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Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes films that confront and challenge his audiences. From his early films Benny's Video (1992) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) to his Palm D'Or and Academy Award winning Amour (2012), he has used cinema to paint a portrait of humankind alienated in modern society, lacking in compassion at best and utterly amoral at worst.
Funny Games (1997), his fourth feature, couches those themes in the form of a horror film, but one in which he challenges expectations by twisting the conventions back in on themselves. The story follows a couple of painfully polite, insufferably smug frat boy-ish young men (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) in Bermuda shorts and white gloves who invade an innocent family's holiday. What begins with juvenile horseplay quickly turns into a sadistic reign of terror with a lethal edge. The title itself is a provocation, a blackly satirical suggestion that it is all simply a game, something fun and humorous. "I try to give back to violence that what it truly is: pain, injury to another," explained Haneke in an interview. "[T]he film isn't about violence, it's about the representation of violence in films and its reception in the media."
The characters stop to wink at the audience, to implicate them with a conspiratorial smile, and even discuss their behavior in terms of horror movie conventions. Haneke directly comments on violence in cinema as entertainment by treating the experience as a home video, complete with a character rewinding the film itself for a do-over. It is self-reflexive and self-aware, but in a manner opposite of films like Wes Craven's Scream (1996), which played with conventions and familiarity of the genre to entertain and surprise audiences.
''The problem is not: how do I show violence,'' wrote Haneke in the press notes to the film, ''but how do I show the viewer his own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?'' In fact, Haneke refrains from actually showing the most extreme acts of violence on screen. The effect is created with sound, suggestion, and the reaction of the players. Where modern horror films have become more focused on the spectacle of violence presented as entertainment, Haneke is more interested in the relationship of the audience to the characters on screen.
Mattias Frey notes that there was a spate of black comedies in Austria around the time of Funny Games, popular movies that mixed comedy, irony, and violence. While Haneke may be reacting in part to those films, Funny Games also elaborates on some of the themes of his own Benny's Video while at the same time playing against the conventions familiar to American audiences in the Nightmare on Elm Street horror films, among others. He deconstructs the slasher movie genre by dropping the jokey, black humored spectacle into a realistic situation. There is a dark humor here, but it is sour and double-edged. Instead of blunting the horror of the film, it enhances it. And in some ways, it anticipates the more transgressive horror of such films as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005). "I intended a slap in the face and a provocation," Haneke told Christopher Sharrett in 2004.
Funny Games polarized critics and audiences both on the festival circuit and in general release. Many viewers fled the theater when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and critics argued whether the film was a brilliant provocation or a cynical experiment perpetrated on the audience. "This beautifully acted and paced German variant of ''Cape Fear''... is tricked out with a number of Brechtian devices to catch audiences in a voyeuristic trance," wrote The New York Times film critic Stephen Holden. "Twice in a film that is predominantly hyperrealistic, one of the killers turns to the camera with a conspiratorial leer and asks the wordless question, What are you looking at and why?"
Ever the intellectual, Haneke told the film's producer that "if the film became a big success, it would be because it was also misunderstood. It has been big on DVD in English-speaking countries. The representation of violence has evolved, the shock of this film has become less, and now I'm afraid that the violence in this film has become consumable."
A decade later, Haneke became a member of the select brotherhood of filmmakers who remade their own movies when he helmed an English language remake starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt. Set in the Hamptons and featuring American stars, it was otherwise a painstakingly faithful remake, almost shot-for-shot. It kicked up a similar debate in the U.S., but it didn't have the impact it did the first time, when it caught viewers by surprise with its upending of expectations.
By Sean Axmaker
Michael Haneke, Peter Brunette. University of Illinois Press, 2010.
"Michael Haneke," Mattias Frey. Senses of Cinema Issue 57, December 2010.
Interview with Michael Haneke by Christopher Sharrett. Kinoeye, March 8, 2004.
"Funny Games" film review, Stephen Holden. The New York Times, March 11, 1998.