When a yuppie family have their home invaded by two pristinely-dressed young men, they are subject to a series of sadistic “games” all predicated on a bet of survival: the two men bet that the family will be dead by morning, and by default, the family bet the alternative outcome.
This is, in essence, the plot of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a simultaneously brilliant and hypocritical film that has divided audiences since its initial release in 1997, and its subsequent shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake in 2008.
The film is more than the average home-invasion thriller though, which is key to its success, failures and divisive interpretations depending on the audience. Haneke developed the film as a polemic against a glamorised-violence obsessed society, specifically that of the US dominated cultural sphere. The original film was made in Austria, and fell on deaf ears as it was barely seen in American cinemas by its target audience. Critics adored and loathed the film, many calling it a brilliant piece of deconstruction, others calling it a moralistic insult to filmgoers.
I agree with both arguments.
I’ll discuss the films thematic and moralistic material later, but I’ll first start by covering the movie’s content as just that: a movie.
Ann, George and Georgie (Jr.) arrive at their palatial holiday home. On their way into their street, they stop by a neighbours’ fence, and said neighbours greet them with odd restraint; noticeably, the two young men standing with them were unknown to George and Ann. They shrug it off and continue on to their home. They’re just getting settled in when they’re interrupted by the arrival of the two men, Peter and Paul. George and Georgie are getting their sailboat docked at their private yacht, while Ann is busying herself by preparing a meal for the family after their long drive.
When one of these young men, Peter (or Tom as he’s sometimes called) arrives at the door, he tells Ann he’s been sent by their neighbour to borrow some eggs. Ann is amicable and polite, and happy to oblige. On his way out, Peter drops the eggs on the ground, and asks Ann for four more – also clumsily knocking their phone into the sink full of water. Ann’s irritated and a bit perturbed by this exchange, but still happy to oblige, only this time she wraps them up for him to protect them from his clumsiness. He leaves, and as she’s having a bit of an unwind from the frustrating few minutes, she hears the family dog barking its head off. When she goes to investigate, she finds Peter standing inside by the front door, accompanied by Paul, the other man she saw with her neighbours.
Paul is stridently confident in comparison with the meek and clumsy Peter, and explains that the dog has basically trapped them inside the house. She offers to lock him up, but Paul ignores the matter at hand by admiring George’s superb set of golf clubs. He asks Ann if he can try it out, and rushes off before she can either grant or deny his request.
Down at the yacht, George and Georgie hear the dog’s loud barking before hearing it suddenly stop with a whimper. George goes to investigate, and finds Ann confronting the two men in the hallway. She asks George to throw them out, but he’s unaware of their encroaching behaviour. He asks what’s bothering her, and she attempts to wash her hands of the situation by storming off. When Paul smartmouths George, he slaps the younger man across the face. In retaliation, Peter swiftly breaks George’s kneecap with the golf club, and the hostage-taking officially begins.
With the family besieged, Paul and Peter make their bet and begin the “games”, breaking the family down piece by piece and terrifying them more and more to the point of exhaustion. They offer no direct motive, confuse their backstories by offering several different versions, and show no obvious villainy – Paul and Peter never drop their calm and polite demeanour, despite the sadism of the deeds they’re committing.
With the villains having a complete and total upper-hand in the house, the games soon turn deadly, and gradually, the family is whittled down. Georgie is the first to die, killed by a shotgun blast, and his death and its outcome is a bravado ten minutes of film dealing with utter agony. The villains leave for a while, and as George and Ann struggle to cope with the reality of what’s just happened, they attempt an escape. Of course it doesn’t pan out, and the villains return, killing George after a long period of tormenting Ann with making the decision of how her husband will die.
By the following morning (when the bet is to conclude) the villains take Ann out on the family boat, sail across the bay and nonchalantly push her gagged-and-bound body into the water, winning the bet with little care for the outcome.
They arrive at yet another neighbours’ house, set to begin the scheme of events all over again, and the film comes to a close.
It’s not that Funny Games is impossible or even difficult to review, it’s just that there’s several layers that need to be addressed, and one even wonders if ultimately, there’s any point in doing that. But I’ve decided there is, and so I will.
As just the movie, taking out all of Haneke’s thematic intention and concern with making the film a soapbox, both films are decent. The roles are difficult to play, and require a lot of intensity in their performance.
