Criterion Prediction #113: Funny Games, by Alexander Miller
Title: Funny Games
Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering
Synopsis: Two young men take a family hostage at their lakeside home and plainly announce that they will kill them in what they call a series of sadistic “games.”
Critique: I think most filmmakers who push boundaries or explore taboo subjects ask themselves, “How far is too far, will I take it there, and when will I lose people?” The case with Michael Haneke feels more like “This is where my film is going, and I don’t give a shit about your comfort level.” This projected thought process is what makes directors like Haneke compelling, even if their work isn’t the most accessible it’s challenging. And Funny Games is a perfect example of a movie that you can admire without actually liking, and I’m pretty sure that’s the point.
It’s easy to place much of the film’s staying power in its cutthroat realization, its torturous narrative, or the fourth wall-breaking mechanics; regardless, Haneke’s throttling direction achieves its mission statement despite veering on ham-fisted.
The message about violence and our desensitization to it through the media allows enough room to be creatively dynamic and Haneke’s expression has a two-pronged approach of satire and brutality. At certain junctures, his swiveling commentary works while other moments are less efficient.
The notion of implied violence in a movie that’s condemning its pervasive influence is where Funny Games operates with more fluidity. Haneke’s penchant for diffusive framing and structure (attributed to the Brechtian cinema of Bresson and Dreyer) yield a glacial economy throughout and it’s this sparseness that leads to the film’s subtly terrifying moments. The violence that occurs off-screen is accompanied by psychologically infiltrating and dissociating long takes and flat compositions.
The conceptual distancing aside Haneke’s wall-breaking killer Paul (played with waggish charm by Arno Frisch) embodies the prototypical “gleeful psycho” and his Bundy-esque quality succeeds in making us participants in the film’s action. All of which is a tad on the nose, but Haneke’s message seems compromised by the visceral depiction of violence in a movie that’s so condemning of it.
The director has stated that Funny Games wasn’t intended to be a horror film but the final product feels like a reflexive admission that it is. Haneke’s subversion of the genre what with the red herrings, false starts, and restrained suspense is very much in tune with the conventions of horror cinema.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Until Criterion released Code Unknown, I had assumed all Haneke’s work to be part of the Kino Club. Following Code Unknown is The Piano Teacher in the Criterion Collection. I think it’s safe to say we can expect more Haneke to follow. It’s also reassuring that a mass of his movies are featured on Filmstruck and among Haneke’s work, Funny Games is one of the most renowned (and notorious).
Seeing as the director’s 2007 English language remake is something of interest (despite not being very good), it would be an interesting supplement to contrast with the original.