Funny Games: Special Edition Review

Despite the hype surrounding his latest film Hidden (Caché), it’s probably in his 1997 film Funny Games where Michael Haneke would come closest to matching his filmmaking technique with theory in a brilliantly observed social commentary. In Caché Haneke refined his technique down to pure academicism – almost to the level of self-parody - producing a cerebral experiment that pandered to film critics and the comfortable middle-class intellectual arthouse cinema goer, giving them nothing more challenging than a subject to be debated fruitlessly with friends at a dinner party and promptly forgotten about. In the rather more challenging Funny Games - due for an English language remake next year – Haneke applied his technique much more effectively to create a multi-layered and meaningful dialogue between the film and the viewer.

Funny Games is the culmination of the themes and techniques elaborated on in Haneke’s earlier Austrian films, in which he took a cold, austere look at a sick, complacent society that had bred a middle-class that was on the point of self destruction. The sickness would imperceptibly creep up on its characters through demands to conform to the social model propagated by the capitalist ideals of consumerism, career advancement and maintenance of the family unit. This involves shutting down any sense of a wider social responsibility or conscience, particularly with regards to anything – such as immigration and asylum seekers - that would threaten such an ideal. Haneke would see this resulting in a strong sense of insularity, ennui, spiritual angst and – in some way that is never quite clear – a cold distancing of oneself from one’s base, violent impulses. Funny Games then is a combination of these elements from his first three feature films The Seventh Continent, 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance and Benny’s Video, the latter film extending the frame of social alienation to consider the individual’s detachment from the reality of violence as it is presented on the screen. In Funny Games, Haneke goes much further, and in a much less preachy manner even exploits the viewer of his film to make a meaningful comment about the power of the moving image, particularly with regard to the depiction and acceptance of screen violence, as well as its impact on society.

Right from the opening scene, Haneke brilliantly uses his remarkable filming technique to set up a situation that is rife with unease and potential for conflict, as well as being cinematically and thematically perfect in execution. As if he hadn’t been cruel enough to the Schober family in The Seventh Continent, Haneke uses them yet again as the representation of everything that is comfortable and complacent about wealthy middle-class Europeans – driving down to their holiday home on a lake for a couple of weeks boating holiday. Along the way the mother and father, Ana and Georg (Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe) play a little game, guessing the pieces of opera that they play to each other on the car stereo. The opera music is then interrupted with some death metal music as the film’s title sequence opens. This brief opening sequence serves to broadly characterise the nature and class of the family, while simultaneously alluding little games of which much darker ones will be played out later. It also sets off a number of more personal and deeper reactions in the viewer, some unsettling and some prejudicial. Those will be exploited later.

In effect, what happens next is that a couple of psychopathic young men called Paul and Peter (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering), on the pretext of borrowing a couple of eggs, insinuate their way into the Schober’s lake house and hold them captive while they batter and torture them through a series of sick and twisted games. Haneke depicts this in cold, grim detail – but never explicitly on-screen in a manner that would normally be expected. In a number of meticulously paced and staged scenes, he first alludes to the horror of what is about to happen through devices calculated to instil unease – principally through the use of light and sound. The very fact that the assault on the family appears motiveless and provoked by nothing more than a silly dispute over eggs only adds to the horror. Haneke uses this same cold distance to ultimate effect in perhaps the most mindlessly brutal scene in the film – the camera following Paul into the kitchen and watching him make a sandwich while the screams of the unfolding horror being enacted by Peter can be heard in the background. The actual scene of violence could hardly be more chilling if it was shown.

All this is evidence of a quite brilliant mise en scène, and of a director fully in command of the cinematic language required to depict a tense and dramatic situation, but Haneke takes Funny Games further than that, making it work on a much deeper level. The first indication that all is not as it seems and that Haneke wants to communicate something else to the viewer is when one of the kidnappers, Paul, turns around and winks at the camera. He turns again to the camera in another scene and asks the viewer what they think the odds are on the outcome of another of the cruel games they play on the family, thereby revealing the framework and structure of the film as a narrative game and eliciting the viewer’s complicity. This becomes more apparent as the kidnappers work out their own rules of the games, and essentially the film. Is lying allowed? Should such things be shown in front of kids? How much entertainment value and fun can be derived from scenes depicting cruelty and torture? Have we got enough here for a feature film?

The framework of the film thus laid bare, it becomes apparent that the two kidnappers are nothing more than a narrative device used to create havoc with the script and thereby artificially create drama – but what they are being asked to wreak havoc upon is not just the fictional bourgeois Schober family in the film and their middle-class values, but the viewer. It asks why you continuing to sit and watch this. Is there possibly a part of the viewer that wants to see a rich, pampered family suffer? How much? It is fun to see this happen? Is it ok as long as it is “fictional”? In doing this, Haneke challenges the viewer to draw back, think about what they are watching and consider their own reaction to it. The viewer can put an end to this horror at any moment, simply by walking out of the cinema or pressing the stop button on the DVD. But you don’t. Such is the force of cinema, and the power of the televised image to manipulate and hold the viewer. The viewer needs to have questions answered, needs to make sense of what they are seeing, so Haneke keeps you guessing, by explaining and telling you nothing. It is a measure of Haneke’s brilliance as a director that he is fully capable of presenting the images in a way that makes viewing compelling, regardless of the brutality of the content, but it is a mark of his genius that he forces the viewer to confront rather more unsettling questions about their own reactions and their distancing themselves from the real implications of what they are watching.

