Splatter Time Fun Fest 2011: Funny Games (1997)

Splatter Time Fun Fest 2011 travels to Germany, and I get to take in my first film from an infamous director!

Written By: Michael Haneke
Directed By: Michael Haneke

I’ve thought a lot about Funny Games and I’m still not sure if I can adequately express how I feel. I wasn’t revolted like many people, nor did I find Michael Haneke’s machinations too clever for their own good. I was, for the most part, enthralled by Funny Games. Herr Haneke captivated me with a horror tale and a meta exercise, and he entertained me with a film that almost flawlessly combined both elements. Funny Games isn’t a flabby film, it isn’t a cheap film, it isn’t an aimless film. What kind of film is Funny Games?

I don’t know if there is an easy answer to the proposed question. Well, that’s not true, there are easy answers, I just find them to be very lazy. It would be very easy for me to label Funny Games as an exercise in fetishistic violence. I could just as easily declare that Funny Games is torture porn, or that Herr Haneke has crafted a film that is about simple shocks and nothing else. The problem is that I don’t believe any of that narrow viewpoint malarkey. Funny Games has facets of those elements, but it does interesting things with those facets. Are you really watching what many, myself included, have decried as torture porn if the audience is never shown any of the capitulating violence? Is Funny Games really trying to be shocking when in reality it tells a tale that is easily deciphered? Is Herr Haneke being fetishistic with the way he presents his violence when there is a clear reason behind said presentation?

The above exercise in questioning should let you in on how deep I find Funny Games to be. Herr Haneke is interested in asking questions of his audience. He’s interested in their reactions to violence, both what they see and what they do not see. He’s interested in how audiences will react to killers who are rather plain and a movie that isn’t afraid to randomly break the fourth wall. Herr Haneke isn’t afraid to challenge his audience and this creates a very rewarding experience for the audience.

Very early on in Funny Games I remarked to my wife that I was surprised that the violence had, up to that point, been unseen. As Funny Games progressed I further remarked that I was convinced Herr Haneke was making a statement about violence while also employing release denial filmmaking by not showing said violence (release denial does not imply that the violence is wanted, but rather the release from the tension that the showing of the violence provides is what was wanted). Then the shotgun scene came about and for a brief moment my entire image of the film was shattered. Just as I was rethinking the entire film Herr Haneke broke the fourth wall yet again and had a character physically rewind the film. It was at that moment that I knew I was watching a film with a certain amount of heft behind it. By rewinding the film Herr Haneke erased what I had just borne witness to and denied me the release of a heroic, but violent moment. Funny Games is not a movie with any easy answers, and Herr Haneke is not a director willing to give his audience easy escape routes.

At the same time that Funny Games is being hefty in its meta exercises, it is also functioning as a rather tense horror movie. It takes a special kind of director to play out an exercise like Herr Haneke does while also creating a threadbare story that works. A large reason for the success of Funny Games beyond its proclivities in the meta realm is Herr Haneke’s willingness to trust his actors. He’s willing to trust Arno Frisch to be engaging, charming, and utterly horrific. He trusts Susanne Lothar to be big and loud in all the right places. Just as he trusts Ulrich Mühe to never be anything but staid and silent. Herr Haneke trusts his audience to accept the horror and the exercise, his trust earns Funny Games much of the praise I am bestowing upon the film.

Those who are willing to accept the horror and the exercise are in for a special treat when they watch Funny Games. It’s beautiful film in its starkness, and a complete film in the way it handles its subject matter, its forays into meta machinations, and its existence as a horror film. Funny Games is the first film I have seen from Michael Haneke, but I can guarantee it will not be the last.




11 responses to “Splatter Time Fun Fest 2011: Funny Games (1997)

  1. Mark Middlemas

    The Adams loves them some Haneke. I still haven’t quite made into Haneke Land, but I am sure it’s only a matter of time.

