When it debuted during the 50th Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Funny Games made more than two-thirds of the viewers leave their seats. Whether it was for the merciless acts of violence; or for the sense of complicity with the killers it conveys; Funny Games is still Austrian director Michael Haneke‘s most famous work. Although many classify it as horror, the movie lies somewhere between horror and a psychological thriller. It is a complex reflection on violence; the toxic role of television within a family; and the responsibility as viewers.
After its shocking debut, Funny Games was so well-received that Haneke directed its American remake a decade later.
I don’t like violence, […] and I don’t like horror movies. I would never do a thriller or horror film for the sake of doing it, and I would say that Funny Games is a self-reflexive anti-horror film. It’s a criticism of violence, because that really makes me angry.Michael Haneke in an interview with Fangoria
An everyday nightmare
As they arrive at their holiday home on the shore of an Austrian lake, Georg Schober (Ulrich Mühe), his wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) meet their neighbors and the two boys accompanying them, whom the neighbors introduce as family friends. They are Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering): both apparently well-mannered, and both dressed entirely in white.
Moments later, however, Peter shows up to Anna asking for some eggs while she is alone in the house and, with many excuses, refuses to leave. What begins as an awkward situation quickly turns into a nightmare when Paul reaches Peter and reveals that he has killed the family dog. In this way, the boys take control of the house and take the family hostage, forcing them to play sadistic and violent games with them. So begins an escalation of torture, madness, and perfidy that seems to have no escape.
Where lies the blame
What strikes the viewer the most about Funny Games is the bond the movie creates between the viewers and the two intruders. Peter and Paul often address the camera directly; they talk or smile at the viewers. Sometimes they even explain what they will do next, or ask the viewer what they would like to see. This attitude toward viewers makes it different from other movies in which menacing characters break the fourth wall, such as the Droogs in the opening of Stanley Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Besides making a clear reference to the nature and effects of the gratuitous violence often seen in movies and on television, this creates a sense of closeness to the murderers, making the viewers even more uncomfortable; also making them feel as though it’s their responsibility for being addicted to such standards of violence. Breaking the fourth wall is becoming a more common practice in TV shows; both in comedies like Fleabag and in dramas like House of Cards.
Finally, the reference to the medium of television goes even further. In one scene Anna manages to grab a shotgun and kills Peter. Not overly concerned, Paul simply grabs the TV remote control and literally rewinds the movie until the moment Anna grabs the weapon. With this gesture, Paul assumes the role of a viewer. Perhaps proving, in Haneke’s intentions, what much of the slasher and violent cinema audience wants to see.
Stating the tone
The opening scene of Funny Games deserves a mention for its ability to encapsulate in a few minutes the disarming terror of the entire movie. A car peacefully drives by the Schober family to the notes of Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi in Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, and Beniamino Gigli singing Care Selve from George Frideric Handel‘s Atalanta. The opera pieces are part of a guessing game among the Schober family, but the biggest game is the one Micheal Haneke plays with the viewer.
Just as the camera switches to a frontal shot of the family and Anna tells the others to just listen to the opera music, the situation suddenly changes. The movie bursts in with the track Bonehead: an aggressive, grindcore, radical song by the band Naked City, just as the movie’s title appears in thick red letters across the screen.
The song continues to punctuate the blood-red opening titles, giving the viewer the first foreshadowing of what is to come. But for the Schober family, this music does not exist. It is indeed non-diegetic music. In the end, with this expedient, the director already chooses to entrust the viewers with the “complicity” of the violence to come; while the main characters are nothing but the puppets of the “funny” game.
Funny Games claims to be the opposite of what it is made of. Killings; fear; senseless, insane violence; so extreme and out of context that the horror becomes a shock. While some debate whether Micheal Haneke got what he intended or whether he simply made an even scarier horror movie, his work has spread worldwide, even becoming the subject of study.
In the end, what is certain is that Funny Games has led to personal and collective reflections on one’s relationship with violence and that sort of exorcizing desire/satisfaction to watch it on the screen. Moreover, Funny Games helps to reflect on how, today, censorship and our threshold of tolerance have evolved: what only two decades ago was shocking to film (and thus show), is it still shocking today?
Haneke’s work helps to ponder all this; as well as what further evolutions might occur in relation to our voyeuristic nature.