Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” is a postmodern take on the realistic illusion of film. It is a self-referential exploration of the truth-value of artificial images and the “entertainment” of violence. It is also a meticulous technical exercise in repetitive breaking and building of the fourth wall—a meta-fiction that calls attention to its own artifice.
“Well you see it in the film, right,” responds Paul to Peter in the scene above. Paul and Peter are the two villains in “Funny Games” (played respectively by Arno Frish, also starring in Haneke’s “Benny’s Video,” and Frank Giering).
The original Austrian version of “Funny Games” was made in 1997 starring Ulrich Mühe (also in “Benny’s Video,” “Lives of Others”) and Susanne Lothar as the victims. In 2007, the director Michael Haneke made a shot-by-shot English-language remake starring Naomi Watts (also in “Mulholland Drive” and “21 Grams” where Haneke recognized her talent) and Tim Roth as the victims; Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet played the villains.
The synopsis of “Funny Games”
A married couple take their son and the family dog on a vacation at their holiday house. Two teenagers show up at the house, start terrorizing the family, and make a bet—that they are going to kill the entire family by 9 a.m. on the next day.
Thus, Haneke sets the stage of a fictional universe that is unrealistically realistic for cinema, especially for the thriller genre. But the audience’s suspense of disbelief is constantly questioned by the methodical self-references in the movie. This clever self-contradiction and ambiguity is characteristic of Haneke’s works and consistent with the postmodern artistic trend of ambivalence and denial of the possibility of a one-sided truth or an answer. The director once said, “The minute something can be described with a single term, it’s dead artistically.”
The movie’s script, setting, dialogue, and characters are very plausible and believable. The action is lacking any “spectacular” scenes such as chasings, explosions, or unrealistic Hollywood fighting sequences. Instead, the script often revolves around everyday matters such as cleaning up the carpet from the broken eggs, helping the wounded husband get up on the chair, or drying up the phone that fell in the sink in order to call for help. The phone scene alone takes up more than 5 minutes of the overall running time, and the editing is deliberately slow—doubtlessly a conscious decision by Haneke to defy the audience’ expectations and the genre characteristics. The intentional tediousness of such scenes enhances the realism of the movie.
The cinematography is subtle; the camera is mainly static—typical for Haneke’s previous movies, but especially important here. The static camera calls little attention to its presence—thus, on one level, the movie suspends disbelief and the audience is immersed in the action.
Haneke’s use of music enhances the feeling of realism and avoids attracting attention to the film nature of the film. The director has repeatedly mentioned that music in his movies is not meant to be soundtrack, but part of the action and the movie’s world—what is formally termed diegetic sound. His approach is somewhat consistent with the second rule of the Dogme 95 movement that Lars von Trier was part of, which prohibits the use of sounds or music outside of the narrative. Trier exaggerates and showcases this approach in “Dancer in the Dark.”
In “Funny Games,” music is diegetic with the sole exception of the beginning and ending credits, which feature “Bonehead” by Naked City. However, the song also appears as a diegetic piece played on the CD player by Paul, thus further blurring the line between the “film world” and “real world” because the song appears both on the “inside” and “outside” of the film.
To challenge the apparent realism of the scenes, the repeated self-referential remarks and addressing of the audience showcase the farce of the film’s fiction.
The Missing Bricks in the Fourth Wall of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”
The first self-referential scene in the movie is very subtle and easy to miss. As Paul’s character slowly steps into the camera’s view, he turns around and winks straight into the camera. In the American remake, the wink is substituted for an even more subtle smile.
When the villains make the “bet” with the family, Paul turns to the camera and asks the audience who they think is going to win. The self-references are numerous, but methodically placed throughout the movie—just when the audience has likely been consumed by the movie’s illusion, the next reality announcement follows. Not all the references are direct confrontations between actors and audience: when Anna asks why can’t the villains just kill them, one of them responds “Don’t forget the importance of entertainment.” On a similar occasion, Paul explains:
The most controversial call to the artifice of the movie is probably the remote-control scene:
The scene establishes the movie as the god of fate and the ultimate judge of what should happen. It elevates the film to super-film realms of total control over the audience. The sequence seems to be an allegorical statement about cinema’s power: the rules of the pre-determined script may not be overridden or avoided by the victims. The scene may also be seen as establishing a meta-fiction pair of villain–victim relationship. Just like inside the movie the family is the helpless victim of the villains, the audience becomes the helpless victim of the movie manipulation. This idea is further reinforced by the fact that all the self-references are by the villains, which makes them appear “on the movie’s side.”
