Funny Games by Michael Hanake

On this cold night, one covered in ominous black ice (black ice!), I watched Michael Hanake’s disturbing German/Austrian film Funny Games. Interestingly, right now, there is an English remake in the works. The remake features everyone’s favorite perennially frightened gamine, Naomi Watts. I’m skeptical about that one, but at least Hanake is remaking the film himself, supposedly shot-by-shot. Since he’s in control, it’s unlikely it will be a situation like the atrocious Breathless remake with Richard Gere (???).

Hanake is best known for The Piano Teacher (with the often spooky, always luminous Isabelle Huppert) and last year’sCache, with French film superstars Daniel Auteil and Juliette Binoche. Cache is the story of a middle class couple who are terrorized by a never seen stalker, one who only makes himself know by sending a series of surveillance video tapes of their home along with some seriously spooky drawings of children coughing blood. The story unravels into the sordid past of this family, exposing the perverseness beneath middle class European life. All the while, it never fails in scaring the shit out of those who watch it. How? Not just with cinematic tension, but by making the audience member a participant. Via Hanake’s portrayal of the screen as a surveillance video into this fictional family’s life, the audience member becomes a voyeur as much as the fictional “stalker.”

Funny Games also requires the participation of the audience. And like Cache, it features a middle class family who are terrorized. However, this terror is much more literal.

Funny Games begins as a pastoral with husband Georg, wife Anna, and their little son, Georg Jr. riding along the on the Austrian countryside to their summer house. They even listen to classical music in their snazzy SUV. Almost home, they pass by some neighbors and something seems awry. Suddenly the music they are listening to is drowned out by metallically vicious, screechy Industrial–music which makes Ramstein sound, eh, tame. Something horrible is about to infect their lives.

As they are settling back into the house, a goofy young man shows up and asks them for some eggs for the neighbors. Anna is cordial to the boy, graciously handing him the eggs. However, before he can say “aulfidersen,” he clumsily breaks them. She gives him more eggs, although she’s a bit miffed. She’s not into generosity, despite her affluence. The boy accidentally drops her phone into the water. She gets really miffed after that. The viewer begins to judge her as a prickly bitch, forced to turn on her. Although we’ll pity her later, we can’t really ever take away that behavior of hers from our minds.

I won’t go on to say anymore, but I will say that what does occur is some of the most brutal activity I’ve ever seen in a film. I credit the impact of the brutality to the general quietness of the work, particularly the lack of any soundtrack except when a character puts on music on screen (with the exception of the beginning scene). Such straightforward filming, such sparseness and frontal simplicity, amplifies the fear. It took me awhile to realize that the entire film takes place in only two or three locations–a living room, the exterior of the house, and the road leading to the house.

But it is this audience as participant factor that is the most disturbing aspect. Those in the audience are is being spoken to directly by one on film , the one who is doing this terrorizing. This makes the horror much more tangible and more impacting than the cheap tricks found in more traditional horror films (such as a screaming dead girl suddenly appearing out of the ground).

Hanake clearly wants to portray violence as unmediated by any guilt or shame in those committing it. Neither of perpetrators have any guilt, while the more powerful one is pure evil, taking sadistic pleasure in twisting his victims both physically and psychologically. I read a review of this film that pointed out that unlike traditional intruders in film who are outsiders or creeps (think Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear), these intruders are clean-cut boys who seem quite harmless. I didn’t really think of that initially, but that too is a contribution to the shock factor.

In an interview, Hanake said “The question isn’t ‘how do I show violence?’ but rather ‘how do I show the spectator his position vis-à-vis violence and its representation?’. Funny Games is an example of Hanake so-called “cinema of disturbance,” which intends to frighten people not by merely showing them violence but by forcing them to question their own violence via the participation his films command. Now viewer participation leading to a questioning of fiction versus reality is nothing new in film. From Truffaut’s Day for Night to anything written by Charlie Kaufman, it’s all over the place in art houses. It’s even made its way into some mainstream American film. However, I have yet to see an American film to address violence in regards the postmodern mindfuck of “what is reality?”. Nothing I know of in English film uses such shocking subject matter to make audience question the level of their participation.

Even the now-in-theaters (and quiet brilliant) Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men, which deals with violence in a quiet but unrelentingly brutal manner, is still stylized to feel like a film. The cinematography is breathtaking and the shots are done as to symbolize themes. And while it’s exhaustively violent, it’s also clearly representative of a piece of art, not reality. Because it’s also highly metaphorical (it’s Good Versus Evil), we can distance ourselves. I mean in no way to knock what is possibly the best Coen Brother’s film. In fact, I’d say I prefer the stylization. It actually creates some relief for the audience from all the lives taken so easily by a completely unrepentant psychopath (played by a nonplussed Javier Bardem). It’s easier to watch than Funny Games.

However, having seen both of these films, I can’t help but think how much European film has on us, particularly the tradition of avant garde, postmodern Western European film that Hanacke comes from (from the New Wave to their documentaries). In Funny Games there is nothing to distract you. You are forced to be part of it. You recoil, but while you are simultaneously courted by those who perpetrate. The killer winks at YOU. The push/pull factor of the film makes it almost unbearable to watch. In fact, German filmmaker Wim Wendors apparently walked out of the screening of it at Cannes.

The only relief arises when Hanake’s murdering duo discuss the inherent fiction in all film, which makes it very self-referential. Or when they literally “rewind” the film to change the ending. Perhaps this could be Hanake’s way of releasing the audience, by reminding us this is fiction. And that this is an experiment in the psychology of film, that we are test rats in it. Not very comforting.

So go rent the film, before the American version. Um, and watch it before say, 9 pm, or you’ll be up writing about it til one in the morning (like I am right now…).

And as for the Watts film, well, I can’t help but think how it will be very interesting to see what American audiences will think of it, if it is indeed shot-by-shot as the original. If so, well, it will be one of the few truly new experiences Americans have in movie theaters. It might not be popular, but it will be an original form of mindfuck to be found in English speaking movies. Should make for a well-written New Yorker review, if nothing else.

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