It’s only fair to warn potential viewers that in the middle of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a child is fatally shot in front of his parents. As in most of Haneke’s movies, the violence happens off-screen; the audience can hear the atrocity, but only as they watch the murderer’s accomplice rummaging through a refrigerator in the next room. He makes himself a sandwich, and the camera follows him back to the living room where the child’s parents are screaming and blood is splattered along the television and wall. The killers collect their things and leave, and then Haneke gets especially cruel—the camera lingers, barely moving, as the parents weep and attempt to collect themselves. The shot lasts 10 long minutes and remains as still as a photograph for most of them.
This is what murder looks like in the filmic world of Michael Haneke: the deed itself is gruesome and sudden but rarely shown directly. Instead, he posits the audience in the midst of the tragic aftermath. Where other directors would focus on the brutality, Haneke instead directs our gaze to the emotional trauma of murder. Where other films would contain music to guide reactions, Haneke’s are totally devoid of any soundtrack. And where other directors would heighten tension through jump cuts or camera tricks, his camera is always eerily still. Haneke wants his viewers to consider the human toll of violence, to shed the Hollywood-bred notion that bloodshed is titillating or entertaining. But he’s explained his working method most succinctly himself: “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.”
American movie studios aren’t known for their willingness to challenge their audience, let alone rape them, so Warner Independent Pictures deserves credit for financing and distributing Haneke’s own shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games, in theaters now. For Haneke, entertainment has never been the point; he wants to teach us all a lesson. He’s made eight films since his debut, The Seventh Continent, in 1989, each explicitly aimed to shock, frighten, and otherwise discomfort his audience and their supposed cinematic values. Along the way he’s garnered a reputation as one of the most visionary and controversial European directors of the last 20 years. His The Piano Teacher, starring Isabelle Huppert as an emotionally disturbed woman drawn to sadomasochism, won Best Actor, Best Actress, and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002. His next entry in the festival, Caché, brought him the Best Director Prize in 2005. That film concerned a “bourgeois-bohemian” family (called “bo-bos”) that starts receiving anonymous surveillance tapes and death threats, an experience that eventually dregs up a violent moment from the father’s past.
All of these films—he made four in his native Austria, including Funny Games, before switching to French with Code Unknown (2000)—contain what critics have called “Haneke moments,” those being the instances of violent shock that he films in the same stable, unvarnished style as his depictions of commonplace domesticities. In Caché, a seemingly calm conversation between two men ends when one plunges a razor into his own jugular. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Haneke’s 1994 account of a mass murder in an Austrian bank, depicts the bloody massacre as merely the culmination of the character’s average day of breakfast, commuting, and work. Haneke moments are notable for their lack of lurid detail or dramatic heft, and they’re all informed by the invisible presence of his wagging finger; the films are meant to make viewer consider how sick it is to reduce death and violence to mere entertainment.
Which of course makes Haneke at least a little full of shit. It takes a special kind of hubris and indecency for an artist to mock the audience that pays him, and Funny Games (both versions) is certainly the movie where his cackle is most biting. It opens as a happy bourgeoisie family—George, Ann, and George Jr.—arrives at their lakefront vacation home while listening to opera in their SUV. They stop and wave to the neighbors, who seem oddly distant and appear to be hosting two young men in pristine white golf clothes. Soon after, the same two young men arrive at the protagonists’ home and we see the reason for their friends’ distance: the adolescents, Peter and Paul, attack George Sr. with a golf club and initiate a 12-hour torture session. Along the way, Paul grins at the camera and asks the audience questions like, “You’re on their side, right?” In the film’s most infamous sequence, Ann grabs a shotgun and turns the tables on one of her attackers; Paul then grabs the remote control, rewinds the film and prevents the revenge from taking place.
Get it? Like, audiences are so sick that they actually want to see murders, man. And so we’re the real psychopaths for paying $10 to sit and await bloodshed, right? There are moments when Funny Games feels so painfully academic that you’d think Haneke wrote the corresponding master’s thesis before he wrote the script. Like most of his work, it’s essentially a genre piece fed through the Haneke meat grinder—films go in feeling like Hitchcock thrillers (Caché), post-apocalyptic sci-fi (2003’s Time of the Wolf), or in this case Cape Fear-style domestic horror, but they all come out feeling like the same movie. One where “bo-bos,” usually named George and Anna (or Georg and Ann, depending on the language) are subjected to physical or emotional traumas in static long-takes and low lighting. No one laughs in Haneke’s movies, with the exception of murderers who react to their crimes with perverse glee.
