As promised, Screamers and Screamettes, today we tackle Michael Haneke's Brechtian home invasion art-thriller Funny Games. I'm going to be talking specifically about the 1997 original, so folks who signed on to the remake might find their mileage varies. Though, from what I've heard, the two flicks are relatively interchangeable.
In a previous review of Michael Haneke's Caché, I suggested that there are two Michael Haneke's at work in any one Haneke film.
First, there's a somewhat ham-fisted and predictable moralist who seems ever ready to browbeat audiences with a simplistic lesson along the lines of "racism is bad and all white people are guilty of it" or "enjoying fictional media violence makes you complicit in violence, um, somehow" or "love is all you need" or any of a million other fortune-cookie grade platitudes that modern artists can find drifting among the detritus of post-1960 liberalism. This is holier than thou Haneke that many critics and film-goers justly cannot stand. In the interview attached to the Kino edition of Funny Games, Haneke announces that only the people who "need" his film will set through it. More well adjusted, smarter, right-thinking folk will figure out his message right away and leave. Only the violence hounds with a pathological need to watch suffering will stick it out and such people "deserve to be tortured."
The stupidity of this statement is so multi-faceted, that it staggers the imagination and can drive even naturally reserved viewers, like myself, to give their utterly innocent television sets, who were honestly just following orders when they showed this interview, the finger.
But, before one can get mad enough to do actual violence to the guiltless appliance, this same Michael Haneke – the one who says he built a flick to justly torture blood-junkie troglodytes – says that it is a failure of the artist to lapse into easy moral judgments and that he has no interest in "denouncing any person." Later, he also agrees with a comment by another great directorial-sadist, Hitchcock, that "the more intelligent the villain, the better the movie" and discusses how he diligently and happily constructed the film to ensure that his victims were truly and thoroughly screwed.
One possible answer to this seeming paradox is that Haneke is a hypocritical douche-nozzle who can't even keep his own story straight. And it is hard to argue against that.
But, if you'll humor me, I think that what we've got here is the second Haneke that I was talking about. The second Haneke isn't particulary interested in teaching the sort of moral lessons you expect to find at the end of "very special episode" of a particularly un-edgy sitcom. Despite himself, he's too interested in what makes films work, how genres are built, how audiences interact with films, and how all these things can be manipulated. He simply wants to make a tight, functional, flawless machine of a film and he can't concern himself with making a coherent political statement.
Haneke claims Funny Games is his only piece of agit-prop. But even a cursory examination of that film reveals a work of art too weird, too complicated, and too unruly to even serve its own master's purposes.
We're going to run through the plot quickly.
We start with a family: two parents and one kid. Following the pattern of Haneke's The Seventh Continent (1989: Anna and Georg), Code Unknown (2000: Anne and Georges), Time of the Wolf (2003: Anne and Georges), and Caché (Anne and Georges), the couple at the center of Funny Games is named Anna and Georg.
Haneke's habit of using the same names gives the viewer who has followed his career the weird feeling that Ann(a or e) and Georg(es) are the Kenny of the Haneke film universe. It is as if there's just this one family and the angry God of their reality – Haneke the Merciless – just goes out of his way to absolutely fuck them over in the worst ways his omnipotence allows. If at any time during Funny Games you think Haneke's being unnecessarily brutal to the lead victims, reflect on the idea that this is just one of five horrific fates Haneke has, to date, dealt them.
The film opens with the family on the road, headed to their secluded lake home. Why, oh, why does anybody even go to secluded lake homes anymore? They are, of course, subjected to a home invasion by a duo of relentlessly polite, relentlessly brutal young men dressed in tennis whites and sporting finicky white gloves.
These two assailants, who refer to themselves by a host of different names (Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead) and offer a couple of alternative "origin stories" (beating Nolan's Joker to that particular gag by more than a decade), proceed to put the family through a torturous gamut of children's games that have been twisted to accommodate homicidal punchlines.
And, just to spice things up, the assailants are aware of the fictional nature of the film they are in and not only regularly break the fourth wall and directly address the viewer, but also manipulate the medium – with the help of the director – to ensure their uncontested dominance over their victims. They can, for example, rewind sections of the film and erase plot twists that don't go their way or use editing cuts to eliminate in-film space, allowing them to see into and retrieve items from a room on the first floor of a house without ever leaving a different room on the second floor.
One could just wonder how the family stands any chance against such superpowered – for lack of a better term – opponents and, SPOILER ALERT, they don't. All the family members are toyed with and then killed, their suffering intentionally stretched out by the name-shifting villains to fit into a suitable one and one-half hour running time. When the last family member is dead, the duo goes to another house and, with a knowing look at the viewer, the whole thing is presumed to start all over again.
Let's talk about what isn't the major facet of genre subversion here. Haneke 1, and many of the critics who despise him, will tell you that the self-aware monkey-shines of the attackers, especially the way they directly address the audience, makes the audience aware of the fact that they are "accomplices" to murder.
