Funny Games Review
Of all the director’s early Austrian made films, it’s probably the original 1997 version of his film Funny Games where Michael Haneke would come closest to matching filmmaking technique and theory in a brilliantly observed social commentary. The film would be remade ten years later with an English cast as Funny Games U.S., but even though filmed almost identically on a scene-by-scene basis, subtle changes were introduced for the new audience that seriously undermined the integrity of the original idea. While the remake seems misguided, overly academic and paradoxically even dated, Haneke’s original vision for the film remains more open and challenging, playing on the viewer’s preconceptions and prejudices about how they view cinema in a manner that creates a multi-layered and meaningful dialogue between the film and the viewer, rather than chiding them from the screen.
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 preservation of the family unit. This necessarily 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 one’s human characteristics, revealing instead the base, violent impulses that lie underneath. Funny Games then is a combination of these elements from his first three feature films The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance. In particular, Benny’s Video would extend 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, the breaking of the eggs themselves adding to the premonition of violence to come. 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. Fatally, Funny Games U.S. would fall into this trap, failing to update the material to consider more serious problems in America regarding the use of torture and war imagery, and instead of establishing a dialogue with the viewer, resorting to scolding them for watching horror and torture films. 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.
Funny Games is released in the UK by Artificial Eye, who have taken over the rights from Tartan, and used the same transfer as the earlier Tartan release. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Transferred anamorphically at 1.75:1 – the film’s closing titles indicating that this is the intended ratio for the film – on the whole it looks reasonably clear, colours are adequate and it copes reasonably well with the often dull and dark interiors, the image proving to be very stable with no macroblocking issues. 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. Some white dustspots appear on the print with some frequency, but are rarely noticeable unless you’re looking for flaws.
Essentially, although there is a slight differentiation in file-size and distribution of the files (the layer change issue on the earlier Tartan release does not occur here), this is pretty much identical to the transfer on the earlier DVD edition of the film. There may be fractional differences in sharpness, the Tartan perhaps even appearing slightly sharper, but on the other hand edge-enhancement doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue on the Artificial Eye release. There’s nothing between them however, as the screenshots below will show – Tartan first, Artificial Eye second.
Like the other films in The Haneke Trilogy, Funny Games 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 (18:30)
Interviewed by Serge Toubiana for the same sessions as the interviews in The Haneke Trilogy, Michael 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 (1:10)
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?
Brilliantly devised and executed, the original Funny Games treats the viewer with intelligence and respect, rather than preach to them in a chiding and accusatory way that the latter-day Haneke often does – no more so than in the remake of Funny Games U.S.. Here the director not only allows the viewer 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. For some viewers however, the film does indeed fail even here, being too manipulative and raising speculative, dubious points about screen violence. In the light of Haneke’s later work, and by his own admission in the interview here, this is a criticism worth taking into consideration, but even so the film remains a thought-provoking and controversial film worthy of raising much debate. Artificial Eye’s new release of the film, not unexpectedly, is more or less a repackaging of the out-of-print Tartan edition, which is generally fine, but could look better.