Glotzt Nicht So Romantisch!—Funny Games vs Funny Games
There are few mainstream cinematic experiences more disturbing than Michael Haneke’s 1997 anti-thriller Funny Games. But if you want to give yourself a really shitty evening in, you could watch it back to back with its 2007 English-language remake Funny Games US. The twist is that Haneke remade the film himself, shot-for-shot, using the same mise-en-scène and a direct translation of the script. Each version is brilliant in its own right; viewed together as a Brechtian double bill they take depressing meta-headfuckery to a new extreme.
These are not films you watch for entertainment, unless you are a fucking maniac, but I was inspired to sit through them again after reading the book Haneke par Haneke, an excellent and exhaustive interview of the filmmaker by French cinephiles Philippe Rouyer and Michel Cieutat. They devote an entire chapter to a comparison of the Funny Gameses in enjoyably precise detail:
Rouyer/Cieutat: In the Austrian version, the plastic sheet over the family’s boat is blue, but in the US version it is white. Does this signify something?
Haneke: No, the prop lady didn’t follow my instructions.
Nobody has ever created a cinematic carbon copy like this. Jørgen Leth, remaking his short The Perfect Human under Lars Von Trier’s kosh in The Five Obstructions, was given changes to incorporate. Gus Van Sant directed a colourised version of Psycho from the 1960 script—but of course that was not his own film, and the remake not quite shot-for-shot. Hitchcock himself revisited The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956 but told screenwriter John Michael Hayes not to watch his 1934 original. LA Takedown was Michael Mann practicing for Heat, but he expanded the story by more than an hour.
With Funny Games US, Haneke’s belligerent adherence to the 1997 template is a bold statement in itself. He says in Haneke par Haneke that there are sequences he would film differently if he approached them for the first time today—so it’s not as if he believed the original was beyond improvement. But for one thing it worked so well, provoking critics and riling audiences, and why fix something that ain’t broke? More importantly, the original was Haneke’s reaction to a certain kind of film, and from 1997 to 2007 mainstream horror went from Scream to Saw—or, if you like, from playful and self-reflective violence to just plain violence. The precision-remake of Funny Games is Haneke’s reminder that we have left a problem unaddressed.
And, like some kind of cinematic chimera, both films gain a kind of power from each other—their message is stronger for being so deliberately and methodically repeated.
The films open with a Shining-esque God’s Eye perspective on a family car drifting along a forest road: it’s like looking down on a rat in a maze. The mother, father and son are playing a name-the-opera game which is overwhelmed on the soundtrack by The Worst Music in the World. The credits appear over their faces in garish red, in the kind of font usually reserved for posters of British comedies starring Danny Dyer or Mackenzie Crook.
The family arrive at their lakeside holiday home and settle in, unaware that they’re already in the crosshairs of a couple of young psychopaths dressed queasily for tennis. Introducing themselves as Peter and Paul, then later as Tom and Jerry (and Beavis and Butthead, which works in the 1997 version but not in the remake) the pair alternately charm and menace their way into the house. Before long they’re holding the family hostage and making a bet that they’ll all be dead by morning.
It’s a ruthlessly efficient set-up that could begin any Hitchcock or Clouzot thriller. Haneke has been compared to Hitchcock for his mastery of suspense, but with his eye for bourgeois social mores he is closer to Antonioni, Polanski or Buñuel. The villains are able to overpower the family precisely because they anticipate and undermine their conditioned upper-middle class responses. The polite intruders thus provoke antisocial behaviour in their captors before they exhibit any themselves—the first physical violence is a frustrated slap thrown by the father.
Not that Peter and Paul are truly characters: they’re deliberate archetypes and stand-ins for the director. Watch them rearrange the besieged family and furnishings to block scenes, change the lighting, pace the action and at one point apply a soundtrack. They even address the audience and, as you may have heard, rewind the film to ensure the plot advances in their favour.
The actors in the family roles were directed to play tragedy, while their tormentors played comedy. As Tim Roth put it “There are two films happening in that room: there’s the real world over here, where the pain has real consequences. And there’s the film world over there, where pain has no consequences.”
This is where Funny Games departs from the violent thrillers and horrors (particularly the home invasion sub-genre) which are the targets of its satire. Haneke enters the film to lay bare its machinations and manipulations: he breaks the fourth wall to remind you it’s there.
The result provoked extreme reactions. This is one of those movies where people walk out of the premiere, including Wim Wenders when the original debuted in Cannes. When I saw the remake in 2007 in a half-empty cinema, at least six people left. Sadly not the annoying couple in front of me, who bickered from adverts to BBFC certificate. Hilariously the wife grumbled “I heard this is a remake. I hope they changed the story because I hated the first one.”
