in Criterion Month, Review

Funny Games (1997)

Spoilers Throughout! (you have been warned)
I was so ready to hate this movie. That’s because back in the before times (2007), I watched the English language remake of Funny Games also written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke and hated it. the film was so brutal to its characters. The ending is a downer and Michael Pitt has a punchable face. So why thirteen yeas later would I subject myself to the original?

One, it’s kind of a horror movie and if you know me, you know I’m a horror movie completionist. If a horror adjacent film is even remotely notable, especially if it’s in the Criterion Collection, I have to check it out.

Second, I already knew the ending of the film so I could go in with the right headspace this time. That headspace is a very, very dark headspace.

Third, in college, I took a French cinema class and watched Michael Haneke’s 2005 thriller Caché, which is about a couple being stalked and sent videos and drawings of their day-to-day lives by an unknown evil. I didn’t love Caché but the film was so unusual it stuck with me. Michael Haneke loves long takes, suspense, and meta-storytelling. I like those things too.

In 2012 I saw Haneke’s Amour, which although heartbreaking is at its core a very touching film about love and humanity. So Haneke isn’t purely a fatalist filmmaker. He just likes to experiment with form and narrative and uses his films to turn the camera on the audience. Almost as if he’s saying “What do you expect out of this film?” And a lot of people do want to see fucked up shit happen, whether they’ll admit to it or not. We all like games. Especially when someone like Haneke decides to up the ante.

Funny Games is at its most stripped-down a home invasion movie. A wealthy husband Georg and wife Anna (played respectively by Ulrich Muhe and Susanne Lothar) travel to their lakeside holiday home with their son (Stefan Clapczynski) to kickback. Not long after settling in, they encounter a pair of clean-cut young men named Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) who just won’t leave. The young men claim to be friends of the neighbors and come to borrow eggs in a painfully uncomfortable sequence but it is quickly discovered they have more sinister intentions.

The young men beat the father with a golf club and tie up the family only to torture them with embarrassing questions and tasks like making Anna strip down naked. There are moments where family members escape, including a nerve-wracking sequence where the son flees to the neighbor’s house only to find them dead, but in reality, there is no escape. The young men are in control.

And I mean like literally IN CONTROL. There’s a scene where Anna gets the upper hand and shoots one of the men only for the other to find a TV remote to rewind the movie. This infuriated me when I first watched the 2007 version but now I think I have a better understanding of what Haneke is trying to say.

We love violence in our films. We also like familiarity in our films. Often the villains in this film break the fourth wall and explain that they have to follow the movie formula. This goal is to entertain. Now I do find this to be an interesting idea but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. Audiences do like violence and familiarity, but there’s nothing familiar about having the bad guys win. People like happy endings because happy endings justify the violence. “Man, that sure was violent! But they did what they had to do to stop the bad guys!” Not the other way around.

I have my reservations about Haneke’s storytelling choices. That being said I can’t deny that he is on a technical level incredibly skilled. Haneke’s camera moves are stylish, his edits are smart, he gets strong performances from his leads. Though Haneke is probably best known for his static long shots. I found an interview with Haneke on the Criterion Youtube channel on why he is such a proponent of this technique. Haneke says that it enhances the performances of actors in scenes with certain suspense or development. Instead of having to pump themselves up emotionally in shot-after-shot they can do it one stretch and sustain the suspense better. I like that answer.

Suspense is another element that you can’t deny is bottled with perfection in Funny Games. Remember that scene in No Country for Old Men when Anton Chigurh tells the shopkeeper to call a coin flip? Funny Games is like if that one scene was the entire movie. An unwilling participant(s) being antagonized into a situation for reasons unknown. A situation that has seemingly no escape. Watch this movie and you’ll grind your teeth down to the gums in no time.

I didn’t hate this movie. Quite the contrary, I found it very entertaining. Depressing? Absolutely but not enough to ruin what is a masterclass in suspense. I don’t know why Haneke remade this film a decade later, aside from the fact he originally wanted to shoot the film in America. I considered watching the U.S. version again but I can only handle Haneke in small doses. Instead, I’ve included a cool YouTube video that someone made comparing how similar the two films were shot. It’s also set to John Carpenter music for some reason. Still, it’s very entertaining and that’s all any of us want apparently.

When’s John Carpenter getting a movie in the Criterion Collection? I want a classy edition of They Live.