(1997) dir. Michael Haneke
I don’t know why it took me so long to “discover” Michael Haneke, but it’s been quite a revelation. Though I’d caught his 2003 film Time of the Wolf back when I wasn’t working on this film diary, it wasn’t until I saw Caché (2005) that I was so struck by his work. And watching an interview with him on that DVD, I was further struck by his intelligence and analytic qualities that far outstretch the average filmmaker, even the ones with great breadth of work. After watching The Piano Teacher (2001), I queued up almost all of his films on my Netflix queue. So, you’ll be seeing more of them here.
In fact, after having watched his 1997 film Funny Games and the interview with him about it, I have even gone as far as to queue up the films that he listed as his favorite 10 films.
The reason that I put Funny Games at the top was that when seeing Eastern Promises (2007), I saw a trailer for his coming American remake of Funny Games, which will star Tim Roth and Naomi Watts and will hit screens in 2008 apparently. I thought that I ought to catch the original film. And now I have. And now the question I have is much like anyone familiar with his work. What in the world will the Hollywood remake consist of, ten years on, and specifically how will he make it? A straight re-make?
Frankly, it’s hard to discuss this film without giving away much of its key elements, so if you look to be surprised, then read no further.
The film is an explicit critique of the use of violence in films, but maybe more so, “justified” violence.
Funny Games is in a sense a thriller, a thriller about a wealthy family trapped in their lake house by two sadistic, sarcastic young killers. The torture is both physical and psychological, disarming the father by quickly breaking his leg, they go on to humiliate and taunt the mother and the young son as well, upping the violence step by step and betting the family that none of them will survive the next 12 hours. A promise that they make good on.
But the odd aspect of the film is its breaks in the narrative, in which one of the killers winks and nods at the audience, and then fully addresses them, making them culpable in the violence that is ensuing. This is utterly Haneke’s point. In watching both the torture of the family by the sadists and waiting for the violent comeuppance that the killers receive in the typical thriller, that the audience is more than insinuated in the violence, they are the reason that it exists, has been created, and they lap it up. They cannot decry it later if they are drawn to it. If they make it to the end, then they are much as the killers. Of course, this “breaking” of the “third wall” separates the narrative from a sense of realism.
The realism of the family and their emotional, physical plight is played out with meticulous and potent virtuosity by Haneke. The more than 10 minute single take of the mother and father after the son is killed (see, I told you that I’m giving this all away) is compelling. The viewer is drawn in and pushed back by Haneke and the killer who controls the narrative and flouts expectation with aplomb and sarcasm. Is it post-modern? Is it essentially post-modern? Is this technique going to be carried out in a high-budget Hollywood film? And played in cineplexes across the US?
The is striking because a friend of mine has been reacting very passionately against cinematic violence lately, expressing outrage at people who enjoy the violence in films like Eastern Promises and the new Rob Zombie version of Halloween (2007). Haneke is a master, really. A master like Hitchcock in a sense. A manipulator but not an emulator. He controls the traditional direction of the narrative and the viewer’s expectations and emotional connection, but he criticizes it as well.
Ultimately, I found it perhaps a little passe. But realizing that this film is 10 years old, it sort of helps to put it in perspective. This was not my favorite of his films, but I admired the way that he approaches the film and the ideas he works with. Even his use of music, or the lack of music (he notably doesn’t use soundtrack music), but the contrast of the family listening to classical and opera juxtaposed to the violent, raging music that punctuates the title sequence demonstrates the violent break of the family and the violent break of narrative strategies that we have grown to expect in film. He’s truly a fascinating director.