Michael Haneke invites the audience to a game in which the characters, time, space, and cause-and-effect relationships are irrelevant in his film “Funny Games” (1997). In this narrative where the values that make a family a family are destroyed one by one, the only important thing is the game itself.
The Director-Audience Duel in “Funny Games”
Haneke turned an ordinary middle-class family’s vacation home into a torture chamber with “Funny Games” and has been overturning all the values of the institution of the family for ten years. With its structure constantly challenging the forbidden line between the cinema screen and the cinema hall, “Funny Games” was a film that threatened the audience’s protected salon, just like the family’s sheltered home. Like every Haneke film, in fact… The foundation of Haneke’s games, which make his directorial signature easily recognizable, is the transparency of the relationship between the director and the viewer with the story. The two extremes that determine the outer contours of the story world, the director who cuts and limits the story on one line and the viewer who stands at the limits of the other end, cease to be “outer limits” in Haneke’s films. As both extremes are drawn into the story, the film’s world becomes a secondary story between the director and the audience. What sets “Funny Games” apart from other Haneke films is that this mechanism is most nakedly handled and the game itself is most openly revealed. In “Funny Games,” the film world is like a duel arena where the director invites the audience.
The Manipulation of Characters and Audience
The film does not provide the audience with any information about Anna, Georg, and their sons; we do not know what they do for a living, how they are as people, or what their relationships with each other are like. What information we need about these people and what we do not need is already communicated to us in the opening of the film. In the opening, we see a car with a boat attached to it in a bird’s eye shot. The car moves, we listen to the conversations of the people inside, and the music they listen to is heard in the background. They are playing a game like recognizing classical music pieces from their beginnings. When the cut is made inside the car, we see their hand movements in detail shots. Throughout the time since the opening, we have not yet seen the faces of our characters. Finally, when we see their faces, the classical music playing in the car is cut off by a heavy metal song. Therefore, our introduction to these people occurs simultaneously with the sign the director gives us about what will happen to them. The family, who were “someone” during the classical music, become worth seeing with the heavy metal music, which is a harbinger of what will happen to them; because they will have a story soon. They will not enter our world in their “normal” state; they will only enter as victims of the game the director will play with them.
After the opening, shortly after they return to their homes, Paul and Peter come and start the game; thus, the tension begins before we have even met the characters. While watching what happens to them, we cannot say, for example, “she loved her husband so much,” or “they were planning to do something.” In this case, Haneke’s claim is that the viewer does not need this kind of information to manipulate their emotions. The only thing they need is the games and the rules of the games; the rules of real life and fictional worlds. One of the factors that makes the director’s job easier is the concept of the family. Everyone knows how the institution of the family sets up a game, what roles each person plays, their behavior patterns, and moral values. This family that we cannot know what they say or do under “normal circumstances” is any family for us, and as the subjectivities of the characters recede into the background, the general character of the family institution comes to the fore. With their cold appearances, Paul and Peter seem to take no special pleasure in killing or torturing. For example, in the scene where they force Anna to undress, they do not seem interested in seeing her naked or have any intention of raping her. They just want the “husband” to tell his “wife” to “undress” in front of other men. Once they achieve this, the game is over; one of the basic moral values that make the family a family is destroyed, and that is what gives them pleasure.
Paul and Peter can apply the same torture techniques to different people as they go door-to-door and choose new victims because of the same rules of some games everywhere. Similarly, as a director, Haneke relies on the well-known rules of audience participation. By exposing the established conventions of suspense films up to that day and destroying them, just like the violence that Paul and Peter apply, Haneke’s psychological violence on the viewer also reveals a familiar game. The fact that we hardly see the death moments of almost all the victims in a film makes it so effective. It is a balance that pulls us towards the cinema screen but nails us to our seats when we get closest. When Anna looks for the dog’s corpse and Paul winks at us, or when he invites us to bet after saying to his victims, “Let’s bet. You claim that you will survive until morning, and we claim that you will die,” we are called upon to abandon the passive position of being a viewer. But this call is actually only for us to realize how passive we are. When Anna kills Peter and Paul takes the remote control and rewinds the film, it is not only the moment of the victims’ helplessness but also the moment when the helplessness of the audience reaches its peak. And the one who enjoys this helplessness is not Paul but the director himself.
Hollywood Remake: The Same Duel with a Wider Audience
Ten years later, Haneke set out for Hollywood to make the same duel with a wider audience. He remade the 1997 version with American actors, added the note “U.S.” to the title in English, and followed the same plan. In an interview, Haneke says that, based on the increase in violence in society and representations of violence in cinema over the past ten years, the film is now much more current. Therefore, as a time and place, 2007 and America are suitable for “Funny Games.”
As Haneke himself said, it is definitely technically challenging to remake a film exactly as it is. However, there are aspects of Funny Games that actually make such a remake easier, because the characters, time and place, and the reasons and motivations for the events are all insignificant in the structure established by the film. The only important thing is the game itself; therefore, replaying the game with the same rules anywhere and anytime is quite easy in a way.
The original version of “Funny Games” was a parody of thriller movies. Not changing a single frame in the remake, ten years later, only strengthens the tone of the parody. In the original film, there was no reference to the country or date the story takes place in; the setting was mostly inside the house; and the characters’ traits were left blank. Therefore, there was nothing that needed to be changed or adapted while moving the story from one place to another. The film already works based on universal characteristics, such as the family and the audience. In making the remake as a Hollywood production without changing anything, Haneke emphasizes the film’s structure based on “anything”. Even changing the characters’ names from Anna to Ann and Georg to George and keeping the same set design and costumes strengthens the idea that nothing needs to be changed.
Among the things that do not need to be changed is the director’s signature. Haneke, who imitates himself, is still the god of his created world. Like how Paul and Peter don’t need new games for their new victims, Haneke doesn’t create a new game for new audiences. As “universal” by definition doesn’t change from one place or time to another, it cannot be subject to adaptation. Thus, “Funny Games” was a parody of a genre, while the American version of “Funny Games” (Funny Games U.S., 2007) appears as a “remake parody”.
Last modified: July 9, 2023