“But I think I just cannot stand to see violence in any way […] Why do we stand still on the motorway when an accident has happened? […] Looking at horrible situations is so fascinating because the spectator is not directly concerned.”
– from an interview with Michael Haneke
In the opening of Michael Haneke‘s 1997 Funny Games (and his shot-for-shot American remake ten years later), a bourgeois family of three is driving up to their summer home against the tranquility of classical music on the radio. We have no more than glimpsed the family grouped together in a shot before we are aurally assaulted with deafening black metal and the film’s blood red title card. This shocking, subversive intro sets the mood of the rest of the film, informing the audience from the very beginning that this won’t be a pleasant vacation for this family.
Funny Games’ premise is deceptively recognizable for any fan of the home invasion horror subgenre. Two young men, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch), politely invite themselves into the home of the affluent George (Ulrich Muhe), Anna (Susanne Lothar), and George Jr. (Stefan Clapczynski), before forcing the family to engage in sick, torturous “games”. Why are they doing this? “Why not?”, Paul earnestly insists, and that’s about as close of an answer within the narrative as we’re given.
There is an answer, though, to the pointless cruelty Haneke forces his audience to sustain. Disgusted by the casual indulgence of violence in American cinema, Haneke sought to construct a film that withholds all the standard enjoyment derived from movie violence and focus all its energy instead on the devastation left by it. When filmmakers like Tarantino, who revel in their violent excesses, are confronted with criticism for their savagery, they often fall back on the argument of “It’s just a movie! Movie violence isn’t real violence!”. Though Tarantino has a point, and movie violence is most definitely not real, Haneke counters and even mocks such an assertion in Funny Games, depicting in excruciating detail the horror and emotional nightmare that real violence imparts.
Though Funny Games is ultimately a satire, its unflinching depravity is inescapably invasive. In fact, as far as I can recollect Funny Games is the only movie to have truly given me uneasy nightmares, and unsurprisingly so. The film is impossibly cruel to both its characters and audience, implicating its spectators at every turn in its sadism. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”, Haneke asks with a wink and smirk as pointless acts of torture are inflicted with a clinical indifference upon the innocent family.
Funny Games toys with its audience as much as Peter and Paul toy with their victims. Paul breaks the fourth wall several times throughout the film, addressing the camera and taunting us for continuing to watch what he promises is a mere exercise in cruelty. This will continue for as long as we keep choose to watch, Paul’s sarcastic sneers seem to say. Like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Haneke has a very cynical and critical view on an audience’s voyeuristic love of violence. In the film’s most memorably harrowing scene, we’re forced to observe, for what seems like an eternity, the minutes immediately following a cold-blooded murder. The camera observes, in a single unwavering static shot, as the two surviving characters simply sit in the silence of the bloody aftermath before registering the horror of what has happened, before quietly screaming and bawling into each other’s arms.
It’s easy to understand why Funny Games is Haneke’s most controversial work. Even over twenty years after its release, the film feels remarkably alive, terrifyingly capable of burrowing its way under your skin and refusing to leave. Funny Games psychologically violates its audience as much as its death metal soundtrack violates the silent serenity. Ultimately though, the deafening silence left behind is what leaves the most haunting impression. Even if Haneke didn’t intend Funny Games to explicitly be a horror movie, the pure masochism of enduring his experiment makes it as chilling as anything else in cinema.