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by Michael Haneke

grade: 9

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) is not a simple attack on the upper-class world. In Funny Games, in fact, the social discourse is present, but is somehow marginalised. What is carried out here, in fact, is first and foremost a sophisticated metalinguistic experiment, in which we witness a careful reflection on the staging of violence and on the power of cinema to forge reality at will, in order to awaken the most disparate emotions in the viewer.

The lake house

A film in which every single frame takes on a very precise meaning, Funny Games. Yes, because, in fact, director Michael Haneke has created with this important work not only a subtle, refined (and somewhat sadistic, in the broadest sense of the term) psychological horror film. No. Funny Games is, in fact, much more. And in its aesthetic, studied down to the smallest detail, it presents itself as a constant, exhausting and highly disturbing dialogue between the director (or directors, as we shall shortly see specifically) and the audience.

Yes, the audience. A film is the most intimate thing a filmmaker can give to his audience. In this sense, particularly interesting is the Freudian-derived theory according to which the artist, in creating an artwork, is the sublimation of exhibitionism, while the audience, at the same time, can give vent to all its voyeuristic and masochistic instincts while observing the work itself. Michael Haneke knows this well. And with his Funny Games, he has amused himself by challenging the audience directly, forcing them to consider violence in the way it should, in fact, be considered, i.e. as something horrifying. In contrast to what often happens in other cinematic works, in which, thanks to a particular cathartic effect, the audience itself is led to identify with those who practice violence.

This complex operation is carried out, therefore, as we witness the events of a cheerful, carefree family driving their car (strictly filmed from above, as we have already seen during the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ) to their lake house in order to spend their summer holiday there. The mother Anna (played by Susanne Lothar), the father Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and their little son Schorschi (Stefan Clapzynski) amuse themselves by guessing the author of each piece of classical music they hear on the radio. The moment we finally see the protagonists in their faces, however, something unexpected happens: a deafening extradiegetic music (John Zorn’s Bonehead) contrasts strongly with what we have been listening to and seeing, hinting at something terrible.

This disturbing feeling that the family’s tranquillity is soon to come to an end is renewed a few seconds later, when the protagonists stop their car outside the villa of some neighbours, noticing that the latter are rather nervous and that two mysterious boys dressed in white are with them (and here again we come back to Kubrick and his A Clockwork Orange). Basically, the whole film is already present in these first few minutes. Yet, the subtle game with the viewer has not yet begun.

The moment the two boys, Paul and Peter (played by Arno Frisch and Frank Giering), enter the protagonists’ house with a banal excuse and present themselves in an overly polite manner, a real escalation of violence begins. What do these two guys want? Why do they enjoy torturing first psychologically, then physically, the aforementioned family? Officially, then, the show begins. A show in which the viewer is continually called into question (more than once, in fact, Paul himself happens to address the audience directly), in which the scenes of violence are almost never shown to us (but we can clearly hear the noises off-screen), in which we ourselves feel tortured, forced to experience the agony to which the protagonists are subjected.

Michael Haneke knows how to take his time and, above all, knows how to direct his camera. And in Funny Games, the wait to find out what those atrocious noises we have just heard are can become quite harrowing (as when, for instance, we hear a gunshot and Anna’s subsequent screams, while, in the meantime, we see Paul calmly preparing a sandwich in the kitchen).

Funny Games, therefore, is not a simple attack on the upper-class world (‘You are by their side. Who are you betting on? Do you really think they have a chance of winning?”, Paul states, addressing the audience directly). In Funny Games, in fact, the social discourse is present, but somehow marginalised. What is carried out here, in fact, is first and foremost a sophisticated metalinguistic experiment, in which we see a careful reflection on the staging of violence, on the power of cinema to shape reality at will, in order to awaken the most disparate emotions in the viewer.

In this respect, Haneke shows us, with due detachment, how it is the director himself who decides which emotions the viewer should feel each time. We can even say that Paul and Peter are even entrusted with the task of acting as ‘internal directors’ of the film, not only – as already mentioned – addressing the audience directly, but also by freely sending the film backwards, at the moment when Anna finally manages to grab the rifle and shoot Peter. For the viewer, therefore, no moment of relief or catharsis is provided. The film rewinds and the torture goes on. Without any possibility of respite.

Michael Haneke knows what he is doing. And he also knows how to play skilfully with shots and expectations (particularly stark, for instance, is the ten-minute long shot in which Anna, finally left alone in the house with her husband and her just-killed little son, tries to recover and find a way out). His Funny Games is a far more complex and layered work than it may initially seem. A subtle, continuous game between director and viewer, in which, in the end, Cinema is always the absolute protagonist. Ten years after it was made, i.e. in 2007, Haneke decided to make a US remake (Funny Games U.S.), changing only the cast and keeping the same shots and script. But that is another story.

Original title: Funny Games
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Country/year: Austria / 1997
Running time: 108’
Genre: drama, thriller
Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Christoph Bantzer, Wolfgang Glück, Susanne Meneghel, Monika von Zallinger
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Jürgen Jürges
Produced by: Filmfonds Wien, Wega Film, ORF

Info: the page of Funny Games on iMDb; the page of Funny Games on the website of the Austrian Film Commission