Michael Haneke’s Austrian psychological thriller Funny Games (1997) begins with a family driving towards their vacation home. When they draw nearer to their destination, they stop by the neighbor Fred’s house to greet him before their apparent golf game scheduled for the next day with him. The family, after their talk with the neighbor, are unaware of the gravity of the situation, but still question some of the odd details of the scene in passing— the neighbor’s daughter is not there, and the two strange men accompany Fred. When they make it to the lake house, the father and son begin working on the boat while the mother prepares a meal in the kitchen. Peter, one of the two men who were previously with Fred, comes to the kitchen and asks Anna (the mother) for some eggs. Slowly the family becomes trapped in some not-so-funny games, which almost implicates the audience while we witness torture and torment. These ‘games’ are brought about by the sick and twisted humor of two young men, one of which (Paul) has total control of the situation. Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)— or, as they like to say, “Beavis and Butthead” (which could be a comment on the desensitization of violence in media because Beavis and Butthead was a controversial cartoon)— slowly take advantage of the family’s kindness, first on account of Peter’s “clumsiness,” which is mildly annoying and is the primary excuse for his being there (Peter needs some eggs for the neighbor’s wife). Peter’s clumsiness also submerges the house phone in the sink, ruining it and cutting off the family’s communication with the outside world.
Though the suspense around the home invasion in Michael Haneke’s movie ‘Funny Games’ is more intense, it parallels the entrapment felt by the characters Adam and Stefan in The Debt [Dług]. Both films have characters who aim to control their victims until the victims reach their breaking points (Ex. Adam and Stefan murdering their tormentor). Funny Games has two main antagonists– thin dark-haired omnipotent Paul, and blonde-haired Peter who is called “fatty” by Paul– these characters invade wealthy family summer homes while portraying themselves as harmless. They use the same approach over and over again, finding their next victims through their previous victims. These two antagonists act as though they are the ones being antagonized when someone asks them to leave, which Paul demonstrates when he retaliates after Georg Sr. slaps him for refusing to leave the house. Paul then attacks Georg Sr. with a golf club. As a commentary on its film genre, Funny Games is special with its tension and its unapologetic nightmare scenario. Haneke does not give us the resolution that we expect, which is one of the ways the film subverts and makes it an important piece of modern cinema.
As a whole, the family consists of the mother Anna (Susanne Lothar), the father Georg Sr. (Ulrich Mühe), the son Georg Jr. (Stefan Clapczynski), and dog Rolfi. Haneke opens the film with a brief nod to the violent and gruesome scenes that will take place, which is done through music. As we are introduced to our family and their car in a bird’s-eye view shot, which is briefly obscured and then uncovered by trees, we listen to diegetic opera pieces. As the husband drives, the music begins as diegetic, while Anna tests his opera knowledge (picking random CDs and quizzing him to name the piece). Out of nowhere the tranquil opera music changes, which not only replaces the opera, but mutes the dialogue and any other sound. High pitched screeches, blast beats, and heavy guitars overtake everything in the scene. The energy of this grind-core music contrasts with the peaceful tranquility of the opera and nods to a sudden interruption in the family’s serenity. Possibly foreshadowing the family’s torment, the meaninglessness of the film, or even the conventions being broken and commented upon.
Funny Games breaks ordinary tropes through the character Paul, specifically when he breaks the fourth wall and presents himself as omnipotent. The first indication of Paul’s power is when he winks at the camera while playing the hot or cold game with Anna who searches for the family dog, Rolfi. Paul previously “tested” the golf club on the dog, and Anna finds Rolfi dead in their car. The fourth wall breaks again when Paul talks about the film not being feature-length yet. The brief mention of the film not being feature-length shows that these characters are writing the film as they go, and they are self-aware of all the components of a film in their genre. Additionally, Haneke gives Paul the ability to rewind Peter’s death scene, which happens when Anna finally gets the gun and shoots him in the stomach. The use of the TV remote to actually move back to an earlier scene is shocking at first, but definitely makes for an interesting experience. Earlier in the film, Paul even says that he knows that we are on the family’s side. The knowledge that this character holds is a key element that makes the film so unique. The earlier set-up with Georg Sr. dropping a knife in the boat does not come to what we expect, and Anna is sadly drowned, failing to become the traditional ending.
What really drew me to Funny Games is its mockery of the tropes, and ordinary film conventions in its genre. I do not think I have seen a film that uses fourth wall breaks to give its character unlimited power, and to play on the genre itself— almost certainly French New Wave inspired. I also respect the commitment to subvert the genre with an unhappy resolution. Peter and Paul are left to continue their havoc and we do not get to see any retribution for the family. In addition, I assume that the ending, and the tense murder sequences, are the reason why one-third of the audience walked out of the theater during the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. I appreciate Haneke’s attempt to comment on our desensitization of violence in the media and in society. The long take after Georgie is shot and killed leaving his mother and father to sulk in the reality that their son has just been killed is the moment where one may want to move on due to boredom (specifically because it is such a long long take). Peter and Paul’s comments on the blending of reality and fiction could mean that this fiction is reality, which probably should get the same visceral response as if it was actually happening in real life— each family member is murdered. In the end, when Paul looks into the camera in a freeze frame with the same grind-core from the beginning playing in the background, we know that he is pure evil.
3.65 out of 5
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Junior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mitzoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.