Yet there are moments when Haneke releases the scholarly grip and his allows his messages to emerge organically, resulting in some irrefutable masterpieces. Chief among these is Caché, which addresses his main concerns of surveillance and moral responsibility with dramatic subtlety and tremendous acting. Code Unknown and the very similar 71 Fragments are both humanist dramas with ensemble casts; tragedy exists in both, but only to underline Haneke’s exploration of the difficulty of true communication in contemporary society. The latter forms, along with The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video (1992), what Haneke has called his “Glaciation Trilogy,” in which the protagonists resort to violence in response to their feelings of icy detachment from society.
Haneke followed the “Glaciation Trilogy” with the original Funny Games, the last of his German-language films. It is without a doubt his most violent and disturbing film, although all of his movies feel violent and disturbing even when they’re relatively calm. His first three Austrian movies exude a sense of confusion and anxiety, while his later French ones share a deep sadness. Funny Games, however, feels downright outraged. The 1997 version was Haneke’s most “American” film, in the sense that it wasn’t tied to contemporary European issues and settings like his other movies. Language aside, the Austrian Funny Games could theoretically take place anywhere.
So we now have Funny Games [U.S.], starring Tim Roth and remake queen Naomi Watts as George and Ann Farber. The young torturers are now played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, who are a little looser than their Austrian counterparts Arno Frisch and Frank Giering. The plot, the set, and the fourth-wall deconstructions remain entirely unchanged, but the small alterations that do exist in the new version seem oddly concessionary to an American audience expecting less subtlety than Haneke typically provides. The opening scene where the Farbers’ neighbors are “entertaining” the young men was, in the 1997 version, left unexplained and only became frightening in retrospect; here, Roth and Watts have a minutes-long discussion about how odd it seemed and how they hope nothing’s wrong. More egregiously, the Ann character now spends about a third of the film in her underwear; apparently Haneke has a different set of obligations to his audience when Naomi Watts is on camera instead of the homely Austrian actress Susanne Lothar. And while the advertising campaign was most likely out of Haneke’s hands, it’s worth noting that the trailers for Funny Games [U.S.] bear an enormous similarity to those for A Clockwork Orange, a movie that Haneke has rightly decried for losing its anti-violent message amid Kubrick’s psychedelic titillation.
These small considerations of audience expectation—that a horror movie’s scares be obviously foreshadowed, or that its heroine’s nipples be visible through her bra when she’s under duress—seem particularly uncomfortable in a movie that’s built on narrative subversion. In an early scene, George is working on the family’s boat and is shown leaving a knife on board as he leaves; when the killers finally have Ann on the boat we expect her to reach for it and save herself, but the boys intervene and nonchalantly throw it overboard. The original Funny Games is a harrowing and uncomfortable viewing experience, but also a fiercely purposeful one. Haneke’s message is as a subtle as a battering ram, but his commitment to undermining a genre’s conventions is admirable. Likewise, the languorous style that makes all his movies feel similar is ultimately a unique and morally informed one.
His new film, however, has no intrinsic reason to exist. Perhaps it would if he were merely catching up his English-speaking viewers before launching an American career, but Haneke has stated in interviews that he has no such intentions. Instead, the official story is that a Hollywood studio wanted to buy the rights to Funny Games and he wouldn’t allow any other director to helm it. My guess is that Haneke couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring his finger wagging to Hollywood, its ultimate audience, and watch as the controversy brewed.
Problem is, there likely won’t be any controversy. The new film may offend the few art-house squares that don’t know what to expect upon entering the theater, but in the past 10 years “torture porn” has come and gone as big mainstream business. How can Funny Games compete for shocks when the Hostel and Saw movies have spawned franchises and grossed millions? Or after Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made a loving homage called Grindhouse and it drew only disinterest from audiences? Or, for that matter, after Javier Bardem recently won Best Supporting Actor for playing another faux-philosophical serial killer who dares his victims to guess his obscure motives? Funny Games is still disturbing, but no longer novel.
Funny Games is now in theaters. 107 minutes, rated R.