Friday, August 19, 2005

Funny Games (Haneke, 1997) -- an extended analysis

Note: The following essay may contain spoilers.

“Why don’t you kill us right away?"
"Don’t forget the entertainment value. We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.”

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a film that is seemingly at war with itself and its genre. Though ostensibly falling into the category of ‘thriller’, Funny Games both fulfills and resists the expectations raised by such a label, shattering not only convention, but the sense of security we feel in knowing that it is all ‘just a movie’. For almost the entirety of its run-time, Haneke holds us in a state of tension that is all the more unsettling for being unusually personal. Like the film’s two tormentors who enjoy batting about their prey with games of psychological manipulation, Haneke, in turn, seems to take great delight in putting his audience through the wringer, only to turn around and ask what we’re all so worked up about.

he first of the film’s many games occurs before the credits. Anna (Susanne Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) drive along the freeway with their young boy (Stefan Clapczynski), selecting different opera arias from their CD collection so that the other may guess the title. As they play and we listen to gentle soothing music, the car drives deeper and deeper into the countryside. Before long, however, Haneke abruptly disturbs this sense of peace by blasting a loud, thrashing rock tune over the top of the soundtrack as the credits burst onto the screen in bold red letters. Suddenly, we are aware of the vulnerability of the vacationing family that will serve as the protagonists of our film. We are aware that the long drive has left them largely isolated. We are aware that they are wholly unprepared to stand up to the kind of viciousness that undoubtedly awaits them. We are aware that the director is ready and willing to toss them around for our sport.

The second game is well underway before we even realize it’s happening. A young man, (Frank Giering) arrives at the door of the family’s country house dressed curiously in an all-white outfit complete with gloves. There has been talk about the prospect of golfing in the area; but still, something about his appearance immediately strikes us as simply too pristine, like a wolf trying much too hard to convince you he is a sheep. He is playing a game designed to take advantage of his victims’ sense of hospitality: how far can he progress along the path of sealing their fates before the family even knows they are in danger. Using feigned bashfulness, he asks to borrow some eggs. Believing him to be a guest of their neighbors, Anna complies. As he leaves, the eggs tumble out of his hands, splashing egg yolk over the floor -- an image of fragility. As Anna wraps up more eggs for the stranger to take with him, he ‘accidentally’ bumps the cel-phone off the counter and into the sink where it is doused in water and disabled. Without violence, without threats or intimidation, Haneke successfully creates a sense of menace. There is a strange man (in both senses of the word) lingering in Anna’s kitchen, but because he has not made any overt gestures, the pressure of seeming unneighborly and spoiling the holiday keeps her from protesting.

When the young man’s partner (Arno Frisch) arrives dressed in similar all-white attire and gloves, he pushes the action a bit. We will learn later the two even have saintly names to go along with their costumes. Whereas Peter is the awkward, portly one, Paul is slender, athletic and comes across almost immediately as a man of decisiveness. He wants to try out Georg’s golf club and, while remaining cordial at least on the surface, gives Anna no other choice but to comply. Weapon in hand, the game soon escalates into violence, but not necessarily in the way we might expect. Paul and Peter have had the advantage of plotting out their strategy long before their competitors even know that they are participating. When they strike, it is done in a way specifically calculated to allow their (and Haneke’s) manipulative game to continue.

It is also around this time – approximately thirty minutes into the film – that Haneke allows Paul to first break the fourth wall and interact directly with the audience. It is a small gesture. Only an amused wink. In fact, before we know what is to follow, it seems a bit forced and perhaps out of place. After all, it doesn’t seem like ‘that kind of a film’. But now, we are forced to ask ourselves, “Well, what kind of film is this, exactly?” Paul’s wink functions as a kind of promise of more mayhem to follow. We come to a thriller expecting a compelling villain and Paul seems confident that he is up to the task. The wink takes us momentarily out of the film – enough for us to briefly consider the value and purpose of what we are watching. It happens quickly, but effectively sets up the next move in Haneke’s strategy.

