On-line rental companies now offer democratized, unprecedented access to the annals of film history, but the copious selection can be a bit daunting and counterproductive: what, exactly, should you watch? This column hopes to help steer you towards good film and away from the bad.
Condescending, pedantic and powerful, Funny Games is essentially an essay on film theory, masquerading as a narrative film, that hopes to challenge the way in which we process movie violence. It opens with a family on a drive, playing a game of “Name that Tenor” as the mother, Ana (Susanne Lothar) and father, Georg (Ulrich M¼he) take turns tossing on various CDs. “Bjoerling?” “Obviously, but what’s the aria?” Obviously? Obviously, these are some pretty bourgeois folks, civilized and genteel to a fault. Haneke abruptly interrupts their arias with some John Zorn screamrock, foreshadowing the puncturing violence to come.
When Peter (Frank Giering), who professes to be a house guest of the neighbors, stops by the family’s lake house and asks to borrow some eggs, Ana lets him in without a second thought. After all, the neighbors are their friends, and friendly people help a friend in need. But the benign scene turns increasingly tense—enhanced by Haneke’s camera that won’t cut away—in an absurd-in-its-banal-believability sort of way, as Peter breaks the eggs, drops their phone in a sink full of water, and breaks some more eggs. The situation escalates as Peter demands even more eggs and another boy, Paul (Arno Frisch), comes over; soon Peter and Paul have taken the family hostage inside their own home, breaking Georg’s knee and scaring the bejesus out of little Georg, Jr.
Even though most of the actual savagery takes place off-screen, the physical pain and psychological torment inflicted on the victims is horrifyingly severe; the third fourth of the movie unsparingly examines the effects of violence, as the characters interrupt long action less stretches with spontaneous vomiting, emotional collapses and heartbreaking breakdowns. Georg’s moans of anguish mid-way through the movie are some of the most awfully visceral expressions of hurt I’ve ever seen on film.
But Funny Games is more than just a violent thriller; it’s an exorbitantly self-conscious film that analyzes itself and the audience as it moves along. While waiting for the family to get their revenge, and for their sociopathic tormentors to get their comeuppance, Haneke, in effect, asks the audience what exactly we’re waiting for. More violence? Really? Why? Not exactly some pacifist polemic, nor a rebuke of the self-defense imperative, Haneke’s film simply asks us to ask ourselves why we ever see film violence as therapeutic or cathartic; after all, wouldn’t we would be far less likely to consider actual violence in the same way? This comes to a point when Haneke gives the audience exactly what they’re craving, only to obnoxiously take it away. (I apologize for the opacity but I’m trying not to give too much away.) Bloodshed shouldn’t inspire an ovation, and Haneke makes his intended audience, those who would applaud retributive brutality, feel embarrassed. Well, or bitterly frustrated. It’s easy to get defensive and ask, “Who the heck does this Haneke fella think he is?” But the film ought to inspire at least an introspective reevaluation and/or an enlightening discussion, even amongst those who would disagree with Haneke’s assertions. As I’ve heard fans of the film say, “I never looked at violence in movies the same way again.” Funny Games often provokes feelings of guilt and, while I’m sure that we may not want to watch movies that criticize us for watching them, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. Sometimes even jerks have important points to make.
I’m not saying, with blind devotion, that Haneke is as infallible as the Pope and everybody better listen up; his arguments have their vulnerability, and his weakest point is one expressed by Paul, who propounds near the film’s conclusion that what you see in a film is “just as real as the reality which you see likewise.” Certainly the idea that the reality of a fiction is as real as reality itself is contestable, but at least Haneke, for his part, makes the effort to destroy the illusory quality of his own film, not least of all by breaking down the fourth wall and allowing Paul to speak directly to us, as well as by commenting on the film itself through the dialogue. While Paul is chasing Georg, Jr. through a dark and empty house, he says, “hold on, I’ll put some music on for us,” and slips in a CD that changes the tone of the scene, a smirkable comment on the manipulation of the image and the rousability of soundtrack. Even more biting, though, is when Ana asks her tormentors, “Why don’t you kill us right away?” to which Peter replies, “Don’t forget the entertainment value. We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.” And on the most basic level Funny Games is a satisfying thriller, so Haneke’s got a point-what the hell is wrong with us?