Susan Lothar and Naomi Watts as the two Anns come out of the films the strongest. Both are actresses capable of portraying darkness with clarity, and both commit strong and brave performances to a challenging character.
Ulrich Mühe and Tim Roth fare less strongly in the roles of George, although this is undoubtedly due to the way the character is written. George is a passive character, and although sympathetic, isn’t a standout characterisation in either form. Of the two, Mühe is the stronger, as the chemistry between him and Lothar (the two were married until Mühe’s death in 2007) is evident of their comfort with and access to each other as performers. The character is underwritten (most likely deliberately), it’s difficult to gauge the success of either actor’s performance, but it’s by no means a bad one.
As for the two Georgie’s both Stefan Clapczynski and Devon Gearhart are more than adequate as children playing children, and given the terror required of the role, ultimately pretty convincing.
On the villainous side of things, we have Frank Giering and Brady Corbet as Peter/Tom. Many reviews I’ve read criticise Giering’s portrayal as awkward and ineffective. I’m not so sure I agree with this, but I do think it’s the biggest point of difference between the two versions of the film (keep in mind, Haneke’s intent was for the films to be identical, just in different languages). Giering’s Peter has the potential to not be quite so willing a participant in the events of the film as Paul, where as Corbet’s is most definitely just as invested. Of the two, I do think Corbet’s performance is stronger, but I don’t think the negative criticism of Giering is deserved.
And then there’s the main man in either of the films: Paul. I tend not to love Michael Pitt as an actor, and for no other reason then gut instinct. There’s nothing inherently wrong in the way he acts, I’ve just never felt convinced by him. So in admitting that bias, I’ll still affirm Arno Frisch as the stronger Paul. Pitt’s version of the character is too imbued with nudge-nudge-wink-winkiness, and more than anything else, he seems smug and in on the joke of the film; Frisch on the other hand, never plays Paul as anything except in complete and total control of the film. It’s a critical difference, because Michael Pitt is portraying a menace, whereas Frisch just feels like one. As the conductor of Haneke’s sadistic little orchestra, the role needs to be handled with aplomb, whereas Pitt goes at with a permanent little half-smirk on his face the betrays the ability for the audience to fully believe him. Or, slightly less pretentiously, Michael Pitt is playing the character. Arno Frisch is the character.
So the film as well-made and ably performed, but what of all this talk of it’s thematics?
As mentioned before, Michael Haneke created the film as a polemic. He’s been very frank over the course of the years in detailing his complete fear of violence, and created the film as a treatise on what he saw as a society that not only accepts it, but glamorises and anticipates it. Funny Games is born out of his want to recraft violence in cinema as a concept to abhor, not to behold with glee.
He uses the framework of a horror film, a genre that for the most part relies on violence to succeed, to build a narrative around making it literally horrible. The intent in Funny Games is to take a genre where the pundits (at least the stereotypical ones) are normally eagerly awaiting the payoff of violence dealt unto the characters and robbing them of that satisfaction, leaving the viewer instead with the grim reality of what has actually occurred.
Significantly, all of the violence in the film happens either off-screen or out of the frame. When Peter breaks George’s knee, we see the club swing down below the frame, hear the sound of connection and George’s cry of pain, and then the aftermath where his trousers start pooling with blood over the kneecap. Later on, when Ann rushes at one of the villains and he deals a hefty punch to her stomach, we see her rush to the right of the frame, hear the connection and then see her fall back, gasping for air and struggling with the pain.
This is a very successful tactic, as it means that you notice the violence, and not how convincing it is or isn’t. There’s no risk of shoddy special effects taking the audience out of the film, there’s no pause where a viewer goes “I wonder how they did that?” or anything else that might distract from the actual incident itself. This, combined with Haneke’s decision to play the violence incredibly neutrally and realistically means that there’s no catharsis or payoff for the audience who is waiting to see how the characters meet their fates. When is punched hard in the stomach, it knocks her back winded – there’s no movie-logic that says she can still fight on despite suffering a blow that would leave the same impact on a real person in the same circumstance. George’s knee isn’t wrapped in a magic bandage that allows him to move around after a while – for the rest of the film he’s incapacitated because he’s lost the use of a vital part of the body to enable movement.
