FULL DISCLOSURE: I am going to be talking about the 2007 remake of Funny Games, not the 1997 original. I prefer the latter rather than the former even though the reason I decided to revisit the film is because of the former’s recent Criterion release. Though, after all, they are the same movie.
We go into certain genre films expecting specific things to happen. Especially in horror, when tired tropes loose credibility (and audiences) when something legitimately great comes along. Whether it be recycled plot points, manipulated filmmaking to cause a cheap scare, or just characters that will do something that can then spark a chain reaction to set in motion for a hopeful or happy ending. However, when these story trends are challenged and rejected outright, we get Michael Haneke’s sadistic and bleak horror movie, Funny Games, which is still one of the scariest movies I have ever seen after a recent re-watch.
Each year, the Farber family heads to an annual summer home of theirs. Complete with classical music during the drive to the lake house, a friendly environment, and even a golden retriever to drive home the idealistic image that Haneke sets to establish early on. There is Ann (Naomi Watts), George Sr. (Tim Roth), and George Jr. (Devon Gearhart). While Ann is working in the kitchen and George Jr. and Sr. work on the family sailboat, we then meet a well dressed, charming young man named Peter (Brady Corbet) who we briefly saw earlier on with the neighbors.
After some annoying inconveniences with some eggs, his more intelligent and psychopathic partner, Paul (Michael Pitt), enters the house. George Sr. and Jr. have come back to the house right in the middle of Ann dealing with Peter and Paul and now the games have begun. How “logical” the games may be is never defined to make sense but it is all in a standard set up to then dissect the genre even further, to then find what we expect and the lack of character satisfaction.
The things that Paul and Peter do are sickening and without reason or consequence, no less. If there was a clear motive that Haneke had set up before these events, at least we would understand, maybe even sympathize with Paul and Peter. Yet, the lack of moral stance taken by the villains is what makes them all the scarier, the search for the motivation behind the actions of a character is just what we desire. They do things such as claiming to have the entire Farber family dead by morning, or having Ann choose how exactly they kill George, but it is done without making a production out of anything, they don’t want to impress the Farbers – they want to amuse themselves.
They’re bored and want to see what will happen to these people when they’re stripped away from any sort of power to defeat an evil that appears to be ordinary. When the film is now viewed 22 and 12 years on, we can make the leap to say Paul and Peter emulate the alt-right or Nazism that has made its way back. Not to say Michael Haneke predicted the return of a toxic obsession of hatred, but it isn’t a stretch that he wasn’t on to something that could have made more of a cultural impact. The only thing worse than evil itself are the ones that exist in plain sight – Paul and Peter never see themselves as evil and that makes it all the scarier.
The violence is never shown but always implied or heard, almost like something you’d read in a novelization. What is shown is shown with a reason, like Ann being pushed off the boat or Peter’s fake death. We see the cruelty from the psychopath’s perspective so they would have control over what happens in the narrative, at least what Paul and Peter consider meaningful. The death of George Jr. or the Farbers’ golden retriever aren’t shown on screen because the boys control the film, and they don’t see those moments as important, unlike the audience. As someone who is always circling back to the idea of humanities tendencies to resort to violence like Haneke, Funny Games is surprisingly restraint with getting its point across yet still manages to be as scary as anything put to screen.
The pacing adds to why the violence never feels bloated when considering the story he wanted to tell and the way he told it. It’s methodical, almost like his fooling around with his audience in places trying to see how long their patience can last when “nothing” happens in a moment of human suffering. I had always seen Haneke blurring the line between reality and fiction given how organically everything is plotted. There isn’t much stylization here but I wouldn’t call it anonymously directed either, the fact that the set up is so banal is purposeful, opting for the satire to do more of the heavy lifting.
The film is more or less centered around violence, but also control – what people will do to get it and how others will look when they lose it. The dynamic is inherently lopsided, with Paul and Peter having complete authority over the Farbers, leaving the family in more of a state of a shock rather than a plan of escape we may see in a more conventionally plotted horror film. It is never a question of if the Farbers will receive their control over the situation, but what exactly Paul and Peter will do next to fill their needs. When looking at George Sr., he’s the one that would be expected to handle a situation like this, given the father position typically always protects the family under any threat. However, since Paul hits him in the knee after tension rises, the level of protection that the he would provide has been evaporated. Like The Shining 17 and 27 years before each version of Funny Games, Jack Torrence losing his mind leaves the happy family in shambles – the dad’s inability to be there makes the situation all the more terrifying. It’s arresting to see one side have all the power and the other have none of it, Haneke is interrogating what the viewer really wants out of a film and how it can feel cheap to leave no control of what happens to the characters.
Speaking of a loss of control, it is here that the time rewind scene is all the more brilliant. One of, if not the biggest middle fingers in all of cinema, it shows that Haneke is never in on the side of the protagonists like the audience would be. Instead, using our fascination with sadists to reject any sight of hope. As Ann shoots Peter, we finally receive our catharsis not only because we see violence finally but its the first time that any member of the family has the upper hand. Our main characters have suffered enough for doing nothing at all and some action had been taken, Paul is more than capable than carrying out his promise without Peter but at least she’s leaving marks on the duo.
Then, Paul rewinds the movie with only his knowledge of doing so. It is an audacious ask from Haneke to the audience to have a villain undo something he doesn’t like, but it certainly isn’t out of the ordinary in Funny Games after the multiple fourth wall breaks prior to the rewinding. Usually, this is the checking out point of many viewers expecting a tense horror movie with a banal setup, but Haneke knows this and purposely places this scene towards the end to confirm that there is no more hope for the Farbers while exposing our desire for vengeance.
Though Michael Haneke is no stranger to investigating violence and humanities lust for the cruel, Funny Games is where he had always succeeded the most for me. Saying all he needed to say packaged like any other uninspired home invasion thriller, he was on returned to this idea of frank observations and photography. Amour depicts mortality in all its very real rawness and tenderness, The Piano Teacher looking at what repression can to a person when facing difficult pressure, or The White Ribbon interrogating the idea of coincidence of violent tendencies in the face of mass hysteria. I believe Haneke never thinks highly of people in general, which is easy to dismiss since he rarely lets in any hope or joy in his films, yet he still has interesting things to say even if they’re told with an uncompromising voice.
Little things I started to recall on this re-watch before they happened such as the fact that Ann cleans the broken eggs with two towels and puts them both in the dogs’ food dish. Or how George takes this angry bite of a baguette shortly after Paul and Peter leave the movie and he looks so defeated – the bread might even be stale. The way in which he shoots these minimal events surrounding by an exercise in terror shows his provocative knack for details even if he never meant to make these things explicit. Nothing is without purpose to satirize our desire for violence or unsettling the viewer while the movie has that conversation with itself, and I still can’t stop thinking about it.