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Thoughts on 'Funny Games'

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A few days ago I watched Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke's 1997 succes de scandale -- which he remade in the U.S. a decade later. Since there will be spoilers, the rest comes after the jump.

The plot could hardly be more simple: a wealthy bourgeois German family retires to their sprawling lakeside second home. There's the father, the mother, and a boy about 10 years old. Two young men named Peter and Paul, apparently acquaintances of one of the neighbors, appear at the house. They're dressed in what looks like tennis whites and are wearing white cotton gloves like antiquarians. They insinuate themselves into the home, take the entire family captive, cut them off from the outside world, and torture and kill all three after playing bizarre mindgames with them. All for no discernible reason, except twisted kicks.

Funny Games is a patholological, cynical, ugly masterpiece, because it's a bundle of paradoxes. On the one hand, it's remorselessly faithful to its premise of bleak honesty: this is going to be a movie in which nobody heroes up, the bad guys win, nobody escapes, and there is no justice or accountability. Haneke almost taunts the audience by setting up story lines that start moving into the familiar grooves of resourceful-rescue stories. For instance the plucky, adorable son, Georgie, manages to escape from the house where his family is imprisoned and get to a neighbor's house -- only to find the neighbors have all been massacred, and Paul is waiting there to bring him back. Peter and Paul dunk the family's cellphone in water to disable it, but later Georg, the father, painstakingly blow-dries the phone until the display finally re-activates -- to show the phone's battery is dead.

On the other hand, though, Haneke continuously undermines his own premise by breaking the fourth wall. Paul, the smooth, cunning home invader, occasionally turns to the audience and winks during the cruel escapades. He asks us, the audience, who we think will survive the movie, and chides us for predictably siding with the innocent family. At about the 1 hour point, he addresses the viewer and reassures us that we shouldn't imagine the film will be ending soon, since that would be much too short for a feature film. He then tells us that he and his friend Peter will leave the house for a while, to give the remaining family members time to try to and escape, thereby increasing the suspense. After the wife suddenly reaches for a gun and kills Peter, Paul finds the remote control, 'rewinds' the plot as we watch, and takes the gun away from her. Haneke also has his fun with the smugness of the bourgeois family. Like all good high-bourgeois Germans, they have surrounded their home with carefully-maintained fences, walls, and gates -- which paradoxically lock them in when they most need to escape.

Some reviewers found this to be a cheap gimmick, while others suggested it made the audience somehow 'complicit' in the barbaric fun. I don't really agree with either suggestion. The asides to the audience add another layer of chilling, alienated weirdness to what is already an intensely unsettling movie. The underlying point of Funny Games is to mock the lazy conventions of kidnapping/rescue dramas (especially the audience's expectations), and sabotaging the mimetic effect does that nicely. Yet, paradoxically, these asides actually enhance the suspense: they show that Haneke is blowing the conventions of the genre wide open, which means the audience can no longer rely on the assumptions it brings to 'psychological thrillers'. They are one of the first clues that are probably not going to see a heroic last-minute rescue, or a heart-to-heart in which the kidnappers gain insight and relent, or any of the other convenient knot-tiers used in dramas.

At the same time, the asides don't really make us 'complicit' in the pair's actions, anymore than a drunken barfly's leering makes a woman 'complicit' in his seduction plans. Rather, the asides set up an uncomfortable dichotomy: the family members are not in on the joke, and their suffering is 'real', but both the viewers and the home invaders are on the side who 'know' the whole thing is a game and who need not suffer any consequences. We're the voyeurs, they're the dungeon masters, and the family's ultimate humiliation, perhaps, is the fact that they never realize they are mere toys. That's also the key to the movie's title, which is in intentionally stilted English, not German. The end of the film, in which Paul charms his way into a neighbor's house, starting the cycle of murder once again, is about as brilliant and bleak as the famous ending of Cure, another deeply disturbing movie.

Funny Games is perhaps the archetype of a polarizing movie: the negative reviews treat the movie as if it were not just bad but soiled, debased, harmful and toxic. Those reviews may be the true yardstick of Haneke's achievement.

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