Funny Games (2007)
Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
Following its showing at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, a panel was held for Funny Games. Director Michael Haneke and his actors fielded questions from the press about his movie. If you are subscribed to the Criterion Channel, you can watch it. Over 45 minutes, Haneke became amusedly frustrated over the journalists and critics’ seeming inability to understand the subtext of his film. Unlike David Lynch, Haneke didn’t keep the greater meaning of his work close to his vest and was very explicit. He kept reiterating that the film is not concerned with the pathology of its antagonists or anything else that was surface level. Funny Games is a film experience in which the viewer is interrogated about the very nature of violence & entertainment.
Georg (Ulrich Mühe), Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their son Georgie have arrived at their lakeside holiday home in Austria for a much-needed time away from the city. It’s a chance to sail their boat, have friends over for special dinners, and just relax. This idyll is interrupted when Peter (Frank Giering) knocks on the door. He claims to be visiting the neighbors and wonders if he might borrow some eggs for the lady of the house. Anna happily hands them over, only for Peter to drop them almost immediately. She replaces them, but it becomes clear there is something off about Peter. Moments later, Paul (Arno Frisch) arrives asking for eggs (Peter dropped them again, the klutz), and so begins one family’s descent into hell. For twelve or so hours, they are psychologically & physically tortured with each person being killed.
Throughout Funny Games, Paul will engage with the audience. It begins when Anna searches for the missing family dog, and the young man taunts her with a macabre game of “warmer-colder.” At one point, Paul turns to the camera and winks impishly at the viewer. Later, he asks the family to place a bet on how long they will survive into the night and then asks us what we’re willing to bet as well. Peter and Paul make references to the value of entertainment when asked why they don’t just kill these people. Peter will bring up the film’s runtime as justification for why the sadism must continue. It becomes evident that Haneke has made a film dressed up in the tropes of multiple genres to confront the viewer about their own relationship with violence in the media.
I’m not someone to join the chorus of people decrying violent video games and movies. I think most people who see these things don’t become homicidal maniacs. I do, however, believe that media narratives can twist what types of violence produce strong reactions from us, and they can also mute when we should be outraged. Any survey of Western media coverage of the United States and China will show a stark difference in how the acts of these nations are perceived. You can look at the ongoing spread of lies in social media surrounding COVID-19 to see a growing callousness not just of MAGA-heads but now Blue MAGA as well. We can discount the deaths and harm done to others through the moral distance provided by screens. American discourse is full of people proclaiming their “right to bear arms,” citing the need to blow the brains out of potential pillaging rapists that seem to exist on the fringes of the imagination, waiting for the ripe opportunity to invade suburban homes.
Haneke spends the majority of Funny Games deconstructing these myths of home protection and romanticization of violence by the bourgeois. He first does this by making Peter and Paul of the same socio-economic class, if not a bit higher than our central family. In popular media, it is a common trope to show a lower-class person in this situation, holding a family at gunpoint out of desperation from the conditions of the world. We accept this because it fits pre-produced narratives that obfuscate the roots of poverty. “Poor people are shiftless & desperate,” we are told. This ignores the obvious fact that the wealthy get away with horrendous crimes all the time. The reason why you have never seen a millionaire serial killer on trial and sent to prison is that they can pay off the authorities to leave them alone. The War on Drugs was mainly a war waged against the poor while stock bros snorted mountains of cocaine untouched.
There have been claims that Haneke is a sadist towards his audience, and he has even admitted to having a sense of aggression in many of his films. However, I think he is empathetic about violence, which is shown in the moments he chooses to draw out in Funny Games. People never die on-screen; like Benny’s Video, Haneke finds ways within the structure of movie-making to obscure these moments from us. We hear gunshot blasts, but we never see anyone die on camera. There is the moment just before and the moments after, but the director wants the victims to be given some dignity, so he hides the moment of their deaths.
Continuing along that line of honoring the victims, we have a scene around the halfway mark where characters react to a death in a single take shot. The camera is always on a wide shot, with vast space between the audience and characters. What lingers with you from these scenes are the anguished cries of these people as they come to the realization someone they loved with their whole heart is dead. Haneke knows he is manipulating his audience with these scenes, but he finds them more honest than popular media, which often doesn’t give space for grief in its violent narratives. How many times have we all seen movies where someone’s spouse is killed, and there is never a prolonged moment of grief. They might cry a little, but the filmmakers are very aware of “not bringing the mood down.” What are the long-term effects of not portraying grief more realistically in the media? Could that be why so many people become deeply uncomfortable in the presence of the grieving person, some even audaciously pushing that person to “get over it already.”?
Peter and Paul are not human beings. They are intended to be larger than life, totems of media. This is the archetypal comedy duo: Tom & Jerry, Beavis & Butthead, Laurel & Hardy. They exist in a light-hearted movie where their violence doesn’t affect them. On the other hand, the family lives in a dark drama so that, as a viewer, you are meant to feel a tonal dissonance when they are all together. Peter and Paul are characters you could drop a piano on, and they would emerge moments later, dusting themselves off. There is a grotesqueness to this duality, something that burrows under your skin, eliciting intense discomfort. Like Benny and the family in The Seventh Continent, there is no clear answer to “Why?” These two young men are doing it simply because they can and are curious to see how long it can go on.
The pointlessness is the point. Haneke has deep concerns about the impacts of violent media on society. He thinks the constant urge to pen explanations for people’s sudden aggressive snaps in fiction does a disservice to the audience. By delivering hollow morality plays, studios find a loophole to moralize on how horrid these acts are while getting the audiences aroused from the depravity. Victims in real life rarely ever get a hold of the gun and shoot their assailants. In reality, most victims end up dead in situations like these, so presenting a home invasion in popular media as an event that can be “won” is more disturbing than anything Haneke would produce.
There are very divided views on Funny Games. Many critics and audiences view it as sadistic torture of the viewer. I love the film now more than when I first saw it because it engages with me. The movie these people expected was one where they would have left the theater feeling nothing. It would have laid out a well-tread formula of exploitation that provided a trite conclusion and asked the viewer nothing. The movie Haneke gives us does not allow for passive viewing.
You will feel something, even revulsion, and anger towards the filmmaker. But that is okay. The moment we stop feeling a good range of emotion from the media we view will signal a dark day for humanity, which may have come already. The moment we accept shallow reactionary vigilantism in the media without critique (also one that likely has come already), there will be even more significant problems happening in society. No matter how justified, violence is still trauma, and even someone defending themselves successfully from an attacker is scarred by having violence done to them and having to perform it on another. Haneke refuses to allow us to pass into apathy and insists we engage with the realities. Otherwise, we become something worse than cartoonish monsters.