FUNNY GAMES A
Austria (108 mi) 1997 d: Michael Haneke
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Michael Haneke film in a theater. The film was Funny Games, an unsparing critique of movie violence in the form of a sadistic home invasion thriller. It was shown in front of a huge audience at the Miami Film Festival, which functions a lot like the New York Film Festival in that only a select two dozen or so films are chosen and screened at the Gusman Center, a venue with a seating capacity of well over 1,500. After spending much of the film watching two young men torture a bourgeois family held captive in a lakehouse, there’s a moment when it appears that the tables have finally turned—as thriller conventions dictate—and the audience let out a burst of applause, relieved that this unbearable tension had been relieved. Then, just as the applause died down, Haneke completely pulls out the rug, and the audience gasped in unison, as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.
—Scott Tobias, TIFF 2005: Days Five And Six - AV Club film
A gruesome, punishing, and sadistic film about two brutally merciless serial-killing psychopaths, Peter and Paul, Frank Giering and Arno Frisch, who have nothing better to do than torture a bourgeois middle class family at their lakeside vacation home, literally toying with them, ultimately murdering them for sport, hideously ugly to watch, but provocative to think about as the equally diabolical filmmaker who created this scenario is questioning the audience’s motives with direct asides to the audience, challenging anyone who would view this as entertainment, potentially changing the outcome, piquing viewer’s expectations by rewinding the film, allowing the possibility of hope and escape, before making it even more gruesome. No happy ending here, the enjoyment of this film begins only when it ends. No matter how many films you’ll see in a lifetime, this one is unforgettable. Better than anything Haneke did previously by leaps and bounds, whose meticulous precision is startling, though it’s a brutal exercise in sadism, ultimately one of the more punishing works in cinema, powered by an overcontrolling tone of smugness from the home invaders, but also a life-changer in terms of opening up the director’s provocative style, becoming almost unbearably intense, providing an assault to the senses that ultimately creates a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and futility.
Filmed by Fassbinder cameraman Jürgen Jürges, this is a film that wears the viewer down initially with the nauseatingly precise use of controlled tone and language, forcing a safe, comfortable wealthy white family at random to be victimized by a pair of overly apologetic, excessively polite home invaders in white gloves playing what they characterize as a “funny game” on them, a series of random acts of violence that couldn’t be more sadistically cruel. Designed to make the audience uncomfortable and expose the true nature of violence, the film features brilliant editing, an amazing sound design, phenomenal acting, with patient and deliberate pacing, where Haneke uses a static camera, holding an essential living room sequence for ten agonizing minutes, with much of the graphic violence taking place offscreen, but not the pleading and whimpering nature of the subjects, while natural sound only heightens the tension and dread. The relentless psychological torture using words is only the introductory course, however, where in the original, as opposed to the American remake, the cruel preciseness of the Germanic language associated with demonic Nazi atrocities actually feeds into the horror, as eventually horrible brutality awaits each of them, as the invaders through punishment and pain require strict and absolute obedience, subject to a blitzkrieg assault of instant pain and horrors for violating the rules.
An infuriating piece of shock cinema, this is a completely unsettling and unnerving movie, reducing one’s nerve to mush, leaving one quivering with dread at having to endure this unique piece of what feels like live theater, where at brief moments, the audience is put on notice that this is just a game, no one really gets hurt, it’s only a film, as one of the invaders speaks directly to the audience, beginning with a wink, but eventually testing our willingness to be done with this nightmare, to simply put an end to it, no matter the cost, thinking for a single moment that we might be spared. But of course, the audience doesn’t really have a say, we are just being tested before the punishment continues even more viciously brutal than before. That’s all part of the game, which forces us to sit passively as we helplessly witness the insanity of unrelenting terror, where no one is rescued until the film is over. This film stands alone in the provocateur department, as Haneke is returning in spades to American theaters what it willingly exports around the world as mindless Hollywood entertainment. No one could possibly enjoy the experience without also hating being victimized by the game, but no one is likely to forget this film either, as it will remain imprinted in the deep recesses of our consciousness, which makes it an essential work.