Never has a golf ball been so horrifying. Michael Haneke‘s tense and unrelenting exploration of screen violence never fails to shock, even after fifteen years. Many people see Michael Haneke as a director who, with every film he makes, sets out to shock and provoke his audience. While this might be simplifying his style and output somewhat, it is certainly true for this film, with Haneke himself stating that this is the only film he has ever made that exists solely to challenge the preconceptions of the audience and to make them question their own motives for watching violent cinema.
Set in the Austrian wilderness, Funny Games follows an affluent German family – Georg (Ulrich Mühe), Anna (Susanne Lother), and their young son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) who, accompanied by their dog Rolfi, set off to spend a week or two in their lake house. There they encounter two young Viennese men – Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch), who proceed to turn their lives upside down by subjecting them to some of the most humiliating physical and mental torture imaginable.
In recent times there has been a spate of psychological thrillers that deal with sadistic unknown intruders acting without motive or remorse – Them, The Strangers, Eden Lake and the 2008 remake of Funny Games – but this, the original Funny Games, is perhaps the first to properly identify the sub-genre and is also arguably the most provocative and intelligent of the bunch. The centre of the film is the pairing of Peter and Paul – two stoic, calm, and completely sadistic young men who come to represent screen violence as a whole. As Haneke himself says in an interview contained in the DVD extras, Peter and Paul are not characters – they are archetypes. Haneke reinforces this notion by having the characters call each other different names throughout the film, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead, etc., and they even jokingly give themselves made-up back stories, three or four in a row, to mock the audience’s need for a reason for the violence. It’s the lack of a justification for the violence shown in the film, and the antagonists’s unwillingness to admit why they are doing it – ‘Why not?’ – that makes this film even more provocative.
With this film Haneke is asking whether violence is any less shocking if there is a reason for it – can murder ever be justified? This question comes to a head in a scene near the end of the film in which Anna picks up a rifle and shoots Peter, which would in any other film be the beginning of a triumphant escape and a cause for cheering and exhilaration. Instead Paul searches the room for ‘the remote’, which he picks up and uses to rewind the action, rewinding the film to before Anna picked up the gun, thus being able to prevent her shooting Peter. It is at this moment that the audience is finally sucked into the deathly game that Peter and Paul are playing – we, like the family, are stuck in the tragedy, and at that moment we see that we can’t win because Peter and Paul control everything. There’s no way out.
If you enjoy provocative cinema that is intelligent and thought-provoking, you will love this film. If you’re looking for a simple horror film to watch, then you will hate this film. The is an art film which looks at the process of making and consuming violent media, and constantly questions the viewers’ reasons for wanting to watch such movies, and is proof yet again that Haneke is a truly great film-maker who can operate effortlessly on the international stage.