“People don’t like to be confronted with reality. They like to be confronted with a consumable reality. Even the most brutal violence is shown in a way that you can consume it so that you are thrilled, not touched” – Michael Haneke on Funny Games.
Funny Games possibly has no right being one of my favourite movies of all time. Funny Games possibly has no right being one of anyone’s favourite movies of all time. Its very conception, its very purpose for existing, is to give its audience exactly what they don’t want. It’s something of an anti-film – it takes the ‘rules’ of moviemaking and unflinchingly subverts them until their entrails are revealed to be rotten and blackened, standing as the foremost exemplar of post-structuralism in the history of cinema. Gone are the conventions of genre, of structure, of character and of narrative. The very notion that films are first and foremost meant to be forms of entertainment is completely upturned. Funny Games is first and foremost a thesis; then it’s a piece of art; and, in a very distant third place, a piece of entertainment.
Hopefully this introductory paragraph has been somewhat perplexing and confounding, because that’s exactly how you’ll feel after watching Funny Games for the first time. For those of you who have not seen the film, I guess that paragraph makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s extremely hard to analyse this film without giving away too many of its many surprises, but I’ll give it a go. So let’s start from scratch, and work our way through it.
When on holidays, a wealthy German family – Georg (Ulrich Muhe), Anna (Susanne Lothar) and their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) – find themselves victims of a home invasion. The two invaders – Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) – capture the family to enact violent “games” on them, from leg-breakings to dog-murders and far, far worse things that shouldn’t be spoiled. This is all, according to the nihilistic perpetrators, for the pure purpose of entertainment.
Funny Games is director Michael Haneke’s comment on violence in film. The equation perpetuated by mainstream Hollywood films that violence equals entertainment is condemned by Haneke. Rather than showing the violence itself, which would be used to ‘thrill’ the audience in an ordinary ‘thriller’, Haneke cuts away from the violence and instead shows its tragic aftermath. Instead of seeing the deaths of the characters in the moment, we see Paul making a sandwich; we are then treated to a single eleven minute shot of the characters attempting to flee the house, eventually to no avail. This is not to say that the film pulls any punches. Despite the lack of physical violence, I have no qualms about it being restricted to over 18s in Australia (despite first seeing it when I was well under 18 – I’m a pretty seditious cat). By showing the consequences of violence, the end product is one of the most disturbing films ever made.
The director Michael Haneke does not want his audience to ‘like’ this film. He judges people who like the film, as his aim is explicitly to create a piece of anti-entertainment, and to castigate the kind of people who would watch this kind of tortuous – for both the audience and the character – film through till its end. However, he judges people who don’t like the film, as they apparently don’t operate on the same intellectual level as he does. With Michael Haneke, you’re in a lose-lose situation. Even his most emotionally tender film, Amour, is profoundly disturbing in its own way, paying homage to Funny Games given the protagonists of Amour are also called Georges and Anne.
I dare say that Funny Games is the most daring film ever made. It bends every cinematic rule, constantly breaking-the-fourth-wall. From winking to the camera to addressing the length of the film itself so far, Haneke goes to great lengths to position the audience as perpetrators of the violence as much as Paul and Peter. And they’re just the tame instances of this postmodern manipulation of filmic conventions. It would be a disservice to spoil the most bizarrely ingenious moment of the whole film, but for those who’ve seen it, I have two words: remote control.
Despite such a willingness to break the rules like a facetious schoolboy, Haneke is clearly a master of craft and formalism as well, and thus his message is by no means conveyed in a heavy-handed manner. His lengthy static shots confirm just how voyeuristically unflinching the movie is. Through a masterful use of silence, tension is built and built to excruciating levels in every single scene, and is very rarely released. Don’t expect emotional satisfaction from Funny Games, because intellectual satisfaction is its game. Unlike in other thrillers, the tension is in service of something bigger than the film itself. It’s in service of an idea, a hypothesis: that the thriller genre portrays violence in a way that is severely detached from reality.
The issue with Funny Games is that the reasons why someone would admire the film as a work of meta brilliance are exactly the same reasons why someone else would hate the film for being an elitist, patronising exercise in torturing the audience. I don’t think either person is wrong; the film oozes with bourgeois European elitism and indeed spends most of the running time trying to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as possible. But obviously, given it is my tenth favourite film ever, I admire the film to an extraordinary degree. The sheer bravado to turn everything you thought you knew about cinema inside out is something that has never been matched in any other film I’ve seen. I dare say it’s impossible for any human being with any semblance of sentience to truly ‘like’ Funny Games for the same reason you would ‘like’ any other ordinary thriller. You get tension, but little catharsis. You get violence, but very few thrills from it.
Admiring Funny Games is not the same as loving it. I certainly admire Funny Games for its meticulous craftsmanship and its unchecked ambition, but I love it as well. I guess this reflects somewhat poorly on me, but I find it oddly rewatchable. Every time I watch Funny Games, it’s as if I’m opening up a new page of a ‘Where’s Wally’ book. Every time, I play something of a game with myself to spot the little nuances and details in Haneke’s endlessly fascinating journey into the nature of violent human interaction. Funny Games could well be the most polarising film ever made, but don’t let that put you off. A film of pure ambition and perfect execution, Funny Games will undoubtedly change the way you look at cinema forever.