8. funny games (Michael Haneke, 1997)
Of the two major 1990s films dealing with the pervasive influence of violence in Western culture, C'est Arrive Pres De Chez Vous (Man Bites Dog)(1992) was possibly the more demonstrative and stylish. Funny Games, made by the now notorious Austrian director Michael Haneke, is more intelligent, more powerful and ultimately more enduring. Whilst less overtly cinematic than MBD, it is more in control of the medium to serve its own ends. It aims to shock just as unapologetically as MBD, yet succeeds less by the weight of its savagery than by its immaculate depiction of the casual banality of evil.
In one respect it shares its mantle with its natural predecessor, George Sluizer's 1989 masterpiece Spoorloos (The Vanishing), which broke new ground by its introduction to the world of a dark and cynical strain stirring beneath the facade of an outwardly civilised and peace-loving European country (in that case, Holland; MBD was set in Belgium; Funny Games in Germany). When David Lynch exposes the underbelly of smalltown American life, he does so using surrealist imagery. Haneke chooses the opposite, favouring the immediately recognisable...his horror is as (horribly) familiar as a playground taunt taking a turn for the worse.
A middle class family on their summer holiday in a country farmhouse are visited by a couple of apparently charming and gregarious teenage boys. Very quickly it becomes apparent that the boys are a little too friendly and first the husband, then the wife begin to have second thoughts about them.
What follows is an inexplicable and extended nightmare for the family who are effectively taken prisoner in their own homes and subjected to a series of increasingly gruesome episodes of physical and mental torture. On paper, exploitation pictures like Wes Craven's low-budget shocker Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave have covered this sort of ground before.
It is undeniable that the violence is gratuitous, immoral and inexplicable. The film breaks all the rules of drama, offering little in the way of respite from the ordeal. It is twisted, manipulative, and unkind. No explanation or condemnation is offered for the actions of the perpetrators.
So why on earth do we keep watching? On one level, cynical and sadistic films such as Get Carter or 9 & 1/2 Weeks represent a thrill to viewers who cathartically enjoy watching people be unpleasant to others. Such viewers will undoubtedly love Funny Games. But equally those that deplore screen violence should get an enormous amount out of it also, because its structure empowers the viewer by inviting it to examine its own attitude to the depiction of violence. There is a certain excitement and privilege, to being asked, with apologies to George Orwell, to endure the unendurable.
What censorship does, on the other hand, is to say to you, as an adult, that other people not of your acquaintance are entitled to see what you may not be, and furthermore, they will decide for you what you are allowed to see and what you aren't. Funny Games treats everyone like adults - your reaction to what you are seeing is vital to who you are, but nothing is more vital than your ability to see it and to decide for yourself how you feel. Lying behind this circular thesis (I think, therefore I choose to see, so I can choose what I want to see) is the ingrained truth that what you are seeing is human nature. And it is happening in some form or other, in the world right at the moment that you are watching Funny Games. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, loosely based on the notorious serial killer Ed Gein, had about it that same fault line - what you are seeing, however appalling or alien it may seem to you, happened, is happening and will happen again. Human beings are capable of acts beyond reasonable contemplation.
Despite all this, the film is not actually about violence, but about power. Violence is just one of the many tools the boys use to exert and exploit their power over the family. Far more exhilarating and frightening for the viewer than the depiction of cruelty is watching the balance of power shifting back and forth and wondering where it will end up. A pendular power shift also occurs between the two boys themselves. Their complicity is both a strength, on the most basic level, and a flaw (where in the mental battle, the weaker boy's actions or statements diminish the stronger partner's position).
But here, finally, is where the film enters another dimension; starting from this typical horror formula (exemplified in its most basic form by, say, Halloween (1979)) of "who has the upper hand?" it offers up protagonists (the boys) who at first imply, then make all too explicit, that they know they are in a film.
This represents the ultimate shift in the balance of power, which is away from the audience and in favour of the characters on screen. The conceit climaxes when, following a catastrophic bungle by one of the boys, the other turns to the camera and quietly demands that the film be "rewound" so that the moment can be repeated with more favourable consequences.
The stuff of fantasy for all viewers becomes the apotheosis of the nightmare. Odd that the most familiar aspect of the cinematic process ("cut...and try again") becomes the ultimate cinematic blasphemy in its final projection.
A film with nothing to envy the best examples of the genre, yet one where the viewer constantly examines its own feelings and moral position over and above the passive thrill of action that unfolds. Funny Games is a film so cruel and crafty, so unashamedly manipulative, that Alfred Hitchcock should have made it. He would have, but for the censorship which until Frenzy (1971) got him somewhere close, forbade him from the outright depiction of evil which fascinated him most. Could there ever be a higher compliment for a thriller?
Funny Games 108 minutes Director Michael Haneke Writer Michael Haneke Actors Susanne Lothar Ulrich Mühe Arno Frisch Frank Giering Stefan Clapczynski Photography Jürgen Jürges