‘Funny Games’ Revisited

Austrian director Michael Haneke remakes his blistering critique of U.S. Media

Ten years ago, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games had audiences squirming in their seats. Now, his English-language remake had people at the London Film Festival scratching their heads again, asking, “What’s the point?”

Funny Games, coming out in theaters in February 2008, is a shot-for-shot remake of his original, German-language 1997 film. Haneke’s main theme remains unchanged: the (especially American) media’s portrayal of the violent, pathological disturbances that are hidden in “normal” households and individuals.

Haneke revealed in a recent interview with Serge Toubiana in France that he has remade the film in English to reach the audience it was truly intended for: Americans.

“The idea of the original was to address the American viewer of violent films a little bit,” he said, “but unfortunately and because of the German-speaking cast, the original film worked only on the art house circuit. When they gave me the opportunity to make it again and in a new language, I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’

“I hope it works. We’ll see. I’m very curious.”

The plot and message are unchanged from the original, while the actors, setting, and language are noticeably altered. George (Tim Roth) and Anne (Naomi Watts), together with their son and dog, are just beginning to settle into their holiday home when two polite-looking young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) introduce themselves and then, without reason, begin terrorizing the family by playing violent “games” with them.

Haneke is following the footsteps of a long tradition of Austrian “Feel-Bad” Cinema. Influenced by its history, politics, and general outlook on life, Austrian film directors seem to prefer the bleakness of life rather than let the audience be entertained.

“Sometimes we also want to hurt [the audience] and make them think,” film maker Barbara Albert told the International Herald Tribune in 2006. One of Austria’s most famous playwrights Thomas Bernhard even insisted in his will that his work not be shown in Austria after his death.

Despite the gloomy view of his films, however, Michael Haneke himself bares his teeth in a broad smile quite frequently during interviews, and even in laughter. The corners of his eyes crinkle under the still-dark eyebrows as he explains the irony and inside-jokes in his own works, comparing, for example, the two young psychopaths in Funny Games with clowns in a circus. His white hair and prophet’s beard contrast sharply with his dark suit as he leans back in his chair and waves his hands around to demonstrate his points.

Born into the world of drama – his mother was an actress, his father a director – he has never been unable to leave it. Abandoning his original plans of becoming an actor and pianist, Haneke studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna.

Then he worked as a film and literary critic, before moving on to direct stage plays, TV and feature films. Now, at the age of 65 years, he is one of Austria’s most prominent directors.

“I turn the viewer into the killer’s accomplice, and in the end, I chastise the viewer for playing that role,” he says. Haneke does this to demonstrate “how we always become the killer’s accomplice when watching…films that portray violence in an ‘acceptable’ way,” because “people always agree that violence occurs [and] that it can be consumed, but…are unaware that… [they are the] accomplices. That’s what I wanted to show.”

At one point in the film, one of the young men looks directly into the camera and asks, “Is that enough? But you want a real ending with plausible plot development, don’t you?”

It is as if he is putting a mirror up to the audience watching from their seats, “enjoying” this violent movie, and making them realize how involved they have become; the audience feels as though they are on the scene, observing, wanting to know what happens next, and not reacting in any way to the cruelty they are watching. Once again, this is Haneke’s mockery of the media: its representation of violence and the influence it has on the audience.

It is not Funny Games that made Haneke’s name in Austria, however, but La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2002). Haneke was awarded the Grand Prix for La Pianiste at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, and the movie was also awarded several other prizes later on, including Best Foreign Film at both the German Film Awards and Russian Guild of Film Critics, Best European Actress by the European Film Academy, and Best Supporting Actress for Annie Girardot at the César Awards. Based on the novel Die Klavierspielerin by Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, it is the story of a brilliant yet socially-isolated piano teacher, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), whose masochistic sexual desires lead to her downfall.

As Haneke’s primary themes have remained consistent over the years, so have the reactions of his audiences. From The Seventh Continent (1989) to Benny’s Video (1992) to Caché (Hidden, 2005), viewers are fascinated by the detachment and shocked at the violence – even though most of it takes place outside of the camera’s eye.  Caché develops this idea of hidden cameras and motives further: a famous French TV presenter is sent videos of his private life by a stalker, raising questions of how the videos were made, and why?

Ultimately, the unraveling digs back into his past and violent secrets long hidden. It is a powerful technique.

“Like puppies, we are having our noses pushed into it,” said Andrew Horsfield, lecturer in English and Film Studies at Webster University Vienna. “Haneke takes away the glamour of violence and shows us the real consequences; [his films are a] responsible depiction [of reality].” Horsfield used the original Funny Games as the basis for study with one of his classes a few years ago and considers it a significant statement on the role of the media.

“He illustrates the sickening inevitability of violence.” Horsfield went on. “He has this sense of voyeurism, like Ulrich Seidl. You get this feeling that you’re watching things you shouldn’t be watching.”

None of Michael Haneke’s films have left its audiences unchanged or unmoved, (“You can like… [his work] or love it, but you can’t ignore it,” Horsfield commented) and this is exactly Haneke’s intention.

Using the essence of “feel-bad” Austrian cinema.   He is opening our eyes to the true horrors of Hollywood, surrendering the viewers to their own imagination with a thumping heart rising in their throats.

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