Furthermore, the film slyly addresses conventions within the horror genre such as the killing excuse; consider every film where teens in the woods are confronted by the killer du jour and run their mouths of at him/her/them/it only to be killed in a moment of ironic come-uppance. The whole scene with the eggs is deliberately set up so that the audience later thinks “well if she’d just given the eggs and not been selfish…” only to have those thoughts ridiculed by the fact that she could have refused them all and Peter and Paul’s actions would still be reprehensible.
There’s also clues to a classist motivation to the proceedings – the family are playing a “guess-the-song” game with various opera tracks on their way to the house, only for the title card to intrude with the apocalyptic sounds of Gwar, suggesting a great disconnect between the upper class and less cultured appeal of the killers. But rather than let the film speak as allegory, Haneke condemns any thinking that differences in class makes the violence any more forgivable/justifiable/interesting or anything less than reprehensible.
Haneke’s use of violence is honed in with accuracy and deliberateness to be unpleasant – not something to be enjoyed.
When Georgie is shot, the camera has followed Paul into the kitchen as the gun goes off. We never see the boy getting killed, just the sounds of the gun and the screams and cries of the parents’ anguish. When we do go back in the room, we’re treated to a fixed, static shot that lasts an eternity as Ann and George pick themselves up (the villains leave at this point) and try to comprehend what has just happened. A TV plays loudly, covered in blood, with the boy’s lifeless body poking out from a couch below it. The most Ann can manage to do in this instance is turn the TV off, and try to get over to her husband, who has been knocked to the ground.
This scene is exemplary in portraying Haneke’s intent. There is nothing to enjoy about it, because the film isn’t designed for the audience to be angered by the boy’s death by seeing it happen, nor does it play with the parents gearing themselves up for revenge after their loss. The scene is excruciating, because the audience are forced into the gravity of the situation: two parents who have just had their son murdered before their eyes while they were helpless to stop it, and what we’re left with is their devastation and the cruelty of the act.
Had Haneke stuck to these tactics alone, it would have been a sanctimonious film, but one I’d feel comfortable praising in its entirety. However, the film becomes problematic with some of the other tactics Haneke utilises, and utilises unfairly.
The most notable of these is that Paul breaks the fourth wall on several occasions and addresses the audience directly. The first is when he’s killed the family dog, and indeed is part of the first “game” he plays, a version of “hot/cold” to guide Ann into finding its body. As Ann wanders around searching, Paul turns to the camera and smirks, bringing them in on the game with him. Later on, when establishing the bet, he turns to the audience and tells us that he assumes we’re on the family’s side.
When I mentioned before that Paul was a character who was in control of the movie, I meant it literally – he’s clearly aware that he’s a character in the film, and is actively determining the outcome of the events he’s coordinating.
The problem here is that it means the option of hope is removed from the film. It’s not unusual to expect a downer ending from a horror film (the bad guys often win) but it is unusual to be told from the get-go that the villain is not only a character but an active variable in the narrative.
The ultimate point of Paul’s control though is when he literally changes the film. At one point, Ann grabs the shotgun and blasts Peter in the gut, sending him flying back into the wall with bloody carnage. It’s the only onscreen violence in the film, and is deliberately exaggerated beyond the style of the rest of the film. Not having this, Paul finds a remote control and rewinds the film, moving the gun out of Ann’s grasp.
This is clearly done as a means of pointing out that the audience should not be letting themselves gain the hope of the film changing tactics, but it actually defies one of the theories behind Haneke’s motives in creating the film.
Haneke’s basic assumption is that the audience of Funny Games came to see it to see the violence, or to be entertained by the torture and eventual deaths of characters. He’s trying to recraft this style of film so that the characters are more human, not just ciphers to have violence dealt upon them. The film temporarily lapses into a moment where a character takes action in determining their own fate (Ann taking charge) and Haneke lets the audience consider it, then takes it away from them.
It’s an irritating moment, not only for the flagrant disregard for narrative flow (a fourth-wall-breaking character is one thing, a character taking control of the way the movie plays out is another entirely), but because it doesn’t allow any other position for the audience except to be mocked by Haneke.
Admittedly, he always wanted the film to be a moralistic comment on violence, but it’s at this point that the film crosses over into sheer smug condescension. Haneke is wagging his finger at you, shaming you for temporarily being enlivened by the turn of events, and reinforcing that abject misery that the villains are going to win. It’s at this point that the film abandons the pretence of the film having any outcome other than the villains’ success in their plan, and it robs any emotional resonance you might feel with the characters.