Except that's absurd.
This position might be defensible in some abstract way with regards to some generic "violent films" category, but it is hard to advance this thesis with evidence from the film Haneke made. Why? Because Haneke's po-mo shenanigans aren't just add-ons he slapped on a Straw Dogs remake to make it palatable to the Cannes set. The movie's plot only works if it is a movie in a literal sense. Without the killers' self-awareness as fictional characters and their ability to openly manipulate the film medium in which they exist, the plot doesn't progress the same way. The result is to repeatedly declare to viewers that what is going on is not "murder," but make-believe. At one point in the film, one of our poly-monikered murderers asks the viewers if they believe the family has any chance of surviving the film. "Who are you betting with?" Far from being an indictment of viewers' dubious empathic responses, the effect reminds viewers that neither chance nor sympathy are really at play here. Insomuch as Haneke, by proxy of his imagined killers, is completely in control of his fictional universe, all these characters are simply aspects of the story Haneke tells and their fates were sealed long ago. And not in some meta-discourse film studies way – but as an in-film aspect of the story we know these characters are just and only that: characters. For contrast, during one of the murder scenes, Haneke gives us a long shot of a blood-splattered television. On the TV is stock footage of a race car wreck. Meant, I suspect, as little more than a visual metaphor for the family's worsening condition, it also provides a telling counterpoint to Haneke's overly cinematic tension as it gives viewers the chance to compare a truly random incident of violence within an entertainment context and the highly mannered and overtly manipulative staginess Haneke gives us.
Ultimately, it lets everybody off the hook. Haneke, like his white-gloved killers, never gets his hands dirty because he made a film about violence, rather than a violent movie (though I think it should be noted that there's a single on-screen act of gory violence in Haneke's flick, and that happens to one of the baddies – Haneke's film is really light going compared to the extremes horror fans regularly subject themselves to these days). The viewers are off the hook because the not so "sub" subtext of the film is that the emotional response of the audience is easily manipulated by any halfway competent director. Consequently, how can viewers be held responsible for "who they bet with"? It isn't their choice.
If there's anything truly subversive about Haneke's flick, it all comes from a single scene: a long, emotionally ravaging single take that occurs after the death of the son, the first family member to go. After killing the young boy, the killers leave the house (an inexplicable act until you understand that the killers, by manipulating the film, simply cannot lose – they might as well take naps, run a marathon, or go to grad school in the interim; the universe of the film bends to their/Haneke's will and they can do what they want). Shocked and drained, the parents struggle to liberate themselves from their duct tape bonds. What's notable about this scene is how Haneke, free to explore the emotional range of his characters because he's made their emotions and their impact on the viewer the real crux of his pix, gives the viewer the full and genuinely harrowing reaction parents might have to the violent death of their son. This isn't some stereotypical scene that resolves in a quick cry followed by a vow of revenge or an urgent, "We've got to get going! Now!" These characters really let it all out. Especially Georg, whose gasping and wailing sobs might very well be the single loudest sound on the film's soundtrack. This single scene tells us more about the artificiality of media violence as we usually consume it than all the film's broken fourth walls and meta conversations about the blending of fact and fiction. It gives us a glimpse at what the fantasies we enjoy so effortlessly and without any sacrifice might actually cost. It is in that one moment that Haneke gives genre fans something important to ponder.
Is it the duty of fans to be so self-reflexive? Just because one enjoys the cartoonish violence of gore cinema, must you spend serious consideration on the pain and suffering of real horror? I don't have an answer for that. I feel that there's something so asymmetrical about the easy consumption of symbolic violence and the mind-numbing reality that the relationship demands attention. I also think that denying the impact of violent media – where the individual studies are always too limited, but the literature reviews are never rigorously focused enough – has taken on the same stanky strategies climate change deniers deploy. But does that really make my consumption of media violence any different from somebody who doesn't feel that same? I doubt it. In the special features interview that follows the film on the DVD, Haneke says that being self-reflexive immediately exempts you from the moral complicity of media violence. That sounds more like a statement of an academic's faith in the inherent redemptive value of intellectualization rather than a logical position on the issue.
Speaking of genre conventions, this is a blog review and I've already gone on too long and failed to give you a take-away judgment on the flick. I can't give you back the time you've spent reading this, but I can give you the executive summary. If you're reading this blog, Michael Haneke probably hates you. He doesn't think you're very bright and I'm fairly certain he thinks he's a better person than you are. This is a shame because he makes really good movies. In fact, his movies seem to be more complex and generous than he is. Funny Games is one of his better films. Watching it is something like watching the rules that govern the genre suddenly stand up and start dancing. My recommendation: dance along and leave before the musician starts telling you what they think. When was the last time you heard your favorite musician say anything that struck you as deeply and profoundly as their songs did? It's like that.