Are rules just there to be broken?
Michael Haneke’s 1997 version of Funny Games is a film less concerned with pleasing its audience than it is with mocking them. The conventions of the thriller film are turned upside down here and satirised in an almost Brechtian manner, incessantly playing against the audience’s expectations. No cliche is left unexplored, and whilst sometimes difficult to watch due to its unrelenting singular vision, this film is an original and rather brilliant beast. It may alienate some, but I’m sure that Haneke doesn’t mind that. In fact, I’m sure that this was his intention.
The tone is quickly established, when a middle-class, respectable family, blare heavy rock. It’s preposterous! The middle-classes listen to Bach! Although unpredictable, Haneke doesn’t rely on shock value. He crafts a competent home-invasion thriller. He does, however, refuse the Hollywood convention of silver linings. No family member lives, a young child dying first, but we expect retribution. This is toyed with, exemplifying Haneke’s subversive style. Early on we see a knife on the family boat. We assume it will be used later. Instead, the kidnappers take it, and Anna, played by Susanne Lothar, is coolly thrown overboard, along with the weapon, and drowns. The clearest moment of Haneke prodding the audience is when kidnapper Peter, played by Frank Giering, is fatally shot. However, fellow kidnapper Paul, the extraordinary Arno Frisch, picks up a TV remote, rewinds the film, and takes the gun. Haneke denies us catharsis. He nods at us, saying ‘If you don’t like it, stick to Hollywood’. Breaking the fourth wall emphasises that we can leave, unlike the kidnapped family. If we don’t want to give Haneke control we don’t have to. It’s a comment on the lack of openness of audiences. Directors conform to please the masses, Haneke doesn’t.
The list of examples of Haneke playing with the audience is near inexhaustible. Whether it be Paul and Peter making Anna strip on the pretence of seeing if her body is flabby or not. We assume that they are really going to take advantage of her. But no, she strips, they look, decide that she doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her, and make her get dressed again. We get another moment when the kidnappers leave momentarily to give them a chance (after all, they have no motive other than to have some fun). We expect the temporarily free family to come up with an ingenious plan for revenge and then to exact it. Yet again, this doesn’t happen. The kidnappers come back and retain their power. These kidnappers are Haneke’s voice. They represent his vision. He is not going to compromise it, he will do what pleases him, regardless of whether his audience like it or not. He will constantly push boundaries and taboos, something which he has done unrelentingly across the entirety of his filmography. As the blood-soaked TV signifies, Haneke is assaulting, blurring, and reconfiguring our concept of spectatorship.
The risk of a film so focussed on one message is that it can become unsubtle, and overemphasised. There came a point where I fully understood the message. Once the initial hilarity wore off, it lost some impact. There are only so many times a concept can be played on. We expect the unexpected. It becomes an exercise in patience. Will you stick with Haneke, or are you out? As an experiment, it fully succeeds in its non-conformity. It’s amusing to dissect, as the conventions are so recognisable, and satisfying as a cinephile to see formulaic film humiliated. Funny Games may have benefited from less streamlined intentions, but, regardless of this, its message is vital. For art to progress, we need bold, focused innovators, with the courageousness to break established norms. By straying from his intention to please viewers, would Haneke not have betrayed this?