The bravado sequence after Georgie’s death works particularly well because of your awkward emotional connection with the two devastated characters – the scene with the remote completely removes the sense that the characters are anything other than devices through which the film mocks you.
Now, having said that, it’s still a scene that’s worth considering – the violence of Peter’s body being hurled across the room by the gun is deliberately over the top, and completely dissonant with the style of the rest of the film. It makes sense that Paul would literally remove it from the film, by the movie’s own logic. It’s also an interesting way of determining the film’s thesis statement – just because the violence is enacted by one of the protagonists, it doesn’t mean that it’s more justifiable or less appalling than any of the other violent acts. Audiences’ natural inclination is to feel the opposite, that the bad guys deserve whatever’s coming to them, but Haneke’s very deliberate point about the movie is that we shouldn’t feel like that.
The problem is, Haneke’s basic message of the film doesn’t apply to the audience he’s criticising. Other than the obvious facts that the slathering gorehounds he thinks he’s addressing wouldn’t elect to see an arty deconstruction of horror films, he makes the mistake of assuming that all viewers are such slathering gorehounds.
There is no middle ground for Haneke’s assessment of the audience – either we crave the violence, or we’re appalled by it to the point of avoiding the film. He once said of the film “viewers who could learn from Funny Games will stay until the end, and those who don’t need the lesson will simply walk out.” There’s no allowance for those who are aware of what they’re watching, there’s no consideration for different mindsets, and ultimately, there’s no choice except to be mocked by the film.
And it’s all the more hypocritical because the film relies on every single one of the conventions it’s deconstructing to be a success, even if they are deconstructed all the same. The decision to frame the film as if it were a horror film relies exclusively on our familiarity with the genre for it to succeed (the film could not be a success without the existence of what it’s decrying), but far from it being as simple as saying a satire should mirror its subject, the film needs the genre to stand on so it can look down on it.
Admittedly, Haneke’s concern was not solely with horror films, but violence in the mainstream media, of which Horror is the easiest genre to assemble his arguments, but the overall impression of the film is that it’s patronising the viewers who wouldn’t be able to recognise violence as horrible without the assistance of our auteur. Which begs the question of why Haneke chose to make the message so muddled by the actions of its characters?
Firstly, although I’ve said that the violence is played realistically, the rest of the film exists in a sort of stasis of fiction and verisimilitude. The family is ridiculously passive and even within the confines of their in-story terror, and this is a massive contributor to people being taken out of the experience of the film.
Secondly, and it’s probably a very basic point to make, no one likes being insulted. Whether you’re the snobby critic who comes to see one of Europe’s finest cinematic artistes or a popcorn-munching beer-swilling dunderhead who can’t wait to see some good kills on screen (or anyone in-between or beyond that spectrum) there’s little joy to be felt in watching a film that is designed to shame you and tell you you’re a bad person. For those of us who watch horror films to be scared, or to appreciate the conventions of the genre, or even watch Haneke’s film in appreciation of his style and technique, then we’re treated to a film that assumes we’re the lowest common denominator and smugly attacks us for daring to enjoy a genre.
Whether or not you agree with the message, I feel it’s undeniable that it’s not delivered with greatest grace. Cleverly, yes, but not considerately, and therein lies the problem with the film. If Haneke wanted to effect change rather than just cry foul, he should’ve tried to get the audience onside and then convince them, not lure them in and attack them. And it can’t be excused as a new filmmaker making statements in his early career he’d later regret – he very deliberately went back 11 years later to make the film more accessible to the audience he wanted to see it (although in a cruel irony, box office was dismal)
I really appreciate Funny Games for what it is. I think it’s brilliant and ridiculous, a great horror film and one of the worst horror films. I don’t appreciate its moralism or its desire to insult the audience who might want to see it, nor its strident hypocrisy, but in terms of a film to get the tongues wagging and thoughts a-rollin’ it’s a minefield of opinion that should at least be considered. And hey, there’s even a basic movie to enjoy as well.
This post marks my 100th review, and the beginning of what I’m tentatively calling a Directorspective, where I’ll be looking at a particular director’s work. Clearly Haneke is first up.