Z To A: Funny Games (1997 & 2007)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: At their lakeside vacation home, Anna (Susanne Lothar) / Ann (Naomi Watts), Georg (Ulrich Mühe) / George (Tim Roth) and their son have unexpected visitors, two well-spoken, well-bred young men (Arno Frisch & Frank Giering / Michael Pitt & Brady Corbett) wearing polite smiles and preppy sportswear. The visitors want to play a game. “You bet that you’ll be alive tomorrow at 9:00, and we bet that you’ll be dead, okay?”

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Yesterday I was having a conversation with my sister about violence in film, particularly what individual viewers find acceptable and unacceptable. What’s funny is the more I spoke about this the more complicated it became. After a while I posited the idea that people get upset when they feel the violence is inflicted on them, rather than the characters onscreen. It’s selfish and hypocritical as hell, but there’s an element of truth to it. I can’t deny it, and I’m guilty of it myself.

It’s fitting that this conversation happened before reviewing Michael Haneke’s two versions of Funny Games. Coincidentally my sister loathes this movie for that very reason (conversely, my other sister liked it). Like many viewers, the home invasion and torture tactics employed on the characters weigh on you in ways you’ve never experienced before. You’re implicated in it simply through watching, the confines of storytelling and audience expectations.

Haneke has repeated himself upon the release of both films: “I always say, those who watch the film to the end apparently needed it. Those who leave earlier apparently didn’t.”

To begin- and particularly for those who don’t know me- let me say the following: I’m not a sociopath. I own and have seen both films multiple times because I believe Funny Games is one of the most powerful films about film. It’s a meaning easy to miss among the condescending and cruel escalations that take place at the lake house.

In fact, while looking up images I discovered that was often the case. A certain percentage of viewers simply got lost in Michael Pitt’s eyes.

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I thought, “Okay, fair enough.” I enjoyed the casting of Michael Pitt in the remake too, but mostly because of his similarities to Leonardo DiCaprio. When I saw the first film it was during his post-Titanic heyday, and I couldn’t help but think, “If they ever remade this in English he should play Paul.” Namely: the film would scare the shit out of everyone because it was a time where everyone would have let him into their houses. Apparently Haneke had the same type of actor in mind.

Likening Pitt and Arno Frisch’s performances are interesting. Both alternate between charismatic and reprehensible, but their personalities are different. Frisch is direct and cold while Pitt is sarcastic and blithe. Aside from the Anna/Ann characters, their moments are the most memorable and quoted because they are referencing the audience’s spectatorship.

Namely, they’re looking to you whenever they feel like it.

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This continues throughout the film and forms itself into a wager, not only between captors and victims but with the audience, whether they like it or not. It’s supremely fucked up when you’re asked to weigh in on whether the people you’re watching are going to die or not.

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This is when the offended should walk out. However, I don’t know anyone who has. The film’s machinations are already in play, and regardless or whether you’re there or not, the rest of the story is going to play out. It’s a meta-parable about what we are conditioned to expect and enjoy, but believe me- if you’re hoping for resolution you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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This isn’t easy for anyone (or at least it shouldn’t be). That’s part of the film’s horror. Haneke directed both productions a similar way, advising the actors playing Anna/Ann and Georg/George to handle the scenes like a drama and closer to reality. The antagonists were instructed to behave as if they were in a comedy. Not surprisingly the scenes were more taxing on the actors portraying the family. While researching the films I found out that Haneke and Tim Roth had a lot of discussions and arguments about certain scenes, mostly because he is a father himself.

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To be surprised and not surprised at the same time is a strange thing. Of course a father would feel something, especially if he directed The War Zone (1999).

Like that film, Funny Games has no plans on going down easy. Whether you side with the victims or the perpetrators you are acutely aware of who is in control, and not only that, they’re adhering to cinematic rules already in place. They/you/us are stuck with them.

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Perhaps the most notorious scene in the film is when an actual act of violence is shown, only to be rewound (literally) and erased from the plot. This might be considered a pointless, nihilistic exercise, but it summarizes what Haneke is trying to prove: you wanted this, and now it’s being taken from you. No matter what you/these characters do in this situation, nothing can be changed. Even worse, it should be expected.

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What makes this idea disturbing is that it’s illustrated in a film about home invasion, torture and death. Haneke was mounting a commentary on violence in American film, which is the reason he made it twice: the German-language version did not find the English-language audience for which the film was originally meant.” It is interesting to think about the same idea being illustrated in another genre, but I’ve never seen anything close, let alone this confrontational.

I’ll always remember how much this film cuts to the bone and makes people talk. When one of my classmates returned from a screening she said she anticipated the final moment of the film and was upset by it. “Don’t even look at me,” she said to the screen. “Don’t you dare look at me.”

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But by then it was too late. No matter which version you’re watching, Paul has already done what is done and is looking at you. In turn you’re looking back, perhaps questioning what you’ve been looking at the whole time: a series of events fixed in time.

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