Violence in “Funny Games”
Notable about the depiction of violence in Haneke’s movies is that it remains largely off-screen (an approach reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s style). Haneke has said that “things that are not shown and that the spectator needs to imagine with his own fantasy can be much stronger than the things that are actually shown.” While the first murder is taking place, Haneke prefers to show one of the villains casually getting food from the fridge—with the gunshot and screaming sounds in the background. When the camera returns to the living room, instead of a close-up of the murdered kid, Haneke shows the bloody TV set. When asked why he doesn’t depict violence, Haneke responded “I don’t really want to be part of this violence pornography of the mass media.”
The symbolism of the TV set
The TV set is a recurring symbol in Haneke’s movies, most notably in “Benny’s Video” and “The Seventh Continent.” It is a commentary on the consumerism of modern contemporary culture, and it highlights the other main theme of “Funny Games”—the senseless and pointless depiction of violence in the media, particularly the “popcorn” American movies. After her son is murdered, Anna first limps over (with her hands and legs tied) to turn off the TV, which is showing a rally race. The rally race may or may not have any significance (the thrill of life danger?), but the TV symbol creates a new reality realm—it is a detached reality for the characters in “Funny Games,” just like “Funny Games” is for the audience. But in the bloody TV shot the two realities seem to blend and interfere.
In a somewhat ironic shot the villain is watching TV, and the audience of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” is watching Naomi Watts in her underwear. The line “Don’t forget the importance of entertainment” may have a double meaning in this case— whether intentionally or not. However, Naomi Watts is a notably more sexual Anna than Susanne Lothar is, and the American producers may have influenced this fact. However, the decision could have been Haneke’s as well, since his main condition for doing the remake was to star Watts as the wife, and since the image of Anna’s underwear can be seen as reaffirming for the movie’s theme of senseless entertainment as much as self-contradictory.
The Ending Sequence and the Unreliability of Images
The ending scene takes place on a boat. The villains kill Anna, the last remaining family member, and strike a conversation ostensibly about a fictional movie character Kevin who is stuck between a fiction and a reality universe.
Paul’s line from the picture above is an ambivalent reference to two characters from two different universes: Kevin from the fictional universe of his movie, and Peter from the fictional universe of “Funny Games.” The meta-fiction of “Funny Games” is blended with the fiction-within-fiction of Kevin’s movie. It is a different reality relationship than the TV scene with the rally race—although seen on the TV, the rally race has happened or is happening in the universe of “Funny Games,” while Kevin’s movie is fictional for both the villains and the audience of “Funny Games.”
Peter says that Kevin is in fiction.
“But isn’t fiction real,” asks the English-speaking Paul in a slight linguistic (but not semantic) variation from the Austrian Paul.
“Well you can see it in the movie, right?”
The discussion can be seen as the central theme of the movie—the fragile and illusory sense of reality caused by the representational nature of fictional images.
It is a topic extensively explored, especially in 20-century modern and postmodern art—Rene Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images,” Jorje Luis Borges’ short story “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and David Cronenberg’s movie “eXistenZ,” to name a few examples.
Most notably, the problem of reality and the unreal was explored by Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation.” With its realistic devices, cinema aims for a form of duplication of real life, but according to Baudrillard, “duplication suffices to render both artificial.” Discussing Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Baudrillard says:
“His film is really the extension of the war through other means, the pinnacle of this failed war, and its apotheosis. The war became film, the film becomes war, the two are joined by their common hemorrhage into technology.”
According to Paul, if our senses are the only connection to the outside world, and if both “fiction” and “reality” can be seen, how can one distinguish between them?
In the documentary “24 Realities per Second” Haneke discusses his movie influences and mentions “Tom Jones” by Tony Richardson, which may have been an influence for “Funny Games.” Discussing the movie’s “break of illusion” when the character looked at the camera and addressed the audience, Haneke says, “It allowed me to understand illusion intellectually.”