Austrian director Michael Haneke (Benny's Video, 1992) is among art cinema's severest conceptualists.
Like some unholy amalgam of Peter Greenaway and Paul Cox, Haneke is unstinting in his contempt for conventional Hollywood entertainment – and in his search for newer, more challenging and intellectually engaging forms of film narrative.
What sets Haneke apart from his equally stringent and moralistic neighbours in world cinema is his willingness to mimic what he most hates – and thereby to address and attack the monster of mass culture from right inside the belly of the beast.
The striking Funny Games is Haneke's professorial pastiche of a typically ultra-violent modern thriller.
In outline – and sometimes in essence – it is little different from dozens of bare, chilling psycho-slasher films made over the preceding twenty years. Two baby-faced, fastidious young men, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch), disrupt the holiday idyll of Anna (Susanne Lothar), Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and their young son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski).
Most of the action is devoted to the funny games of torture – both psychological and physical – through which the psychopathic pair put their captive victims. Other interludes and side details – such as glimpses of other families in the outside world, and a passage of time where the thugs disappear – merely serve to prolong and heighten the excruciating levels of dread and tension.
Would it be wrong to praise Funny Games as a virtuosic exercise in spine-chilling, sadistic filmmaking? Although it may be the last thing he wants to hear, Haneke's inspired work with off-centre framing, long-take duration and concentrated gestures rivals the best efforts of John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1990), Wes Craven (Scream, 1996) or Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992). On this level, at least, Haneke has fashioned the ultimate avant-garde, R-rated thriller.
Haneke, however, clearly has bigger fish to fry. His movie is intended as a sober, Olympian essay on the baleful effects of screen violence. His contempt for his subject – not to mention a sizeable portion of his audience – is unambiguously indicated by the fact that he makes his sick-puppy killers the surrogate Masters of the film itself: they have the magical power not only to address us in the crowd, but also to manipulate the movie to their own wicked, shameful ends.
Funny Games strikes me as a richly fascinating but also deeply confused film. Haneke pretends to care deeply about the real, human suffering of the poor, victimised characters superbly acted by Lothar and Mühe. And yet, as always in Haneke's work, the distant, dry approach reduces all emotion to abstraction, and turns people into ciphers. As usual, the director attempts to cover the reprehensible coldness of his own style by unsubtly pointing an accusing finger at the supposed evils of the Television Age.
Again and again, Haneke blocks our understandable tendency to read the events on screen as a reflection of or commentary upon social ills. Do Peter and Paul stand for the contemporary malaise of alienated youth? No – they are simply the given stereotypes obligatory in the type of violent genre that Haneke clearly despises. His film is only a deconstruction of other movies, not a window on the world – and so Haneke wilfully amputates some of the potential richness of his drama.
For all its underlying piety and rectitude, the supposed analysis of screen violence offered by Funny Games displays the same blinkered suppositions shared by censors and moralists all over the globe. Haneke is uninterested in exploring the use of violence in cinema as catharsis, metaphor or formal strategy – an exploration which by now has a long and noble tradition. It seems that, to him, a murder committed on screen is as evil and desensitising an act as a murder committed in life – which is a completely specious proposition.
For all its problems and blind spots, however, Funny Games is a gripping exercise, and one not easily forgotten. If, through the blundering force of its own conceptual errors, it manages to push the public debate on screen violence to a more questioning and self-conscious level, then it will have truly done its job.
Haneke's triumph: The Piano Teacher
© Adrian Martin August 1998