When the music in the opening scene of 1997’s Funny Games suddenly changes from opera to heavy metal, without deviating from the scene of a family driving to their rural holiday home, we know that the juxtaposition is foreshadowing events to come.
Michael Haneke’s film was remade 10 years after its release, but unnecessarily so – as this original work is unsettling, powerful and brilliantly constructed.
A couple and their young son arrive at their destination: a large house by a lake, to be immediately met by a pair of strange young men. From the outset a wave of dread pervades the film which is escalated as the passive-aggressive nature of the two antagonists becomes increasingly sinister.
Initially the men rely on taking advantage of the family’s unease and reluctance to appear rude, but this quickly gives way to violence and ultimately the unwanted guests hold them captive. Even at this stage, the villains justify their actions and blame the family for the fate that has befallen them.
One of the subtexts of this film appears to be that the family represent social norms and the intruders the breaking down of society’s rules. The film is genuinely terrifying and this comes from the knowledge that we all live by laws and rules, some official, some almost unspoken – but when aggressive individuals decide that these do not apply to them, we are all vulnerable. As the director, Michael Haneke, states: “All the rules that keep society functioning mean nothing to them. Against characters like that, you don’t stand a chance”.
Funny Games has an exceptionally transgressive tone to it, but there is no graphic violence portrayed on the screen. Instead everything is implied – the focus is on the reaction of the characters to events unfolding and the emotional impact of the trauma being experienced. For example; the father is forced to choose between the degradation of his wife or his son experiencing pain; tight shots of faces show us little detail of the outcome but the effect is harrowing.
The director uses this work to explore the theme of violence in film and does so by not showing us any – but forces the viewer to examine their role as voyeur to the horror experienced by the family. Anyone in any doubt of this should consider the lingering shot of blood dripping down a flickering TV screen.
Haneke employs interesting techniques to achieve his aims; firstly the antagonists occasionally address the viewer directly. Whilst initially this has a distracting effect, it does ultimately inflict a sense of collusion on the audience. Secondly, there is a very unorthodox technique used whereby a character rewinds the film after a killing takes place rendering the murder fiction within the fiction. The viewer therefore has to consider their feelings towards the death as it occurred, and then their reaction to it being erased.
However Haneke does not moralise. His aims with this film are noble and he succeeds because he does not offer a conclusion to his exploration of the theme –that is left to the individual. For my part, I hold firm that vicariously experiencing disturbing or frightening scenarios within the safe confines of fictional cinema is liberating and exciting; but I appreciated Funny Games for the opportunity to examine this whilst watching a highly effective example of horror cinema. I do concede that as horror fans we are watching because we sometimes want the worst to happen, and on that basis we are collaborators with the nastiest evils the human mind can conjure.
Do not think that Funny Games is pure art-house though, because it is not. It can easily be enjoyed with popcorn and a beer as a taught thriller with strong horror elements. Indeed, if the visceral power of extreme cinema is something you wish to experience but without any of the intense and often gratuitous visuals, this would be a good starting point.
To accentuate this, in a scene in which a close-up could have shown an extremely vile image, a wide shot is favoured showing no details. In doing so the reality of what is being shown hits like a punch to the gut as we are forced to peer into the shot to realise what has taken place. This is then amplified as this view is held, and within it we experience every wave of the characters highly emotional response. It is hard to imagine such a scene being shot tenderly, but Haneke achieved it.
Funny Games is a film in which our unease is sculpted with every scene. The threat that it portrays is a real one, and on that basis the fear it generates is tangible in our daily lives. It eschews visual disgust in favour of creating an empathic reaction to horrendous scenarios inflicted upon characters that we can emotionally invest in. It is intelligent, thought provoking and artistic – but above all it is entertaining, exciting and, in an unconventional sense perhaps, truly horrific.