When it premiered at Cannes in 1997, Michael Haneke’s Austrian film Funny Games caused an outrage that hasn’t really calmed down since. Indeed, it was exacerbated a decade later when he remade the film, mostly shot for shot, in English. That release brought Haneke’s project a lot more attention and it became clear that Haneke wasn’t just commenting on the audience’s complicity in filmed violence but was specifically directing his shaming finger at American audiences. You pay to watch violent movies, he seems to say, so here’s one that will explicitly show you your complicity. If you watch it, you’re part of the problem. Yes, it caused an outrage.
I will admit that it’s an outrage I do not feel. I do think that Haneke’s project, and the various ways he goes about it within the film, is fascinating, and that includes his own reveling that the film has people praising it and walking out to write scathing criticism.
As the film starts, a young family is starting its holiday weekend at an exclusive, gated lake property. They drive their nice car and long sail boat through the beautiful countryside. This is Anna (Susanne Lothar), Georg (Ulrich Mühe), and their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski). There is a moment of levity:
But that levity doesn’t last long:
The family doesn’t know it, but we do: there is a reason the levity passed so quickly — they are in for a terrible trip.
The tension builds slowly, much like any thriller. We are used to seeing the family expecting a pleasant trip, engaged in the mundane, unaware. In fact, the whole world seems at peace. The neighbors are in their yard with two proper-looking young men. There doesn’t seem to be a care in the world as they look forward to tomorrow’s golf competition. As the family settles in — unpakcing, hooking up the boat, preparing food — one of the young men shows up at the door asking if he can borrow some eggs:
This is Peter (who goes by some other names as well), played by Frank Giering. He seems a bit shy and awkward, but ultimately polite and unassuming. Over the next few minutes, though, the tension builds. He seems clumsy — drops the eggs, knocks her cell phone into the sink filled with water, and is generally becoming a nuisance. Worse, he isn’t responding the way someone does in that situation . . . he sticks around, asks for more eggs.
A momentary reprieve: Paul (played by Arno Frisch) shows up too and seems charming and able to defuse the situation. But there is something off about him as well. He feigns that he cannot understand why she’s starting to get tense and wish them away.
Haneke really doesn’t waste much more time getting us into the thriller proper. Within minutes we and the family know that they are dealing with two psychopaths dressed up for the holiday weekend. I think this is also where some in the audience get more unsettled than usual in a thriller: after sending Anna out on a hot-cold search for the dog that suddenly went silent, Paul turns and winks at us.
Suddenly we are not watching a normal thriller. In this thriller, the psychopath turns and winks to us, suggesting that we are in on the game, that he’s playing his role, with relish, for us. And this is true to an extent: without him, there is no movie. If we want a thriller, we require the violence. Let the thrills begin.
That’s just one playful jab Haneke makes at the audience. Is it smug moralizing? Perhaps. But it is still effective, at least to me.
As the film goes on, Haneke continues to remove the supports most filmmakers place in such movies that allow the audience some relief and some distance. Even when we are anxious and nervous in a movie, we often can predict what’s coming: some unlikely act of heroism or saving grace. At the very least we like to know the motives of the villains. There’s not much of that to find here. Instead, we find ourselves in a rigged bet: the villains tell the three members of the family that within twelve hours each will be dead; they bet that they will be alive. What do we think?
As you can see, the film is deliberately set up so that we see the construct. That’s some of the relief that Haneke offers. But this doesn’t prevent the film from being terrifying and unsettling — deeply unsettling, even if any violence is not explicit and usually happens off the stage. Haneke doesn’t gloat in the physical violence, and this is an aspect that saves the film for me. What he spends his time with, and where the film is humane from my perspective is that he and his actors The suffering . . . Haneke does not relieve us from the anguish. The two villains may be playing in a farce — and Haneke told them to play as if they were — but the three victims are in a drama.
Lothar and Mühe are phenomenal as the couple put in such an extreme situation. Their terror is not played for laughs. Their suffering is not mocked. It’s because of them, and their ability to respect the complexity of a genuine human being in such a situation that the film succeeds in being more than just a cruel joke. Paul may look at us once in a while to remind us that this is what we paid to see, but Haneke, Lothar, and Mühe remind us yet again that violence in films is not reflective of violence in real life, and maybe we should get a glimpse of what that violence entails without some of the heroic myths and pressure-relief valves we find in many thrillers.