Sometimes a great movie is ruined by its message--not because it's an offensive message, but because it's an obvious, an unnecessary, or a heavy-handed one. And at times like those, the viewer begins to suspect that he is being insulted or condescended to by the filmmaker. While Michael Haneke's direction of tension and editing of suspense is top-notch in Funny Games, his philosophical intent is obtuse and obnoxious.
Funny Games is a study of theodicy, a story of inexplicable evil and gratuitous violence. An upper middle class family, vacationing at their sunny, charming lake house for a weekend, is visited by two polite but aggressive young men, who hold the family hostage and unleash unchecked physical and emotional violence upon them throughout the night. That's what Funny Games is about on the surface, but the film is really about itself, an examination of its genre, an eye trained on violent entertainment that demands viewer involvement in the disturbing crime. Not merely a thriller to be consumed, Funny Games attempts to deliver consequences to the viewer, to ask him what possible enjoyment he expected from watching unbridled misery?
The typical thriller film relies on a number of conventions. First, we must be able to see the contest between the good guy(s) and the bad guy(s) as indicative of some greater moral or philosophical struggle. While they needn't be one-dimensional, the good guy(s) must represent some virtue (masculinity, justice, faith) while the bad guy(s) must possess some vice. This vice usually is revealed in some back story, serving as the instigator of the bad guy's turn to crime. Drug abuse, jealousy, greed, insecurity--it's often not anything believable. In Funny Games, the maniacal Peter and Paul have no back story, though they jokingly offer a number of stereotypical reasons for their fall from grace--heroin addiction, envy, abusive childhoods. Life is a continuous chain of countless causes and events, many of them minute, some of them irrational, millions of them undetectable; in reality our motivations are not so easily traced as in the movies. Our lives do not so easily fall into philosophical dichotomies and moral juxtapositions.
Furthermore, if Paul and Peter, the ambiguous villains of the film, have no discernible cause for their evil, then what virtues do Anna, Georg, and their young son Schorschi represent? Economic security? Lesiure? Minding their own business? Being courteous, but only to a point? They're a traditional, happy family unit, but they're hardly virtuous for being so. There's nothing vile about them, but neither is there anything emphatically great about them that forces us to root for their survival.
Which brings me to another convention, an obvious one that was actually codified in the Motion Picture Production Code from 1930 to 1968: the good guys always win. Purity, even if flawed, always triumphs, and crime never pays. As a correlative, children--who are always pure except in cases of temporary satanic possession--are always to survive. A good guy or two might fall in the process, but at least one hero always remains standing.
Well, Haneke doesn't bother with this expectation. The good guys don't always win in reality, and whether they do or not, it more often is a result of chance than of storytelling justice. Even the most common of cinematic conventions Haneke subverts. A major plot occurrence, the first murder, suddenly happens off-screen while the camera follows Paul into the kitchen to make a sandwich. Paul frequently winks at the camera and speaks to the audience, inviting them to participate in the game and take wagers on what the film's outcome will be--something that all viewers do subconsciously while watching any film, but without ever being accused of it. When Anna begs the sociopaths to kill them quickly and get it over with, Paul complains of the loss of entertainment value and the fact that they have not yet reached feature film length. (In other words, we need to give these sadistic viewers what they paid for.) Following the first murder, the film ceases to speak in "film language"--cuts, close-up, music, action--and instead depicts a realistic portrayal of the aftermath of horror: a mostly silent, static, ten minute long-distance shot of the two exhausted, speechless survivors too battered and stupefied to comprehend their misery while the bloody corpse lies in the corner of the frame. A typical thriller rarely pauses, and never for this long. As a result, the typical thriller never gives the viewer much time to think, never allows the viewer a chance to allow the reality of violence to sink in. In this ten minute, utterly disturbing sequence, the viewer is forced to reflect on the violence he has willingly volunteered and paid to see, to wonder what enjoyment he expected.
Arno Frisch invites us to join in on the fun.
But the most startling break from convention is during the climax, when Anna seizes an opportunity to kill her captors. After shooting and killing Peter, Paul coldcocks her, hunts for the remote control, and rewinds the film. When the opportunity arises again, Paul intercepts her and maintains the upper hand. This may outrage many viewers. That's breaking the rules! You can't do that in reality! He's not allowed to have so much control! But, of course, this isn't reality, there needn't be the same rules, and all control has lied in Michael Haneke's hands throughout the film.
I needn't say that this is an unpleasant film. Haneke has tried his hardest to make it so, and he has succeeded rather marvelously, stripping every ounce of entertainment and hope from this movie. A skillful director, he ratchets up the tension between the opposing parties in their struggle for power. From the film's opening credits--when a beautiful aria is cut off by screaming spazzcore as the film's English title slams onto the screen--he threads the movie with discomforting hints that something is wrong. An awkward conversation with neighbors, an unnecessary pair of gloves, a suspicious and almost insulting clumsiness, the far-off squeal of a dog, a rude imposition phrased in the politest of terms--Haneke knows how to shove needles into the viewer's spine. The acting perfectly suits the film's intent. Arno Frisch, who plays Paul, has dark, vacant eyes and a nihilistic contempt, yet he projects a handsome, charming exuberance; we almost like him, despite how horrible he is. Susanne Lothar as Anna is likable enough and pretty enough, yet she's also a bit cold and snobbish; we almost don't like her. And Ulrich Mühe as Georg is the antithesis of our desired action hero: inactive, crippled, indecisive, and ineffective--yet, for all of that, never unlikable. Would we, after taking an unexpected blow to the knee with a golf club, be any more courageous than him? The film is certainly well made.
Yet by the time it was over, I found myself wondering why Haneke had bothered with such a ham-fisted expose. If he thinks that violent entertainment is a recent phenomenon, then he's mistaken. Violence has been relished in art and literature since the dawn of history. The supposition that violent entertainment begets violent actions and thoughts in reality is unprovable but, in my opinion, false. Sleep experts theorize that the wackiness, horror, and violence of our REM dreams is to prepare us to encounter and survive any such obstacles we may come across in our waking lives. Horror movies, thrillers, and action flicks, I think, sometimes serve a similar purpose, forcing us to think about the most unexpected of occurrences so that if we come across them in our lives we won't be like deer in headlights, too surprised to react. If Haneke thinks that violence is so inexplicable and unwarranted, striking random people whether they deserve it or not, then maybe it's not a bad idea to be prepared.
Anyway, it's hard to side with a filmmaker who wants his viewers to suffer simply for wanting to enjoy his film.
Funny Games (1997)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Arno Frisch, Susanna Lothar, Ulrich Mühe)