These are all questions and issues Haneke had raised before in his films – and would also subsequently repeat - but never quite so effectively. A balance needs to be struck between presenting the viewer with challenging and worthwhile material and making it interesting or entertaining. When it becomes didactic and instructive, as it often does with Haneke, he risks losing the viewer who can often feel that they are being preached to or over-manipulated. Funny Games however works on every level – as a brilliant horror film in itself, as a dissection of what makes a horror film effective, on the compelling nature of screen violence, its distancing of one from reality, and the troubling reactions they provoke in the viewer. There are issues here you might not wish to confront.

It’s intriguing to consider that a US English language remake of the film, to be directed by Haneke himself, is in production for 2007. A straight transposition of the film into English would be pointless, since it has been achieved to perfection here, but the idea of updating the film and directing it at a US audience is intriguing, since the world continually seems to be one step ahead of the horrors that Haneke has depicted in his films. One would expect that a director like Haneke could open up the concept of the imagery of violence and torture here to take in the images from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the effect of the ‘War on Terror’ on the public consciousness in a way similar to Hidden, although one would hope that it would be in a more substantial manner than the mere tokenism of his take on the Algerian issue there. The director would also surely have to address the issue that complicity of the viewer in screen violence has come on much further since 1997, with the evolution of interactive video games. If Haneke can meet these challenges, a new Funny Games could prove to be the most controversial film yet from the Austrian director and an intriguing new direction and market for one of the most brilliant filmmakers working in cinema today, but otherwise it’s hard to see how this brilliant and challenging film could be much improved.

Funny Games is released in the UK by Tartan. The DVD is not region encoded and is in PAL format. Tartan have already released a previous non-anamorphic edition of the film, that wasn’t particularly good quality. The new anamorphic edition has therefore been accorded the status of Special Edition.

Unfortunately, while the new edition is doubtless an improvement over Tartan’s previous edition, it’s nevertheless a disappointment. Transferred anamorphically at 1.75:1, on the whole it looks reasonably clear, colours are adequate and it copes reasonably well with the often dull and dark interiors. The colours however are perhaps not quite cool enough for a Haneke film and it looks artificially brightened, with exteriors and whites looking rather glaring. Interiors cope slightly better, which is essential, since most of the grim proceedings of the film take place in shadowy, darkened interiors. The worst problem with the new edition is that it is particularly soft – wide shots actually looking blurred though even close-ups show a certain haziness. Edge-enhancement or haloing is also visible. On the plus side, the image is quite stable throughout and, barring the rare white dot, the image is practically spotless. The layer change – though barely perceptible – is unfortunately placed in the worst possible place, during Haneke’s single unedited 10-minute long take at the centre of the film, where the family are gathering themselves together.

Although initially advertised as having a Dolby Digital 5.1 and even a DTS mix, I’m glad to see that the soundtrack has not actually been remixed for this edition, but rather comes with the original Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. Haneke is noted for producing mixes that are practically mono, so there should be no high expectations for the sound mix here. Nevertheless, it still sounds rather weak, not really having the impact it ought to. The sound is rather thin, lacking the thundering sound that should assault you during the opening titles, and not being particularly strong in capturing the rather disturbing noises that should be able to be heard throughout the film. It copes with these adequately and doesn’t present any real problems, but perhaps with not quite the ambience that is required.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. They are in a white font, which is clear throughout.

Director Interview (18:28)
Interviewed by Serge Toubiana for the same sessions as the interviews for his other Austrian films collected in the French 3 Films de Michael Haneke boxset, Haneke talks about how the film, characters and the conflicting elements of the script were developed and describes the film as a representation of how violence is depicted on the screen. He makes no bones about it being a film designed to instruct and make a point and characteristically sees himself and the film as being beyond criticism. He is however quite aware of how screen violence has moved on since the film was made and that it can be looked upon now in the wrong way, so it might not any longer be as effective as it once was.

Original Trailer (1:08)
The original trailer obviously does the film an injustice, by depicting it as something it is not – a tense and violent hostage drama – but what better way to draw in the unwary viewer?

There is no one way to view a Michael Haneke film, and to claim to have understood it does a disservice to the director and what he is trying to achieve. The only opinion that counts in a Haneke film is your own, since the director deliberately leaves his films open for individual interpretation and personal identification. If your reaction to Funny Games is disgust and outrage at the blatant manipulation of the viewer, then that’s a valid response. If the outright nastiness and motiveless violence of Funny Games causes you to you walk out on the film or switch it off, then I imagine that the director would be just as pleased, since his aim is to provoke just such an extreme reaction. In fact, switching it off is probably the most honest response to the film. The worst reaction you can have to a Haneke film is boredom, and if the film does that, then Haneke has failed - but it’s hard to imagine anyone being bored by Funny Games. Brilliantly devised and executed, the film treats the viewer with intelligence and respect, rather than preach to them in a chiding and accusatory way as Haneke often can - this time not only allowing them to participate in the illusion of cinema and the power of the moving image, but also to look behind its construct and examine the troubling responses it raises within. Tartan’s “Special Edition” of the film unfortunately doesn’t really live up to the billing, with a merely adequate transfer and few extra features.

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