Funny Games (Austria, 1997) * * *
D: Michael Haneke
A bourgeois couple, Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar), with their young son Georgie and their dog, are staying in a lakeside home, with all the luxuries that entails, including a dock for their boat and an impenetrable fence. But Georg opens that fence for two unfamiliar faces, nondescript, white-gloved fellows who claim to be staying with the neighbors. Calling themselves Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)--and, later, Tom & Jerry and Beavis & Butthead--they proceed to ingratiate themselves into the home, which they refuse to leave. This quickly escalates into violence: when Georg tries to throw them out, he gets a leg broken by a golf club. Their dog is killed, and the family is held hostage for an evening of sadistic "games," the principal one being a bet that they won't survive the next twelve hours.
Since this film was released in 1997, Haneke has gained an international reputation as an art cinema provocateur, a Hitchcockian master of suspense as self-reflexive as Jean-Luc Godard. Indeed, both directors would love the film: Hitchcock for its open manipulation of the audience's fears and expectations, Godard for its playful violations of cinematic convention: "Peter" looks directly into the camera, winking at the audience, sometimes addressing us or, at one point, admitting to his hostages that they have to keep on with the games to pad this out to "feature length." At one point he even seizes a TV remote control to rewind time when one of the hostages gains the upper hand. The biggest tension of Funny Games is between these bursts of cartoonish irreality and the extended harrowing and grueling scenes of torture and grief that constitute the bulk of the film--the faker-than-fake and the realer-than-real.
We have seen home invasion and hostage films before. We anticipate the family gaining the upper hand on their tormentors at some point. When young Georgie escapes from the house, fleeing to the neighbors' to look for help, we're gripped with suspense, in fear for the boy's life, just as we expect that all of this will come to something fruitful; even if he's recaptured, we think, he'll leave some clue behind that will eventually lead to his family's deliverance. That's how these movies work. Certainly Haneke wouldn't have this whole setpiece be for naught. Similarly, when Anna escapes late in the film, after the captors have seemingly left for good, we're convinced their torment isn't over yet, simply because the film is still happening. And there has to be a point to all this, right? The bad guys have to get their comeuppance, a la The Virgin Spring or its grindhouse equivalent, The Last House on the Left. Perhaps Anna will find the villains at a disadvantage, and wreak a horrible revenge?
But as soon as we see that Peter & Paul can even reverse time to reconfigure reality to their advantage, Haneke might as well step into the frame to gloat over how he's stacked the deck. At this point, near the end of the film, all suspense is drained and we're left with either (a) blackest amusement, or (b) bottomless dread that Haneke can now subject us to anything. Actually, of course, there isn't really anywhere else to go, and the film settles with a rather obvious circular conclusion. But although you're struck by the style, you're left wondering what it was all about.
It's about movie violence vs. real violence, movie catharsis vs. real catharsis, movie characters vs. real human beings. Tom & Jerry and Beavis & Butthead are violent cartoon characters (famously, one five-year-old who watched those MTV arsonists Beavis & Butthead burned down his family's mobile home; whatever the real connection, his mother sued the network). Funny Games is an angry attack on the media's trivialization of violence. It restores the weight and tragedy of violence while contrasting it with the phony expectations of the thriller genre. The hostages in Funny Games are "real" people; when they grieve at the loss of a life, in one astonishing extended take that seems to last for ages, it's heartbreaking and also convincing. But the two antagonists are "movie" characters. Their motives are nonexistent, and the plot manipulates itself to their advantage. (Also notice that when one of them stalks little Georgie through the neighbors' house, he seems to be everywhere at once; that's because he is, probably watching the film just as you are.) At one point, they even address the difference between fictional characters and reality--Peter insists there's no difference, since what you see on the movie screen is as real to your eyes as anything else. At that moment, it's the last thing you want to hear, since events have become so sickening that you want to believe it's just a movie.
For all its effort, Funny Games is a film which pushes you away from it just as strongly as the deliberately artificial suspense pulls your emotions and sympathies back in. As a cinematic thesis, it's clever, if a bit too smug (and honestly, someone like Jacques Rivette would have gone even further in exploring the meta-fiction and the ideas beneath). As a film, it's almost unbearably suspenseful, but all of this is ultimately undercut. Haneke is a hell of a filmmaker, and the filmmaking on display is master-class. I'm not quite convinced that this anti-thriller thriller avoids collapsing beneath its own paradox, but on the other hand I admire what's on the screen. I recommend it by saying that if you've read this far, you know if you'd like it. It's essential viewing for film buffs with a strong stomach.
[As a footnote, I should mention that Haneke has just remade this film as an American production with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth in the lead roles. Due for release shortly, by all accounts it is a faithful adaptation of the original film.]
Funny Games is the first film in the series, "Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation." Subsequent Haneke films will be screened for free at the University of Wisconsin's Cinematheque through the rest of the spring semester. Check their website for details.