Funny Games (1997)
Director: Michael Haneke
Synopsis: In an interview, film critic and director Jacques Rivette dismissed Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games as “vile,” and, “a complete piece of shit.” And I agree with him. It is vile. But it is not a complete piece of shit. It is actually quite the opposite, and as I give this movie an uninhibited endorsement, I openly cede my last ounce of humanity.
Overview: Funny Games (1998) is a bit of an anti-horror, genre feature. It’s a home invasion movie that, upon close observation, criticizes the very genre and all of the people who enjoy it, thus exposing our perversions as an audience that seems to revel in bloodshed and profanity. Haneke’s film establishes the perfect antagonist in Peter, who will smirk and wink at the camera as if he were playing an elaborate ruse on his petrified victims, and drags us as willful viewers into the whole mess.
In one scene, Peter (Frank Giering) makes a bet with his hostages: if they’re still alive in 12 hours time, they win the bet. He then glances at the camera and tells us, his other captive audience, that he knows we’re there and rooting for the small suburban unit. We are no longer mere audience members in the cinema; we have been stripped of the security of passive spectatorship and forced into a position of active culpability.
Director Michael Haneke teases with constant red herrings throughout, with little hints that the quintessential escape and revenge scheme is about to happen, before he holds fast and denies his audience any easy exit, thus taking hope away at the last minute, time and time again. He exposes us to our own cinematic lust for blood and violence through the labyrinthine sadism of his antagonists, that proves as perverted as our desire to continue to watch the film itself.
Haneke even sets Funny Games (1998) up with an uncharacteristic sterility. The two captors wear white polos, white shorts, and white gloves, which, aside from their practical purpose, also grant them an almost cartoon-ish look. The two refer to each other with monikers at times. The thin and lanky mastermind, Peter, is referred to as Jerry, and the henchman, Paul (Arno Frisch), is condescendingly named Tom; the former is Butthead and the latter is Beavis. They invade a pristine white lake house, doing so before the owners are able to unpack. They even try their hardest not to dirty the white carpet. Soon enough, the quiet and tranquil lake house, once a sought after escape destination, becomes a prison where the doors are locked from the outside, and the gates trap its occupants from within.
But the scariest part has to be the lack of purpose that the killers have. They aren’t doing this for themselves; that’s just another one of their sadistic mind games. They do it for our enjoyment. At one point, Peter prolongs psychological torture of his victims, remarking, “We’re not up to feature film length yet.” This is Haneke’s message, and it is one that condemns the violent nature of modern media.
Despite these constant reminders that we’re watching a film, and Haneke’s voluminous attempts to jar us out of it (death metal randomly fading into the soundtrack at certain points, while the television set flips through cacophonous channels of sound), it is impossible not to be completely entranced by the red flags and the unrelenting threat of violence. The first twenty minutes of the film revolve quite innocently around a carton of eggs, and as we are subjected to the constancy of the two would be villains, innocence fades, tension slowly builds, and the terror never truly ends.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1998) is heavily indebted to its actors (the ability of the two parents, played by Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Muhe, to exhibit absolute terror, and the cold expertise with which Arno Frisch and Frank Giering depict Peter and Paul truly make the film). Lothar does especially well as the film’s chief protagonist, as the one character that we’re supposed to root for, and a stand-in for the Final Girl character trope from the horror genre.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a film that I deeply admire and respect, though not so much as sheer entertainment, but as a necessary cinematic experience.