Funny Games is structured around a series of escalating, violent games. On the way to their lake home, Anna (Susanne Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) try to guess the opera song the other plays on the car’s stereo. Peter (Frank Giering) joins the games after they arrive, knocking on the door while Georg and Georg Jr. (Stefan Clapczynski) are setting up the boat. When Anna answers, he asks her for eggs. When she gives them, he drops them and asks for four more. He drops those four when the dog, Rolfi, jumps at him and his newly arriving friend Paul (Arno Frisch). They insist that Anna give them four more eggs — the last of her stock. When she refuses, they get violent. The games only get worse from there, eventually reaching a fevered German version of “eenie meenie miney mo” where the loser is executed.
The trick is, though, that Peter and Paul only get violent as part of a game or when a rule is broken. They do define the parameters some of smaller games they play later on, but they never explain the overarching game. When asked why they’re doing this, Paul rattles off different possible explanations, saying that maybe they are drug addicts, or maybe they’re bored rich kids, or maybe they were abused as children. After each, he laughs and admits it was another lie. It’s something that Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan borrowed for their Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
The scene in Funny Games lands for a number of reasons, one being Frisch’s gut-turning performance, but mainly because of how well the violence is shot. The film doesn’t feel like other horror, which, as Carol J. Clover points out in her brilliant Men, Women, and Chainsaws, makes audiences identify with the killer as a power fantasy for the beginning portion of the movie. Writer-director Michael Haneke sidesteps this by not showing most of the violence. Frequently, he plays the sounds of it while the camera is trained on the face of a witness. This puts audiences in the position of empathizing with the loss rather than being disgusted (or excited) by the gore. That is to say, that every instance of violence in this film is heartbreaking because viewers are sitting with grief. Haneke knows this, and draws out those moments.
Paul breaks the fourth wall to interrogate the audience reaction to that violence. He says, “Don’t forget the entertainment value. We’d be deprived of our pleasure” long after it’s abundantly clear that there is no pleasure in the way he and Peter are torturing this family. Later he smirks into the camera and asks, “You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don’t you?” after the audience has been pummeled with realistic violence. If Haneke set out to resensitize audiences, he succeeded. Funny Games makes audiences look at violence without flinching. I felt like a dog having its face held in s*** on the carpet. “Look at the violence. This is what you enjoy?”
Funny Games best scene comes after the first death. There’s a nearly ten minute long take of the two survivors by themselves in the room with the body. Slowly, they react to the death. The camera is far from them. Time stretches, and as a viewer, I wanted it to end so badly. I didn’t want to sit with them in their pain but Haneke made me. It was nauseating.
In the best of the Criterion Blu-Ray special features, Haneke explains that the film is disturbing because, “The couple and their child are in a drama and the two delinquents are in a farce.” That tonal clash lends itself to hurting audiences.
The Blu-Ray also has an interview with Arno Frisch. Sadly, the three other adult cast members died between the film’s release in 1997 and the interview process. There are two other features: a press conference from the film’s Cannes release and an interview with film historian Alexander Howarth. The booklet contains an excellent essay be Bilge Ebiri on how breaking the fourth wall manipulates audiences.
Funny Games is available from Criterion now.
Wicked Rating: 10/10
Director(s): Michael Hanake
Writer(s): Michael Hanake
Starring: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski
Studio/Production Co: Wega Films
Run Time: 108 Minutes