Michael Haneke has a reputation for torturing the characters in his movies as well as his audiences. I’ve found this critique to be a bit harsh, but after seeing his 1997 Austrian psychological thriller “Funny Games”, it’s a little easier to see where people are coming from. Haneke’s signature style and filmmaking techniques are all employed here, but what separates this film from others of his I’ve seen is the gruesome and torturous ordeal that we have to endure. Granted, there are varying elements to this in many of Michael Haneke’s movie but nothing quite like this. But that doesn’t mean this is a bad film. It’s an unsettling but riveting movie that never let’s go of you. But be warned, it’s not an easy movie to digest especially for more sensitive audiences.
The movie begins with Georg (Ulrich Mühe), his wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) heading to their lakeside vacation home. Upon arrival they greet their strange acting next-door neighbor who is accompanied by two unfamiliar preppy young men. The family goes on to their lake house where they begin to settle in. Georg and Georgie head down to the lake to get their boat ready for sailing while Anna prepares dinner. That’s when the two young men, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch) show up and begin giving Anna a hard time. After Georg and Georgie return things turn really bad and Peter and Paul put the family through a hellish game of psychological torture that goes beyond cruel.
There’s no need to go further into the story because it would unquestionably spoil things. Let’s just say “Funny Games” evolves into a voyeuristic and often times uncomfortable experience. But to be honest that’s exactly what Michael Haneke is trying to create and it is most effective. I found myself squirming in my seat several times and Giering and Frisch are quite menacing but in a very different way that we usually see. Haneke and his two young actors are able to sell us on uncertainty and we have a hard time reading and a harder time predicting the actions of Peter and Paul. Frisch gives a stand-out performance as the more talkative and calculated of the two. Surprisingly his fantastic work didn’t lead to a bigger career. Giering is also very good as the quieter and seemingly more subservient Peter. It was at the time considered a breakout performance. Sadly he would die only a few years later after bouts with alcoholism and severe emotional issues.
I alluded earlier to Haneke’s specific filmmaking techniques including using still cameras and letting his scenes play out. It’s heartily employed here. So often Haneke strategically sets his cameras and then requires us to watch as his characters go through a variety of different situations. In “Cache” it was through the video camera of a mysterious and unknown provocateur. In his most recent film “Amour” we often times are forced to observe the difficulties and indignities of an elderly couple trying to manage a crippling illness. But it’s at an entirely different level in “Funny Games”. We watch a nice middle-class family being psychologically terrorized and in a sense we are enduring it too. It’s not an easy watch and there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of mercy coming from script or the camera.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Funny Games” are the numerous references to movies, movie plots, and movie structures made by Paul and Peter. Then there is Paul’s obvious awareness that he is in an actual movie. I don’t intend to go any further because it’s something better experienced than told about. But these little additions do more to make the audience feel like observers which gets to the big point Haneke is making with this picture – the fascination with violence in the media. In fact there’s one point where Peter even says “We mustn’t forget the importance of entertainment”. The line fits perfectly in the situation, but it’s also directed at us. Haneke attempts to prove that very point by exposing the audience and I have to say he got me.
You certainly can’t call “Funny Games” a fun movie and its not the type of film that you’ll want to watch over and over. It’s a disturbing thriller that I found to be smart and compelling but also brutally painful and sometimes emotionally unbearable. As someone growing more and more appreciative of Haneke’s work, I did find “Funny Games” to be a mesmerizing film. Sure it’s unsettling but it intends to be and it does make some interesting points in very sly and crafty ways. I certainly wouldn’t call this a film for everyone, but its unconventional and unashamed boldness really impressed me. It’s another winner from Haneke. Just be aware of what you’re getting into.