  2. I haven’t decided if I want to see Funny Games yet – either version – mostly because I’m not sure I’m the target audience for the film. That is, I’m not sure I’m the audience if the film is trying to teach me a lesson (as, for example, Kermode says), about “my” unhealthy fascination and appetite for violence as a film viewer. The truth is, I don’t have that kind of fascination – I hate films that seem to be those that portray violence merely for the thrill of it (eg. most Tarantino), and I don’t think I need a lesson. But you’re like me in your distaste for Tarantino’s films, and you also appreciate this film a lot, so maybe I should re-think my hesitation about seeing it. Do you think the film is, indeed, trying to teach those with an appetite for torture/torture porn a lesson? Is that it’s essential purpose, or is there more going on that’s worth exploring? Your write-up indicates that there is, that, at the very least, the film is technically brilliant. And I have certainly liked the other Haneke films I’ve seen (Cache, White Ribbon, Code Unknown). Thoughts?

  3. Have you seen his own remake and, if so, what were your thoughts on that in how it compliments, or not, the 1997 original?

  4. Mark – I think he has a sensibility as a director, based on one film mind you, that you would dig, check him out when you get a chance.

    Melissa – Funny Games is definitely technically brilliant, but I don’t think I would go so far as to say it’s teaching a lesson. I think the film is asking questions, it presents its violence in an interesting way that asks questions of the person watching it in a few different ways. For those who are fascinated by violence it should cause them to question why they are so fascinated with seeing said violence. The film also raises questions about what our society looks for in movies nowadays. In that way it’s not looking to teach any lesson, but to explore an area of film and allow the viewer to form their own interpretation. I’m not sure how you would take the film Melissa, but it’s very unlike a Tarantino film. The violence in Funny Games isn’t cool or for a cheap thrill (even if it is thrilling), it definitely serves a larger purpose.

    Edgar – I haven’t seen the remake yet, but it is in my queue.

  5. A couple of things…

    As far as the remake goes, see it. I think that ‘Americanizing’ the character adds a bit of heft to the themes for an american audience. It makes the portrayal of the the boys that much more alien and strange.

    As far as the idea of ‘teaching a lesson to the torture porn audience’, I would say that in a lot of ways, it was a key decision of Haneke’s to create the remake. Some might deride that decision as a cashing in, but anyone that knows of his work would know that while the first version was for the world of Pulp Fiction, I can only imagine how he shook his head at the world that lined up to see Hostel!

    Third- I see most of the film as a true dissection of the horror genre, specifically revenge thrillers like I Spit On Your Grave, Last House On The Left, or to one of the original revenge thrillers, which actually tried to comment on the idea, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. But the stroke of genius to me, in addition to what you saw as the rising tension and refusal to let the terror stop, is that all of the mundane trappings of our good nature is what allows this family to be terrorized in the first place. Huge swaths of dialogue where even after being attacked, our family tried to reason with the boys common sense, which to us seems so stupid, but is actually EXACTLY WHAT YOU WOULD DO IN REAL LIFE. I love that the father is in no way a bad ass, and every cliche is thrown out the window (dogs and kids are always ok, villain gets his comeuppance, etc).

    Bill, it’s a good first foray into Haneke’s work. Now go watch Benny’s Video.

  6. Okay. I’d like to read your views on that film as well. Now I’ll go make myself an omelet now.

  7. Sherlock – Great thoughts. I fully plan on checking out the remake, as well as more from Haneke, sometime in the future.

    Edgar – Enjoy your omelet. 🙂

  8. I think your right in that this is a hard film to get around because Haneke plays with your expectations and subverts what you think should happen. I think a lot of people went for those easy answers in order to deride the film and make themselves feel safe and unchallanged. But I think they do themselves a great disservice because there’s a lot of film to dig into here.

  9. Definitely James, that’s one of the main reasons I ultimately found it such a rewarding film. Haneke challenged me as a viewer, and I was really able to dig into the movie because of that.

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