds the film itself and effectively undoes this so he can again subjugate and torture his victims.

To what end this abuse of the audience? The film is so hostile and vicious that one would expect there to be some underlying sociological, philosophical, or historical insight, but unfortunately the film offers at best banalities, and at worst furthers deeply reactionary views. It is the great disparity between what the film takes and what the film offers that makes me object so strongly to it.

“You must admit, you brought this on yourself.”

One possibility is that the film is intended to be a direct attack on the type of people who watch arthouse films. To put it another way, the family is depicted listening to opera, and might well be the type of people who also watch art films. They are subsequently punished by members of the proletariat who listen to the heavy metal music which jarringly interrupts the opera in the opening credits, and which Paul plays while searching for the young Georg. The film, by this reading, embodies the worst nightmares of the bourgeois, or even depicts class warfare on an individual level, and the diegetic offensive would be an auxiliary attack on the viewer in addition to the primary one, i.e., the film’s own agonizing construction. It would of course be perverse to intentionally alienate one’s core audience, but perhaps Haneke’s scorn goes so far as to assume his elitist but credulous audience would masochistically accept this. From the box office results, however, they clearly didn’t. This reading, moreover, is contraindicated by several elements within the film. One is that Paul discusses Peter’s social class, going out of his way to undermine the idea that Peter is from the lower classes, saying (albeit ambiguously, indeed after just having said that Peter was poor) that he is obviously privileged and spoiled. Another is that they deliberately avoid ruining the carpet and other trivial things that one would expect proletarian revolutionaries to actively destroy. Neither Peter nor Paul seems to be in any way influenced by material possessions except insofar as the victims’ wealth makes them them helpless and isolated targets.

The perhaps more obvious reading of the film, besides a perplexing attack on the film’s own core demographic, is that it seeks to challenge the glossy, palatable, even satisfying depiction of violence in mainstream media. But surely the type of people who watch the original Funny Games are not the ones responsible for making box office successes out of glorified violence, and Haneke must have known this. Not that it would somehow be more justifiable to punish audiences of mainstream cinema, but the majority of this film’s deeply distressing power seems directed at effectively preaching to the choir. “Violence is ugly. Totalitarian power leads to torture.” These are the clichés that seem to be at the heart of the film.1

“Why are you doing this?”

The film browbeats its high audience with a cliché that surely they already agree with. But, you might fairly point out, a decade later, Haneke re-made this film with a larger budget in America. So surely this opens it to a wider audience?

It did have the potential to do this, though the 2007 version did badly in the States—badly enough, in fact, that this remake was partly responsible for the bankruptcy of Tartan, one of the film’s distributors. So it would be hard to argue, at least from viewership figures, that the remake was on the radar of the average American viewer. But let’s pretend for a moment that this film had been a success in the States. Let’s also assume that the newer film has the same intentions as the old one—which, since it is a shot-for-shot remake, seems fair. This hypothetical popularity would have been disastrous for a few additional reasons beyond just the overall repulsiveness of the old one.

The first is that it would lead to calls for censorship. This should be obvious from the film’s themes and content. The extreme nature of this film is wholly gratuitous. To a mainstream audience it would be quite simply an awful experience, containing nothing redeeming whatsoever. Taken superficially, it’s exactly the sort of inflammatory, pointless violence that people who believe in censorship would want censored.2 They would probably claim that kids will get it into their heads to do the sorts of things depicted.3 Furthering censorship of itself is of course ironic, because we’re assuming that the film’s intention is to stop people from making or viewing violent scenes in such an unconscious way, a kind of awful attempt at what the Russian formalist critics called ostrananie (“defamiliarization”). The problem is that censors would be far less likely to censor the typical Hollywood action fare than a film like this one. I’m not saying that there’s any chance that it would actually have been censored, just that it’s a prime target for people who are in favour of censorship, and that it would be hard for anyone to argue why this film in particular has any redeeming qualities.

The second adverse consequence is that it would almost certainly be adopted by pro-gun advocates. The film centres entirely on a family’s inability to defend itself against armed intruders. The film goes to some lengths to show that though cultured and able to sail a boat, the family is wholly impractical and fails at basic tasks (the father, when he finally manages to get the phone working, does not know the telephone number for the police). The NRA and its cohorts would be talking about how none of the film’s most egregious violence would have been possible if the child had been trained to use a gun. And because so much of the film’s tension depends on the family’s defencelessness, it could be viewed as propaganda, a sort of commercial for why gun ownership is a good idea. The film takes so little pleasure in its own violence, as opposed to more equivocally transgressive filmmakers4 that it would be hard to believe that Haneke would want to further a cause which can and does result in bloodshed in the real world. But I think that the success of either incarnation of Funny Games in the States would probably have been used in the service of this cause.

Finally, the film does force its audience to sympathize with the upper classes. If it’s a de-glamorized version of violence, it might also be read as a de-glamorized vision of class conflict, and as such, an apology for the status quo. I found it hard not to view the film as extremely reactionary for these reasons.

“Why not?”

I finished the film feeling angry that I had put up with it. I’m not particularly squeamish in films, and I did not feel this way after finishing other deeply transgressive and troubling films like Audition (2001), Irreversible (2002), or even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which Haneke reputedly admires. Funny Games is a bizarrely immature film for Haneke, who was 55 at the time of the original and 65 at the time of the remake, to have made. The best excuse I can think of is that perhaps the film isn’t about class or the representation of violence at all, or even about the audience, but merely points out that the whims of the filmmaker are to the captive audience what the whims of the assailants in the film are to their actual captives. Maybe he was just honing his skill to manipulate his audience, before going on to use this ability in more substantive films like The White Ribbon (2009) later on. If so, I can only come to the same conclusion as my other possible readings: however well-crafted, this film’s message is trite. Don’t be a captive audience; don’t see this film. ★★☆☆☆

  1. It must be emphasized that I don’t object per se to this message. I just don’t think that this particular film is persuasive in delivering it. For example, The Tin Drum (1979) and The Vanishing (1988) deal with violence that is awful and realistic, but also casual and senseless, and both films are much more effective as unforgettable arguments against the glamorization of violence. They are also both deeply unpleasant to watch, though not so infuriating. []
  2. It’s no more bearable for a sophisticated audience, but perhaps they would have some technical appreciation of how it subverts convention in order to wound them. []
  3. I’m perhaps too generously giving Haneke the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he is not trying to make some idiotic point about violence on-screen inspiring violence in real life. []
  4. David Cronenberg, Martin McDonagh, Ben Wheatley, Chan-Wook Park, etc. []

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