Michael Haneke, Austria, 1997
by Nick Pinkerton
Anybody’s uncle back in Indianapolis could tell you that Funny Games is about something—it’s that kind of movie. The film is Haneke’s fourth and, with a divisive screening at Cannes ’97, the one most responsible for introducing him to a larger international audience and international co-production prominence. The name of the game here is violence, excruciating violence, representational violence with the fourth wall down—and as it’s doled out, we’re scolded for watching. Whatever reputation the film has is derived from the same logic that’s sponsored Haneke’s career, the cough syrup argument—something that tastes so bad surely has to be good for you.
A bourgeois couple, late thirties, their preadolescent son in tow, arrive at their country house on the lake. The opening, a helicopter Steadicam shot tracking the family camper van’s progress along a winding forest road, may recollect the opening of The Shining, but you can banish any comparison to Kubrick’s extraordinarily dense moviemaking right there. Haneke gives up the secret of his thudding technique rather early, in a musical cue: husband and wife pass the drive with a guessing game; one slides an opera CD into the car stereo and the other guesses the composer and the song. Very suddenly, as the opening credits buffalo onscreen, the soundtrack is bullied by a John Zorn piece, loping death metal guitar, a berserk cacophony of jabbering shreiks. Cool, classical composure abruptly trampled by savagery. The case for auteurdom is an easy one to make, as “Gotcha” Haneke’s jack-in-the-box shock tactics have only been refined by the vaguest increment through the years. He’s become a bit more vaporously ambiguous and thereby palatable; that’s all.
When the family arrives, a couple of twentyish guys, supposedly friends of the neighbors, separately drop in. You can tell they’re trouble from their matching white gloves, and from the vague affront buried under their impeccable upper-middle class deportment. One is lean and men’s wear catalog-handsome (Arno Frisch), the other chubby, with a little boy’s dirty smile (Frank Giering). Once inside, they needle the husband into outrage with faux-clueless imposition and infuriatingly unswerving manners (if these games were really funny, you could almost call this a comedy of manners). He’s the first to let decorum drop, slapping one of the boys; they retaliate by crushing his kneecap with a golfclub. The family are rounded up, taken hostage, and as good as guaranteed that they won’t live the night. And we’re off!
Directors/tormentors, the boys fiddle with their prey, drawing out every kill for maximum suspense, coolly granting each victim a teasing glimpse of escape. They alternately call one another Peter and Paul, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead—they’re TV junkies, get it?, who treat murder with the moral implications of a cartoon. And they aren’t just sadists; Frisch is an emcee, too. Savvy to that element of “tautness” which elevates murder to entertainment, he keeps the proceedings lively; with the family crowded into the living room, he turns execution into a parlor game. He winks at the camera (“I’m making the viewer an accomplice,” offers Haneke in the disc’s special feature, an 18-minute interview with Serge Toubiana. Hear the sound of eyes, rolling.). He inquires about audience sympathies. When pressed to kill right away, he gripes like a schedule-driven producer: “Don’t forget the entertainment value. We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.” And when all that death goes awry, he just reaches for the remote control.
The idea is to make a thriller, but a thriller with the hood popped, so we can see the pistons moving, and watch the mechanisms at work. And, presumably, so we accomplices can feel rotten about all the onscreen holocausts we’ve been enjoying with little or no spiritual attrition. The filmmaking has the cold functionality of an iron maiden, and it squeezes out hurt that’s meant to really hurt. Pain has a tooth-clenching physical resonance—watching the broken patriarch trying to maneuver through his house with shattered limbs is nothing less than a viewer endurance test.
The chiding, puritanical element of Haneke is on display throughout (from the interview: “…it’s a film that you watch if you need the film”); one imagines this is a man who couldn’t watch someone take a juicy bite of steak without mentioning the abattoir. Consider his choice of victims: the bourgeois, the leisure class, the people with time and money to enjoy themselves, with too many books, too much opera, too many addresses… basically, the self-flagellating culturati who catch Michael Haneke films when they open the New York Film Festival. There’s little doubt that aloof privilege is being implicitly punished in Funny Games as the family are trapped in by the same walls that they put up to enclose and protect their estates, but I don’t think we’re dealing with a real cinematic Jacobin here—just someone who hates to see people relaxing while there’s so much pain in the world. I’ll only say that it’s in Haneke’s favor that Claude Chabrol’s fallen out-of-vogue; his 1995 La Cérémonie, a movie of resonant insight into class friction and the weight of murder, makes the Austrian’s filmography disappear in comparison.
What really busts up Funny Games is a damning smugness. Its assumption that I, the viewer, am dumb as a stump and in desperate need of a remedial course in “What is Screen Violence?” If I needed it, it wouldn’t be from a tutor as inept as Haneke; I might be tempted to call Funny Games the Euro twin to Scream—clever yet clueless—but I don’t think Haneke has even the moral sophistication of Wes Craven. Haneke’s ethical platform is basically that of a censor, the only people as small as muddle-headed as the little troglodytes who wreak havoc and cry “The media!” when they’re collared—I’m just now thinking of the little arsonist who cited Beavis and Butthead as his inspiration. That is to say, he blithely equivocates all forms of representational violence and actual violence without humor, intelligence, or the capacity for gradation of a normal media-savvy human being: the image of a child’s blood running down a TV that’s set to auto racing, the cartoon namesakes, the glazed, channel-surfing indefatigability of the murderers. It’s all so purposeful, and it’s all exhaustingly obvious.
I’ll grant this much: Haneke knows how to bait, and so he’ll seem justified to his supporters when he forces a trickle of walk-outs or draws an indignant hissy fit from a touchy writer—the ever-ready defense of boors: “He gets reactions, so you can tell he’s on to something!” It’s the sort of fatuous logic that thrives in talking about art. The director’s said that he hates violence, but I just don’t buy it—or at least I hope it’s not true, given how little talent he has in dealing with anything else. Imagine a whole movie of such numb, freeze-dried performances without an atrocity to hang off of! I could go on, but sometimes it’s best to just demur to the wisdom of an old master: Jacques Rivette, on Funny Games: “What a disgrace, just a complete piece of shit!”
Read a “Reverse Shot" of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games here