Michael Haneke's film Funny Games is far from an enjoyable movie as the family are tortured and humiliated in a frighteningly realistic manner. However, as an exploration of cinema violence, subversion of the conventions of the thriller/horror genre and the role of audience as voyeurs complicit in the actions on screen, this is a masterpiece. Almost all of the violence and humiliation inflicted on the family is off screen, the agonizing cries of the victims are horrible enough.
The plot is simple. A wealthy family (Susanne Lothar as mother, Ulrich Muhe as father and Stefan Clapcynski as 8 year old son) arrive at their secluded holiday home. Soon after, a young man (Frank Giering), seemingly a friend of the neighbour, arrives asking to borrow some eggs. When he is soon joined by his friend (Arno Frisch, who played Benny in Haneke's earlier film) the two attack and terrorize the family.
Frisch and Giering treat the situation as a game with rules that should be followed. Hence, after Giering wrongly shoots Clapynski who should (according to the rules) have been left alive after being counted in, not out, the two men briefly leave. Refreshingly, it is Muhe who breaks down sobbing uncontrollably after his son's death and it is his wife who comforts him, rather than the reverse as the convention of the genre so often dictates. Throughout the film Haneke revisits his theme of the audience as voyeurs by having Frisch speak directly to the camera (i.e. at us). This may disconcert some, but it is here that the film identifies itself more as an essay on the thriller/horror genre and its conventions, than as violent spectacle for the masses to lap up. Indeed, the majority of the violence is off screen further subverting expectations of audiences desensitized to accepting periodic killings in many a Hollywood thriller. Frisch asks us what he should do in certain situations. He also asks us who we bet on to survive. We're all rooting for the family he tells us. Indeed, given the conventions of the genre we should expect them to survive.
The most unexpected, unusual, audacious and possibly groundbreaking moment in the film totally evidences the fictional construction of film, here explored in a different way to say, Bande a Part (Godard, 1965). Here, Lothar manages to snatch the rifle and blow Giering away. Frisch then confiscates the rifle, pushes her aside and then screams for the location of the remote. When he locates it, he rewinds what we have just seen, bringing Giering back to life and preceding to thwart Lothar's effort. This scene may be interpreted in several ways. For the briefest of moments the audience is given what they want to see - the convention of the genre is fulfilled - before Haneke audaciously and cruelly says sorry, screw you and your expectations of the genre. That the film had effectively been thwarting audience expectation throughout, can be evidenced by the fact that when I saw the film various audience members cheered when Lothar killed Giering. Stunned silence and nervous laughter followed Frisch's action with the remote. The scene may also be interpreted as titillation (indeed it is the most explicitly violent moment in the film) which erodes the film's point about violence in film being used as gratuitous entertainment (a view I don't espouse). Finally the scene may also be read as a further point about thwarting expectations that we've all acquired by watching thrillers. Haneke's interest in subverting convention can also be seen via the relationship depicted between the two killers. Frisch often refers to Giering as "Fatty" much to the latter's annoyance. This is another means to cue audience expectation. So often, as in Scream (Craven, 1996) for instance, killers working together can become their own worst enemies, ultimately leading to their downfall. Here Giering's displeasure doesn't lead to the two turning on each other, further subverting the expectations and hopes of an audience accustomed to 'the wicked being punished.' Indeed, Haneke refuses to give the audience any simple reason for the behaviour of the killers. Unlike, the multitude of Hollywood thrillers where the killer is revealed to have a history grounded in psychological or sociological disturbance, drug abuse or poverty, Frisch and Giering's characters clearly do not fit into such simple and naïve categorisations. Indeed, throughout Funny Games both killers are referred to as Beavis, Butthead, John, Paul etc, presumably to present them as diverse and non-classifiable. Both are articulate and polite, neither is looking for their next fix and neither are poverty stricken. Rather than depicting the killers as the 'other' Haneke presents them as white, middle class, well dressed and intelligent. The only recent Hollywood film that springs to mind which draws such a complex and disturbing killer is Se7en (Fincher, 1995). Ironically, the denouement in that film dared to subvert expectations and yet (its predictability not withstanding) is considered by some critics to be a weakness.
The performances in Funny Games are excellent; Lothar and Muhe particularly stand out. Haneke has created a brilliant, audacious film which is a must see for any serious film buff interested in a commentary on film violence and its effects. The film will invariably stimulate discussion and/or argument amongst its viewers.