Blu-ray Review: Funny Games | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, January 28th, 2020  

Funny Games

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jul 19, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Michael Haneke has been successfully making us feel bad for watching films for the last few decades, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in his 1997 magnum opus, Funny Games. Incendiary, divisive, and downright brutal are all apt descriptions for this work, whose efficacy and intent have been continually debated in critical and horror fan circles for over twenty years, made all the more active when Haneke remade this film in 2007 in English for American audiences. While the story of two young men holding a family hostage in their vacation home was nothing particularly new, the tone and direction by which we experience this trauma is almost entirely singular, and rarely has this stance been so successfully taken when creating multimedia. As you can probably tell, I love this film (and I equally love the remake with Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, and Michael Pitt), but the love is almost entirely masochistic.

Georg (Ulrich Mühe), Anna (Susanne Lothar), their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski), and their dog Rolfi have arrived at their holiday lake house for some rest and relaxation. When a pair of local young men named Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch) begin imposing themselves on the family’s goodwill, their hospitality soon turns sour and Anna demands that they leave. Peter then breaks Georg’s leg with a golf club, starting a spiral of events that propel the unwitting family through a long night of sadistic mind games. It immediately becomes clear that this seemingly absent-minded pair of white-shorts-wearing youths have far more disgustingly sinister machinations at play.

According to Robert Koehler, writing for Cineaste Magazine, “Haneke all along imagined and intended Funny Games as an American-produced film set in America involving American characters.” This decision (which was later brought to fruition in the remake) was seen as a response to the revival of the American slasher genre in the mid 1990s, brought about by Scream, and the general worldwide fascination and acceptance of on-screen violence and gore. When the film was released, it received a wave of mixed responses, including several thoroughly harsh rendings by European critics, and just managed to scrape by at the box office. Since then, the film has garnered a considerable cult following, and is now often considered one of the great unsung heroes of horror cinema; though, not without continued substantial controversy. But why?

Because there is something profoundly upsetting about Funny Games that even the most verbose and nihilistic displays of human cruelty in movies have not been able to match, and that power is exercised by making the audience complicit in the villians’ atrocities. There are a scattering of expertly-timed fourth wall breaks where characters talk directly to the audience or reference the fact they are in a movie, and each instance either precedes or succeeds moments of grotesque violence. The calm demeanor of Peter and Paul as they set about their misdeeds reminds me heavily of Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange (even down to the outfit at points), yet unlike how that protagonist revels in his mayhem, these antagonists treat their crimes as a day-to-day pedestrian activity. Paul’s constant references to the standard developments of typical movie plots determines the dramatic moments and plot twists, with nods to audience expectations and hopes. However, that doesn’t stop the indifference and sickly dispostion of these men as they torture this family, in cooperation with the film’s narrative framework, to make the thematic sadism almost comic - that is until we get to Jürgen Jürges’ cinematography, and Monika Willi’s editing.

The camera never shies away from the bleak and unforgiving. While not always showing the carnage, the compositions that are chosen fully embrace the agonizing atmosphere surrounding the incidents, drawing out the pain in the worst possible ways - what we don’t see becomes just as important as what we do. The most horrific scene takes place towards the latter half of the movie, which largely consists of an unbroken ten-minute shot - we are meant to experience every excruciating moment of this torment in real time, and we are meant to feel bad that we are watching it. Unlike numerous modern shock films that throw as much repugnant material as quickly as possible to utterly disgust the viewer, Funny Games shows the reality of human violence while putting us, who demand such media, in our places. While I may not be in complete agreement with all of the film’s ideas, it’s impossible to deny that its central thesis has a valid point, and that it’s utterly effective in drawing that point out.

Criterion seems to have similar thoughts, as its new Blu-ray release of the 1997 original is jam-packed with fantastic supplemental materials. The 2K digital restoration of the original print, which was directly supervised by Haneke, is equipped with a 5.1 audio soundtrack and newly translated English subtitles. New (and unsurprisingly nuanced) interviews with Haneke and Frisch are included, buttressed by an interview with film historian Alexander Horwath, archive footage of Haneke, Lothar and Mühe giving a press conference at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and the film’s theatrical trailer. The case is an eye-catching rendition of the film’s original theatrical poster, which encloses a lengthy yet fascinating retrospective essay by Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri.

While Funny Games remains as divisive as it ever was (though the American remake gets way more hate than it deserves, being a near identical shot-for-shot remake, filmed in the exact same location), it is hard to ignore the impact it continues to have on filmmaking, especially horror. Though Haneke declared that this movie was not built to be a horror tale, it has evolved into an icon of the genre nevertheless, and still may test even the most desensitized of film fans with its indictive disquisition and relentlessness.



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