Review: Funny Games (1997)

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Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch
Director: Michael Haneke
Country: Austria
Genre: Horror
Official Trailer: Here


The following review is the fourth entry in Ronan Doyle’s Michael Haneke Director Spotlight.

The act of breaking the fourth wall in film is one which has been utilized endlessly in comedy. A direct link to the protagonist’s thoughts, it offers an added layer of comic potential as we experience in real time the character’s reaction to the narrative events. Speaking directly to the audience fosters a sense of camaraderie, functioning often as a shortcut to emotional attachment. In horror cinema, it plays an entirely different role. Few things can be more frightening to an audience as to be pulled into a horror narrative; the ability to remember that we are experiencing a fiction is one of the great escapes from horror (as the tagline for Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left famously advised, “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…”).

One of the things that made Haneke’s Glaciation trilogy great was its constant lingering reminders of the array of themes which most concern the director. Each of the three films focused particularly on issues of societal isolation, emotional disaffection, or desensitization to violence, but they all echoed these ideas in some reserved capacity. Funny Games, Haneke’s 1997 follow-up to the trilogy, took a much sharper, angrier, more visceral approach, eschewing the power of suggestion and opting instead for an up-front and abrasive cinematic confrontation, insisting the audience be involved whether they like it or not. His prior films were by no means easy experiences, but their approach to the points they made was one of gradual persuasion and slow realization. Here was a more boldly didactic Haneke, crossing over from the horror border on which he formerly balanced into the definite territory of pure terrorisation.

Here was a more boldly didactic Haneke, crossing over from the horror border on which he formerly balanced into the definite territory of pure terrorisation.

From a distant overhead angle, the camera follows a car down a long road flanked on both sides by colourful trees to the sound of calming classical music. With each cut to a stop later in the journey, we see the road is narrower, the traffic lesser, the isolation greater. We hear the voices of a man and a woman; they are playing a game where they take it in turns to guess the other’s choice of music. The next shot is taken from the bonnet of the car. Framed through the windscreen, this seems a happy family portrait, the couple’s young son visible in the back seat behind them as they cheerily drive on to their destination. The sudden eruption of screaming heavy metal music (audible to the audience only) that invades the scene is potentially the most unexpectedly frightening experience I can remember ever having had in a film, and the first indication of the trying tests to which we will be put over the next 100 minutes.

Vacationing in their lakeside summer home, this is the family Lothar, an affluent trio who stop along the way to finalize plans for a round of golf with their equally wealthy neighbours the next day. Haneke observes them with his primarily static camera as the mother—Anna—prepares the kitchen, and the father—Georg—readies their boat for a sailing trip. When the latter unknowingly drops a knife into the bottom of the boat, our attention is drawn with a close-up; the earlier outburst of loud music lends a sinister undertone to everything we see and encourages our scrutinisation of every little detail. There is no cause for concern here, yet there remains a lingering sense of unease and apprehension. And then comes a knock on the door…

Clad in tennis whites, the two young men who visit the family ask to borrow eggs for the Lothar’s neighbours, with whom they have been staying. After two handfuls of eggs have been accidentally smashed, Anna loses patience and asks the men to leave. They do not. Funny Games takes its title from the twisted activities dreamt up by the two after they essentially take the family hostage, disabling Georg with a golf swing to the knee and destroying the phone in the kitchen sink. They are charming and talkative youths, their gruesome business conducted with the same casual violence and disaffected attitude to harm as the titular character of Benny’s Video; indeed Arno Frisch, the star of that film, here takes the role of the more dominant of the two.

There is no need to describe the events that follow; it is enough to say simply that they are intensely unpleasant and upsetting to watch. Yet the real difficulty of Funny Games stems from its very form. When teasingly encouraging Anna to look for the missing family dog, Frisch’s character turns to the camera and knowingly winks. All of a sudden, we are thrust from being uninvolved observers to unwitting participants. Until now we have had the comfort of being able to reassure ourselves that this is simply a film, yet Frisch’s acknowledgement of our presence enhances our involvement. Much like these men, we have stepped into the life of this family uninvited. Just as they are, we are eagerly awaiting what happens next, what these people will do, and how their fate will play out.

There is no need to describe the events that follow; it is enough to say simply that they are intensely unpleasant and upsetting to watch.

Funny Games pulls its audience straight into its narrative, crossing over from regular storytelling to participatory metafilm. The two young men make a bet with the family members that all three of them will be dead within twelve hours, after which Frisch turns to the camera to offer us the same odds. We have gone from being the viewers of a horror film to staked players in a game of life and death; the title takes on an altogether different and increasingly ironic meaning. Haneke shocks us by allowing his character to escape the confinements of his world and enter into our own, his ability to communicate with us highlighting our own sick motivations for being here in the first place. Most of us will have known at least in some way the basic premise of the film before going in. Why would anyone want to see such a thing, want to watch a tale of pain and suffering? Funny Games alternates between chastising diatribe and brutal punishment, Haneke giving exactly what was paid for with all of the horror and none of the thrill, his violence always just off-screen and out of sight, its chilling aftereffects and ugly consequences instead focused upon. This is a film that toys with the demands of a bloodthirsty movie-going public, removing spectacle to reveal the brutal reality that lies beneath, and chiding us extensively for our morally questionable presence as spectators to such suffering in the first place.

This is a film that toys with the demands of a bloodthirsty movie-going public, removing spectacle to reveal the brutal reality that lies beneath…

The Glaciation trilogy bespoke a relative hopefulness in Haneke; a motivation to incite change that was rooted in a genuine wish for a better society. With Funny Games, he seems to have lost his faith somewhat, his register here one of a man turned to express condemnation. His first three films were a warning, a worried indication of the way he saw humanity headed. This seems a bitterly rueful disavowal of hope, a last-ditch effort to make us see ourselves for what we were becoming. Funny Games is an extraordinarily trying viewing experience, showing our violent voyeurism for the poisonous pollutant it is. Few films insist so fervently upon active participation in not only the narrative, but in assessing one’s one role as viewer and voyeur. This is a film every bit as important and innovative as it is arduous and adverse. So grating is Haneke’s tone, in fact, that it becomes impossible to enjoy the film on any level at all, only to admire its intentions. In 2007, ten years after the release of Funny Games, he would remake it verbatim with an American cast. Suffice it to say he thought these intentions unfulfilled, this warning unheeded.

[notification type=”star”]93/100 ~ AMAZING. Funny Games is an extraordinarily trying viewing experience, showing our violent voyeurism for the poisonous pollutant it is.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.