FUNNY GAMES (1997)

  • Director: Michael Haneke
  • Writer: Michael Haneke
  • Starring: Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, and Stefan Clapczynski
  • Accolades: Shown at 1997 Cannes International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel

Funny Games is meant to be a response to violent movies. Its name is even in English, like all those big-budget movies we’ve all seen. It gives us all the thriller elements while steadfastly refusing to give us any of the emotional resolution or, for lack of a better way of putting it, permission that basically every thriller does. What writer/director Michael Haneke seems to be saying is, “Here, is this what you want? This is it without all that Hollywood nonsense. Why did you want this? You know you’re a terrible person, right?” And sure, it’s weird that we like movies where people get hurt, I suppose. But I’m not sure that’s the life-changing insight that this movie thinks it is.

This is one of those movies with an extremely simple set-up and structure that has lent itself, over the years, to many treatises-worth of interpretation. A seemingly fairly normal and happy family, a mom (Susanne Lothar), a dad (Ulrich Mühe), and their twelve-ish son (Stefan Clapczynski) go on vacation to their cabin on a lake in the Austrian mountains, but things go nightmarishly badly when two random young men they don’t know (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep and they can’t quite get them to leave. Before long, the family is being held hostage in their living room and being subjected to a long series of sadistic “games” by their captors. There is no particular explanation for the attack. I am reminded of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, where a boy tortures a man’s family for his own arbitrary reasons that only make sense to the boy. In Funny Games, we don’t even get that. In several moments, Arno Frisch’s character, seemingly the leader of the two, gives a variety of explanations, but always ends with something like, “I’m just kidding.” One wonders if Christopher Nolan was thinking of this movie when coming up with the depiction of the Joker in The Dark Knight.

I’m going to get into “spoiler” territory now, because I think it’s essential to talking about what the experience of watching Funny Games is actually like and what it’s trying to do as a movie. Several times during the movie, Frisch’s character in particular either talks directly to the audience or says things that lead us to believe that he realizes he’s a character in a movie. At one point he tells the family he can’t kill them yet because the movie hasn’t reached feature length. “You want a real ending with plausible plot development, don’t you?” There’s one memorable moment where, as the mom is about to discover the body of her dead dog (which, yes, is a thing I feel obliged to warn you happens in this movie), and we’re watching her from behind Frisch, when suddenly he turns to look at the audience and winks. This tactic reaches its zenith when the mother grabs the lunky sidekick’s shotgun and kills him with it. In most movies, this would be the start of the climax, where the family fights back against their attacks and, in some sense, triumphs. But Frisch’s reaction is to grab a remote control, point it at the camera, and rewind the movie itself, erasing the family’s victory. None of the victims survive. The final shot of the movie is Frisch smirking triumphantly at the audience.

Funny Games is sort of infamous in film circles as being “tough to watch,” but in my opinion the source of that feeling isn’t the actual violence contained in the movie. This isn’t Hostel where we’re sitting here watching all the gory details of someone being tortured. Nearly all of the really bad violence (with the notable exception of the moment where the mother grabs the shotgun and shoots the attacker) happens off screen. For example, when the dog is killed, we hear it happen but don’t actually see it, which admittedly is traumatic enough. But the fact that this is hardly the sort of movie that is going to pull its punches makes me feel like something else is going on here. For me that uncomfortable feeling, for the most part, stems not from the specific details of what’s being depicted but rather from the fact that Haneke steadfastly refuses to offer the viewers any sort of “out.”  The entire purpose of Funny Games is to confront the audience, not to just tell us a story.  It is a slasher movie that is insistent on taking out all the subtext between us and the idea that we, as the audience, are the slasher. And if that’s not the viewing experience you want, you are unlikely to find any movies that are less for you than this one.

Haneke very vocally intended Funny Games as a response to violence in American movies, and actually wanted to just set the movie in America, but couldn’t get the funding for it, so the movie is set in Haneke’s native Austria. But with the film’s international success and acclaim (it is the only Austrian movie in 1,001 Films to See Before You Die) came, not unusually, an American remake, which came out in 2007. What is unusual is that Haneke himself directed the remake, and did it almost shot-for-shot on the original, down to shooting it in the same house that he shot the original. The remake stars Naomi Watts as the mom, Tim Roth as the dad, and Michael Pitt (who I think I always thought was a close relative of Brad Pitt, but apparently is not?) as the ringleader attacker. Its worth as a separate endeavor from the original movie has been hotly debated ever since.

Funny Games remains probably the best known of Haneke’s films. I wonder how he feels about this, given that it is sort of a protest against the type of movie that it is, if that makes any sense. However, he has remained certainly the best known Austrian director internationally and several of his subsequent movies have also made substantial impacts on the movie landscapes. His other movie that I was already very aware of was 2005’s Caché (filmed in French with Juliette Binoche as half of the main couple), which is an ostensible thriller that subverts a lot of the usual thriller tropes, though in different ways. His 2012 film, Amour, also in French, is an unflinchingly bleak depiction of what an old man goes through caring for his wife after she suffers a stroke, which received a great deal of acclaim for basically tackling a subject nobody else was willing to. Amour won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, while also receiving several “mainstream” nominations, including for Best Picture. But I’ll still bet that a lot more people watch Funny Games every year than Amour, if for no other reason than “what’s wrong with you, why are so interested in watching violence?” is, if not the stuff of popcorn cinema, at least a more palatable message with which to confront most members of the audience than that of Amour, which I’d basically describe as “your death is probably going to be horrible, upsetting, and painful.” But Michael Haneke was never interested in making things easy on his audience.

I wanted to quickly mention Ulrich Mühe, who plays the father character here. He is a famous actor in the German-speaking world, though Americans are most likely to know him from two movies, this one and Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The latter is now considered perhaps the best movie made to date about the experience of living in communist East Germany, though it is actually pretty exciting and far less like homework than that brief description might suggest. Mühe grew up in East Germany and actually worked as a security guard on the east side of the Berlin Wall. Upon the fall of the Wall, the records of the Stasi (the East German secret police) were opened to the public, and Mühe discovered that basically all of his co-workers had been providing the government with detailed reports on everything he did because of his suspected anti-establishment political leanings. Give the Stasi credit, I suppose, they were right about him: Mühe led one of the famous rallies where the locals physically tore down the Wall. Later asked by an interviewer how he prepared for his role in Das Leben der Anderen, he answered “I remembered.”

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