The next audience address occurs about forty-five minutes into the film as the family sits captive in their own living room, watched over by the two captors who continue to exert only as much energy as necessary. When asked to offer an explanation for their actions, Paul dances around the subject, playfully offering several scenarios that led them into the family’s living room. Peter is driven by depression from his mother’s divorce. They’re both drug addicts. They suffer from ennui and world weariness. Are any of them true? In Haneke’s world where fiction and reality overlap, it doesn’t seem to matter. The family suffers because they are characters in a psychological horror film. We need them to suffer in order to satisfy some sort of urge within ourselves. The reason for their suffering could be almost anything. Paul turns to the audience at this point and asks, “You’re on their side, aren’t you?” The answer should be simple, but is it? After all, if the family spent the entire film in complete safety, we would be thoroughly bored. In order for the film to succeed, we secretly root for the villain to put our protagonists through hell.

Shortly thereafter, we get much more than we bargained for. With a blood-drenched television notably blaring the sounds of auto racing in the background – another form of entertainment fueled by our attraction to watching other humans in peril – two characters sit in a room in the wake of a horrific incident. The scene is a masterful sequence that lasts approximately ten minutes, but feels much longer. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but in this particular case, it is wholly appropriate for Haneke to allow us to sit, stewing in our own juices, reflecting on our reaction to what has just taken place. Are we pleased? Repulsed? Excited? Do we want to see more? Do we want to turn the film off? A lesser director would dive in and shoot this scene in close-up, soaking up every last emotion, pushing to involve us in the characters’ misery. Haneke instead forces us to observe the characters at a distance, allowing room for contemplation rather than identification. This is not to say that the film steers clear entirely of emotional appeal. One of the lasting images from Funny Games is Susanne Lothar’s face, seen in close-up, tears streaming down her face, looking as if any sense of joy and security had been removed from her forcibly with a carving knife. Without the emotional center, Funny Games would be a lifeless exercise in smug film-making. Haneke doesn’t fall into that trap, balancing the visceral thrills with devices that encourage the viewer to be analytical, as if we were watching ourselves watching the film.

In the film’s closing moments, Haneke takes his greatest risk yet, toying with film convention in a way that is sure to anger and bewilder many viewers. The majority of film goers want their entertainment to be a vicarious thrill, free from responsibility. Funny Games is not such an experience. In the end, Haneke doesn’t so much leave his viewer with a resolution as he does a challenge. With other thrillers, we may sit back and enjoy fictional characters struggling to save their loved ones or struggling to save their own lives. With Funny Games, the struggle occurs within ourselves. What entertains us? And what does that ultimately say about who we are? Because Haneke dares to involve us so personally, prodding us into reacting to extreme situations and then abruptly asking us to look at ourselves in the mirror, Funny Games transcends the confines of the thriller genre and becomes something much more meaningful – and, yes, more ‘thrilling’ – than we ever expected it could be.

[****]

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent analysis. i couldn't have put it better myself.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Annie said...

Wonderful analysis. I found it strange at first when the actor would interact with the audience and I just couldn't figure out why. You explained it perfectly for me! Then I also realized that you were referring to the 1997 version. (yea I obviously didn't read the title lol)Though this analysis went along very closely with the 2007 version

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was intrigued by the introductory glimpse of the white-gloved young men at the film's start.

Roth stops the car, Watts waves and asks an almost paralyzed couple on a golf course re. an invitation and a request to help launch the boat.

Watts notices the familiar couple acting very strangely and wonders about the boys.

In a little while we discover the entire film is concerned with games of one sort or another so, in hindsight, the young men had begun one "game" with the golf couple when Watts and Roth changed the course of events.

And golf clubs are re-introduced promptly thereafter.

Evil need wear only a boyish grin and tennis whites to gain easy access to these pampered and politically correct upper-class lives and homes.

Funny thing, just one soul ever inquires about the gloves.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Brilliant!

4:15 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for an amazing and very helpful analysis!

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Hi hello I'm Mike Henkel and I waited diss film. You is STOOOPID, dis falim is about Disney. Fink about dit.

7:05 AM  
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