Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” has tested even the most devoted cineaste, and split audiences down in two thanks to its polarizing premise and concept. Going in to Haneke’s “Funny Games,” I frankly didn’t know what to expect, but what I did know was that it’d test every fiber of patience I had in me as a horror fanatic. Lo and behold, it did. Admittedly, I was shocked to see that I admired every single aspect of what it attempted to pull off as a narrative that acknowledges the audience and asks us if we want to turn away… or see what hideous violence unfolds.
A lakeside vacation home is terrorized by Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering), a pair of deeply disturbed young men. When scared Anna (Susanne Lothar) is home alone, the two men drop by for a visit that quickly turns violent and terrifying. Husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe) comes to her rescue, but Paul and Peter take the family hostage and subject them to nightmarish abuse and humiliation. Paul often turns to break the fourth wall and consult with the audience, testing our own limitations.
Every element in “Funny Games” is purposeful and strategic like chess, and Haneke proposes a challenge not only to his victims but to his audience. He asks us to sit and watch, and ignore their baser instincts to turn away from the grueling violence and shocking turn of events. And just when you want to look away, Haneke has justified what sort of beast “Funny Games” is as an event. Haneke’s thriller is much more than a movie, it’s a show for us, it’s a show for an audience who are pretty much watching to see if the yuppies make it out alive from the grasp of these two irritating psychos dressed as man servants who address us with a plea of politeness from the minute we meet them.
Haneke is so aware we’ve come to see this spectacle, that even his villains use these three wealthy vacationers as a form of entertainment, punishing them for our pleasure. They play games, they play their games and we’re wondering why they simply don’t fight back. Haneke is conscious of what appeals to the human psyche, and leaves his narrative as open ended as possible, luring spectators in and inevitably winking at them. The despicable Paul and Peter seem very cognizant to their victim’s intelligence and psychological roles and it’s partly the reason why even when they’re not in the room, they control the people they’re holding captive.
You have to wonder: Is the fourth wall destruction a means of chastising us for coming to see a violent movie, or is it just inviting us to follow along? Do we have any power as viewers or are Paul and Peter more powerful than we think? While watching, we learn that clearly Haneke is on the side of the villains. He poses arguments for their wrath, and even has the gall to take a moment of payback and reverse it right in front of us to remind us “I’m the storyteller here, and you just have to sit there and take it.” It’s a moment where you, like me, will cheer, gasp, scream “What the fuck?”, and then (hopefully) laugh out loud to yourself. “Funny Games” so frustrating and yet so damn brilliant.
Criterion packs this new edition Blu-Ray with some meaty bells and whistles. There’s a twenty five minute interview with Michael Haneke, which is quite fascinating and insightful. He explains how he used the thriller genre to “reflect on manipulation via the medium itself” and emphasizes the film’s themes more. “Arno Frisch“ is an eighteen minute interview with the actor as he discusses his experiences working on the film. “Alexander Horwath“ is a twenty eight minute interview with the film historian talking about the film and Haneke. “Cannes, 1997“ is forty four minutes of footage from the press conference at the film festival. Director Michal Haneke and actors Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, and Arno Frisch all appear for interviews and assorted discussion. All of these extras have optional English subtitles. Finally, in the keep case, there is a great essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.