Funny Games (1997)

This is the original ‘Funny Games’, Michael Haneke’s 1997 German Language thriller/ horror that was quite pointlessly re-made as the almost identical ‘Funny Games US’ starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts in 2007. The film makes uncomfortable and intense viewing and caused a wave of controversy when it came out due to its wilful antagonism of the audience. Although it is undeniably interesting, its lack of any significant accolades is justifed and indicates that it has some severe flaws.

The plot follows the experiences of a young privileged family as they are taken hostage in their holiday home by a pair of libertine psychopaths. What makes these psychopaths distinctive as protagonists is that their crimes seem to be motiveless and they inflict pain and suffering for sheer entertainment. They are made all the more chilling by the fact that they are in some ways reasonable and we see them satisfying their fundamental need to eat. Thus Haneke provides us with protagonists that are uncomfortably familiar in their humanness and so seem more realistic and terrifying than the monstrous, masked antagonists of slasher horror films.

What is also striking is the apparent contingency of their identities as they variously name themselves Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, and Beavis and Butthead. Thus, they and their actions are tied to the (distinctly American) influence of mass media and the spectacle. Indeed, it is the spectacle and our role in maintaining and directing it that is the main target of the film’s critique. The image of a blood-soaked television illustrates the link between violence and media well. But, most importantly, when ‘Peter’ looks at the camera and addresses the audience directly we are implicated as accessories to the crimes. The suggestion is that it is our desire for voyeuristic experience which can be packaged neatly and habitually consumed as entertainment which drives the industry of violence. It is this industry that Haneke is attempting to satirize and so he tries to ensure that we are denied the comfort of passivity when watching ‘Funny Games’. We are instead encouraged to analyze our relationship to violent entertainment and the media and subsequently our responsibility for the very real effects they have.

Although this was nothing new, you would be hard pushed to deny the importance of this message and on the whole it is delivered with intelligence and flair. Susanne Lothar puts in a particularly committed performance as Anna and Arno Frisch is unfalteringly charismatic and menacing as ‘Peter’. However, I can’t help but think that by using art-house techniques Haneke limits the potential impact of the film. It seems obvious that in order for a film that comments on popular culture to have any significant effect it must appeal to the consumers of popular culture. The ‘artiness’ and self-consciousness of Haneke’s film means that it was never likely to have an impact in the mainstream and lacks the appeal to effect a mass audience.

I also think Haneke follows the contemporary trend of placing too much emphasis on the role of the media in the formation of twisted and depraved individuals. In the film he satirizes the common assumption that environmental factors and childhood trauma are the primary causes of criminal perversion. His protagonists go against the grain of convention as they are priveliged and polite (apart from the killing). The result is to overstress the case that they are the product of modern entertainment culture and to needlessly exaggerate the formative impact that the media has on the individual.

Despite having some fairly obvious faults, the film is interesting visually and formally and is definitely worth seeing. However, I warn you that it is intentionally divisive and challenging so be prepared to endure a gruelling couple of hours. Also, it is not really worth seeing both the Austrian and American versions as they are virtually identical.

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