Funny Games is a response to mainstream films which deploy physical and psychological cruelty as entertainment. Violence becomes consumable, and therefore to a certain extent acceptable, because if we choose to watch people suffer then whose side can we be on but the bad guys’?
Haneke’s detractors argue that he misses the point, and that the thrill of these films doesn’t come from the cruelty but from watching the hero triumph and earn his or her happy ending against terrible odds. Well, I take the point, but I’m not sure I believe it in every case.
There are long-standing franchises built around iconic screen monsters: Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Kruger, Leatherface and the Texas Chainsaw Dynasty, Jason, Michael Myers, the Alien, the Predator. Of their survivors, even seminal heroines like Ellen Ripley and Laurie Strode eventually proved irrelevant to continued plots and box office, and their immortal enemies easily found new prey. While Funny Games was being remade, the Saw and Hostel films were selling tickets based not on characters (name one!) but on the promise of envelope-pushingly graphic torture, violence and gore.
I guess this is what they call torture porn, a cultural phenomenon that coincided with the media-saturation of “enhanced interrogation” as used in, for example, Guantánamo Bay. Horror trends have always reflected societal concerns, and this sub-genre is of course an attempt to deal with the sudden ubiquity of torture. Its real world application is utterly odious and indefensible in every instance (not only those cases when the wrong person is “interrogated”, as movies like Rendition would suggest). But these crimes are committed because of a righteous anger, so the idea carries the same horrible primal thrill as over-the-top bloody revenge.
And once torture was all over the news, a terrible and shameful thing happened—we accepted it. We adapted to the concept that this might happen in a modern war, might even be a necessary evil. Some folks threw about the term “war crime”, which is what it is, but ultimately the authorities got away with it and we were able to maintain sufficient emotional distance that we wouldn’t feel complicit in the victims’ suffering, at least not enough to do anything about it. Instead, we dealt with the problem in films—where the victims aren’t real, and neither are the solutions.
Haneke gives us Funny Games, and perhaps to a greater extent Funny Games US, as a vehicle for us to question our moral position in relation to real and fictitious violence.
He’s not demanding that you melt down your Hallowe’en, Friday 13th and Saw boxsets and replace them with a folder of Slavoj Žižek essays. (I wouldn’t give up my Alien boxset for anyone, and I still love Die Hard.) Haneke’s simply asking you to consider the ways in which you, as a consumer of entertainment, relate to screen violence. It’s a Rorschach test, and of course you’re welcome to leave or turn off at any point. Staying won’t guarantee you any catharsis, or if such a moment occurs then be prepared for Haneke to snatch it right back. This may come across as arrogance, but Haneke’s stacking of the deck in his favour is no less manipulative than a swell of patriotic music when Harrison Ford kicks Gary Oldman out of Air Force One; Haneke’s just honest about his methods.
Another common gripe is that Haneke criticises others but never himself. This is nonsense, because the first target in Haneke’s sights is invariably his own filmmaking, and this is true for every one of his films. He makes you aware of his direction in order that you distance yourself from it; this is the purpose behind the escalated breaking of the fourth wall. I think, perhaps, the detractors simply object to Haneke describing this as “raping the viewer into independence.”
Even if you remain unconvinced about this philosophy, you’ve got to admire the craft. The egg-borrowing sequence alone is a lesson in suspense and dread delivered through banal dialogue and awkward pauses. In the remake, this is the first sign that translating the script has not diminished its power.
The screenplay is a masterclass in tight structure and sustained menace: the villains’ incursion is over before you realise it, while an ten-minute unbroken shot in the film’s middle section is about as devastating as fictional cinema gets. Another sequence, when the family’s son flees to a neighbouring house and is hunted by one of the psychos, is a nightmarish and artfully designed dialogue of darkness and light, almost black and white.
Having seen the original, Funny Games US was a marginally less harrowing experience. The roles are slightly adapted: personally I prefer Ulrich Mühe’s bullshit stoicism to Tim Roth’s self-loathing, and Arno Frisch’s chilling calm to Michael Pitt’s occasional hysteria. But these aren’t complaints, just preferences. Dariusz Khondji’s photography gives the US version more visual depth. Naomi Watts is, as always, brilliant. Also good to see Boyd Gaines again, in case you ever wondered what happened to John Cusack’s love rival from The Sure Thing.
You can watch these films as unforgettable and thought-provoking polemics or, if you prefer, you can switch off your brain and endure an intense, suffocating thriller. Don’t expect either experience to let you off the hook, though. Haneke is a man of integrity and in Funny Games everything is integral, including the audience.
Originally published 4 July 2013.