‘Funny Games (1998) and (2008)’ retrospective: How Michael Haneke broke the rules in his continent-crossing examination of privilege, nihilism and violence
While both iterations of Funny Games technically ran in their first few festival circuits in 1997 and 2007, it feels appropriate to mark the anniversaries of each film in 1998 and 2008, as this is when these films would have hit their direct target — American audiences. In a 2008 interview, director Michael Haneke said that he always intended for his horrific, hyper-realistic home invasion turned night of psychological torture to be for “a public of violence consumers in the English-speaking world.”
The first Funny Games was made in the late nineties in Austria. The second, a nearly shot-for-shot remake (down to the set of the vacation home being built with the original film’s blueprints), was made a decade later in America. Both films follow the same storyline. A respectable, relatively wealthy, well-mannered family of three head to their quiet vacation home where they plan to sail and play golf with their other respectable, relatively wealthy, and well-mannered friends. Two quiet, polite young men — Peter and Paul (who also teasingly call each other Tom and Jerry or Beavis and Butt-Head, perhaps a nod to the way we are introduced to constant slapstick violence in even our earliest and lightest introductions to art) come over presumably to borrow some eggs, but are very quickly revealed be violent psychopaths. From there, Funny Games proceeds to be an endless and bleak look at a realistic torturing and murdering of a family in almost real time.
It is horrible, nauseating, shocking stuff, even decades after each of their releases, and this is the whole point. With both Funny Games, Haneke is attempting to both reveal and perhaps shame our cultural penchant for spectacle and sensation, specifically around stories of violence. And in case the storyline alone doesn’t make this clear enough, our lead antagonist, Paul (played by Arno Frisch and Michael Pitt, respectively), is there to directly implicate us through a collection of tiny little fourth wall breaks.
But unlike its postmodern contemporaries (1996’s Scream and its meta slasher movie arc immediately comes to mind), these little postmodern, self-reflexive nods are doled out sparingly. Each direct address is spread far enough apart from the last that you have time to forget that the dead-eyed and smirking Paul occasionally wants to chat to you about his horrific decisions. It’s almost violating when Paul first turns to to throw you a little wink and laugh as Ann (Susanne Lothar and Naomi Watts) looks around the backyard for her murdered dog — letting you know that regardless of if you approve of his actions or not, he’s considering you as in on the joke. “Do you think it’s enough? I mean you want a real ending, right? Plausible plot development – don’t you?” Paul asks us head-on in the final act of the film, as he points out that he needs to make sure we at least get to full feature-length runtime before we call it quits.
The “rules” of comfortable cinema are all broken. The kid and the dog both die (and they die first, and they die brutally), and there is no final escape, and there is no winning. Actually, even when there is a brief sense that someone is going to get out of this — when the mother of the tortured family grabs an unattended shotgun and murders one of her attackers — it is immediately yanked from us. In the film’s most flagrant and meta breaking of the fourth wall, when Ann gets hold of the shotgun and shoots one of the two men torturing her, Paul simply picks up the television remote jammed between couch cushions and rewinds the entire scene. This time around, he puts a hand on the gun and things go his way. Ann sits catatonic as Paul shoots her husband in the head.
In our era of “elevating” genre films, especially horror, and often insisting upon self-reflexive awareness — last year’s much-loved Bodies, Bodies, Bodies immediately comes to mind — Funny Games often feels like it was doing it first and doing it best.
Though at the time, all of these tactics were responded to with mixed reviews — some critics felt that the film was a sort of mental exercise that you’d get the gist of within thirty minutes or so, others felt that they were being lectured, and others still loved the film and its messaging wholeheartedly.
When asked if he felt the need to update anything in writing of the remake, Haneke answered that he felt the “film is today more up-to-date than ten years ago” — something reflected almost immediately in the same discussion when the interviewer points out that between the first and second Funny Games, the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings had occurred in America, two tragedies that rustled up a gargantuan discourse surrounding violence in media as well as the way Americans consume real-life violent spectacle.
Haneke’s fears of a cultural obsession with a constantly violent media seem to be increasingly valid in some senses fifteen and twenty-five years later. The shootings of Columbine and Virginia Tech are, horrifically, now hundreds of school shootings ago. Discourse around fictionalized violence has taken a back burner and been replaced by a very direct and very real true crime craze — where podcasts and televised fictionalizations and weakly constructed and exploitative “documentaries” of horrific murders (often of extremely vulnerable people) are monetized and mass consumed even when families plead to not have their loved one’s death publicly sensationalized.
That said, I don’t totally align with Haneke’s thesis on other fronts. I, of course, think that the regular consumption of real violence on a sensationalized and monetized level is concerning. I think that our trend of constantly making superhero movies where violence and death don’t look all that realistic and lack real impact can be problematic messaging. But I also think that consuming art with violence isn’t inherently awful, nor do I think that it directly ties to certain behaviors and cultural neuroses.
And I even struggle with this exact in-between space within my own experience with Funny Games. I like those movies. A lot. I think they’re impressive, and I think they’re well made — Haneke’s thesis would allow for these compliments. But what about the fact that I find them interesting, compelling, and maybe even enjoyable? I’ve watched both of them a small handful of times each. I’ve watched them back-to-back before. I recommend them to my friends. What to make of that? Has the serpent eaten its own tail? In the attempt to make something criticizing our desperate consumption of sensationalized violence, has Haneke made two of the most consumable sensationalized violence films ever?
Both of these films are borderline iconic now, appreciated both separately and together — Funny Games has Criterion releases and uber-fans and weird girls like myself sitting in their basements and delighting in showing their friends such an insane piece of art for the first time. Haneke famously said of festival walk-outs that “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need [Funny Games], and anyone who stays does.” So what to make of those who return more than once? Will one day the lecture he’s offering knock into place in my brain?
While maybe not as caught up in the specifics of violence in media, our culture is certainly grappling with our obsession with spectacle, the strange belief instilled in Western culture that we have a full and total right to consume other’s greatest tragedies and horrors in the form of criminology YouTube videos and twenty-four hour news cycles. Cinema is continuing to respond to it, perhaps illustrated most sharply this past year by Jordan Peele’s Nope and its scathing critique of needing to document spectacle, even when it means attempting to control and capture that which is not meant to be documented or even fathomed.
It seems to be almost agreed upon universally that we’ve created a consumption culture where we’re all here to rubberneck, where we’re out for blood and guts and viscera on our television — out of morbid curiosity, or because we’re happy it’s not us, or because we’re just fucked up, or some combination of those three. Funny Games gives all this to us until we’re sick in the ultimate attempt at “be careful what you wish for, or you just may get it.” And yet, strangely enough, as their legacy lives on, it seems the Funny Games films may actually be more enjoyable or compelling than Haneke ever intended.
Funny Games (1998) was released on March 11 in the U.S. by Attitude Films and is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Funny Games (2008) was released on March 14 in the U.S. by Warner Independent Pictures and is available to rent on Prime Video.