Asides No.3 — On Funny Games

In 1997, Michael Haneke released ‘Funny Games’ – a film in which two polite young men first inveigle themselves into a middle-class Austrian family’s holiday household, then place bets on whether the family will make it through the night alive. Their bet is that the family will be dead by dawn; the family’s – and the audience’s – is that they will survive. With astonishing connivance, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various genres involved, Haneke sets up what appears to be a typical family-in-peril thriller, but proceeds to deny the audience’s expectations through a relentless succession of seditious torture, murder and enforced audience complicity. Upon its release, Haneke was quoted as saying that those audience members who stay until the end of the film ‘need it’; that they are implicit in the demoralisation and, ultimately, the demise of the family characters – that they (me, on a number of occasions) demand, in effect, the insidious narrative conclusion of the film: that of violence and death. 

Ten years later Haneke has released a shot-for-shot remake, this time filmed in the USA and concerning an American family; in English; with bona-fide stars, and with the curious geographical suffix to the title, ‘U.S’. This suffix seems to imply the possibility of a franchise (Funny Games U.K, -Russia, -Australia, -France, etc.) where national, cultural specificity is essential to the success of the film – in particular the cultural specificity of representations of violence.  The original film, despite being cast within a particularly European bourgeoisie, referenced and pastiched the conventions of Hollywood and America, in the process revealing the previously veiled proliferation of American ideology and its accepted cinematic espousal via Hollywood. This revelation was made manifest by carefully building up the audience’s expectations, only to demolish them with brutal impunity. A kitchen knife is seen kicked accidentally beneath the crossbeam on a sailing boat, and we know – through our incessant conditioning – that this knife is a plot-device, sure to resurface later at some opportune moment. Sure enough, the knife does return in the final reel – but not to satisfy the yearnings of an expectant audience. Instead it is used to deny them; to maim the audience’s sense of opulent detachment, and to drag us back into the uncontrollable and unanswerable realm of psychopathy, disgorged of its Hollywood sanitisation. 

The fact that this was all played out against the conventionally ‘difficult’ backdrop of ‘world’ and ‘arthouse’ cinema – of which Haneke was fast becoming a familiarly political purveyor in 1997 – emphasised the film’s separation from Hollywood, and more importantly, the film’s peculiar demographic. Haneke knew the kind of audience who would go and see this film: the kind of people who enjoy a round of opera-themed charades, playing golf on private links, sailing their mono-hulled sloop around exclusive inlets, and going to see challenging films at the local Picturehouse. In fact, Georg, Anna and their son Schorschi come across as caricatures of a comfortable intelligentsia; stripped of the idiosyncrasies of individuals, they become archetypes – sketched by Haneke for the purposes of his thesis. The trouble was that, according to Haneke, the demographic that he disturbed, prodded and lectured so cruelly were never going to be enough; that those cinema-goers he really wanted to speak to were more akin to the film’s tormentors: Peter and Paul. These two inhuman men – apathetic in their extreme sadism, and almost insentient in their refusal to be prevailed upon by Georg and Anna – were the film’s insurmountable conclusion and the audience’s dark inner sanctum. To truly derail the dependability of filmic narrative, and sufficiently affect the growing schism between depicted violence and its terrible progenitor, Haneke had to speak to those who were identified in the killers rather than the victims. A limited, predominantly European release, coupled with the film being in German, made for little possibility of the film reaching this other audience. 

A few years ago, after the international success of Haneke’s ‘Caché’ (‘Hidden’) in particular, the opportunity arose to remake his most notorious and troublesome film; only this time in and of the country that most embodied the divergence of violence in the media from that of reality: the USA. In the years subsequent to the original film’s release, an entirely new and worrying subgenre of cinema has emerged, with the release of Eli Roth’s ‘Hostel’ and the ‘Saw’ quartet: torture-porn. The political connotations of the emergent depiction of torture in the mainstream media were – and still are – plain. The American constitutional ‘reformation’ of those interrogatory acts that count as torture (to supposedly allow previously ethically unavailable techniques such as the now notorious ‘water boarding’) coincided with the “war on terror” and the extraordinary rendition of enemy combatants in this ‘war’ to the torture-centres of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram. Along with the television series ‘24’ (which regularly enacts brutal methods of torture, and displays their successful application in the extracting of information from suspected terrorists), the incremental growth of torture as a thematic and aesthetic component of Hollywood films displays an unnerving ethical resignation within American culture to the horrors of torture; either by testimonial to its necessity in so-called ‘states of exception’ (‘24’), or its sublimation into cinematic fantasy (‘Hostel’, ‘Saw’ etc.). 

In reaction to this proliferation, Haneke’s remake stands as an emphatic reiteration of his original piece, only in a different language and under the dubious conditions – sustained above – of his intended audience. However, other than the fact that the remake has had a wider release than the original – not to mention a more fervent marketing campaign – the conclusions to be drawn from Haneke’s need to remake this film for the American market appear to be predominantly negative. The cultural specificity of violence and its depiction has its ulterior dimension within a social capacity to empathise with victimhood. The fact that the Austrian couple at the heart of Haneke’s original film might be empathetically ‘inaccessible’ to a majority global audience is, surely, one of the key issues that Haneke is trying to address. It is the American ideological constitution of the Other on a societal level that is at question here in the remake – with Hollywood almost always ciphering and administering the legislature. 

The pre-eminence of Hollywood styling in representations of reality, is tantamount to a dominion over the imaginative potential of (a) culture; but it’s the similarities between the hackneyed Hollywood Other, and the Bush administration’s fashioning of the image of their enemies that most succinctly endorses Haneke’s decision to remake ‘Funny Games’ for the American market. The morality that is espoused in the name of politics by the American administration seems to be mainly for the purposes of sating a Hollywood-esque need for a motive, in the terrorists who provide such an apparently unfathomable threat and in the casting of psychopathy as Other. Haneke’s killers, this time appearing as preppy Americans rather than distant Austrian weirdoes, expose the political corruption of moral motivation. They are, to all intents and purposes, evil; but they are also domestic.

Where the Bush administration and Hollywood have built a home for the banality of evil in the caves and training camps of some far-flung, inhospitable hell; Haneke returns it to its universal, abyssal dwelling: in the hearts and minds of the audience, and their consensual embrace of safety in passivity. This is why Haneke speaks of an audience’s “need” to see this film – to be truly disturbed is an awakening process, and one that corrodes the ease and reticence of spectatorship. The audience is complicit, and our responsibility is to understand and perhaps resist the covert hijacking of our perception.

Ed Atkins

Funny Games' 1997; 'Funny Games U.S' 2008.

Funny Games' 1997; 'Funny Games U.S' 2008.