Killing Joke

The Austrian film Funny Games homes in on the meaning--and meaninglessness--of horror

One of the things that you said, which I've used in different interviews because it was so right on the money, was that as a film-maker, when you deal with violence, you're actually penalized for doing a good job.

--Quentin Tarantino to
Brian De Palma, 1994

Tarantino's words are true enough: To criticize a horror film such as the family-under-siege thriller Funny Games for making you sick is in some way to acknowledge its achievement. Conversely, the comic-book carnage of Con Air et al. too rarely comes under our attack for failing to disturb--the implication being that scenes of nameless, faceless hordes being mowed down video-game-style simply represent the natural business of slam-bang entertainment delivered in good taste. In fact, according to Austrian director Michael Haneke, it's precisely this anesthetizing depiction of horror by Hollywood that inspired him to stage his raw, brutal, unbelievably grueling Funny Games. "I would like the audience to view violence differently," he declared at a press conference in Cannes. Suffice it to say Haneke succeeds on that count--which, in the post-Natural Born Killers era, is no small feat. Among its many distinctions, Funny Games provides a measure of just how much it takes to shock and appall us these days.

A sort of Austrian art-house Cape Fear by way of the new Cinema of Cruelty, Funny Games follows an upper-middle-class couple (Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe) and their young son (Stefan Clapczynski) to a lakeshore retreat where they're systematically taunted and tortured by a pair of clean-cut young lads (Arno Frisch, Frank Giering) wearing white tennis shorts and prim white gloves. Although, as in Cape Fear, the family dog is the first to meet its maker, Haneke defies mainstream horror conventions in most other ways--stringently withholding flashy camerawork and narrative catharsis, characterizing the attackers as initially polite gents who are put off by their hosts' lack of warmth, and continually upping the ante on the most excruciating scenes of torment.

To what end? one might ask. As night falls, the craftier of the two stalkers (Frisch) makes a rather gratuitous bet with the family that they'll all be dead within 12 hours, then turns directly to the camera to ask whose side we're on. Haneke's own manner of play is no less cleverly vicious, as he repeatedly teases us with false hopes that one or more family members might manage to escape, perhaps by killing their captors. Like a true sadist, this master of suspense shows us what we want, lets us know that he can give it to us, and then, punishing us for our desire, keeps it to himself. Funny games, indeed.

Haneke--who, fittingly, studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna before becoming a film critic and then a filmmaker--hardly shrinks from likening the villains' methods to the horror director's. "Why don't you just kill us right away?" the bruised and tear-stained wife asks her attackers at one point. "Don't forget the entertainment value," is the answer. Otherwise, the home invaders' motives remain cruelly ambiguous. Although the film's idyllic first scenes are meant to show the triviality of the family's concerns through their idle chatter about golf, CDs, and clock batteries (might these petty bourgeois deserve what they get?), Funny Games isn't the sort of thriller where the villains' backgrounds become an ethical factor. To wit: Seemingly speaking for the director, Frisch's handsome monster makes a mockery of this notion by facetiously offering every explanation for the ultraviolent behavior of his pudgy partner (Giering)--and none. Is this virtual neo-Nazi the sad product of divorce? An impoverished drug addict, perhaps? "I get the message," the husband tells his attackers, seeming to recognize that there is no moral to this story. "Isn't that enough for you?" Nein. Would Herr Haneke let his captive audience off that easy?

If the psychos' pasts provide few explanations for their antisocial behavior, what clues might lie in the auteur's rap sheet--that is, his previous work? Haneke's first feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), brilliantly chronicles the hideous fall of another affluent family, rendering the savage effects of modern techno-alienation through a frigid style befitting such masterpieces as Godard's Weekend, Bresson's L'Argent, and Haynes's Safe. Ultimately, what's terrifying about this horror film isn't the inevitable eruption of violence so much as its uncannily accurate distillation of our consumerist lives, its shockingly convincing argument that the only escape lies either in the cold grave or on some untarnished and illusory seventh continent. Alas, Haneke's aesthetic already begins to seem bullying in his follow-up, the notorious film-fest shocker Benny's Video (1992), in which the 14-year-old latchkey kid of the title, numbed by countless hours of TV violence, murders a casual acquaintance without remorse, literally leaving his well-off parents to clean up the mess. The film's didactic point: TV is bad.

Add Haneke's latest movie to the mix, and his overarching project appears to be portraying the myth of bourgeois control--or perhaps the natural comeuppance of those who strive to achieve it. In Funny Games, Benny's prized remote control for his VCR reappears in the hands of the violent ringleader, who uses the device on Funny Games itself in order to rewind it, reversing one of the family's hard-fought victories. (To the extent that it's Haneke who's really working the buttons here, I'd venture a guess that this stern critic of capitalist acquisition probably keeps a fairly decent security system in his house.) It's evidently not enough for Haneke to merely doom the family: He kicks them when they're down, too, making fun of these tormented rich people (in an intellectual way, of course) for their dependence on their malfunctioning electronics even while they remain under severe psychological duress. Still, credit the director with at least one amazingly sympathetic shot, lasting 11 continuous minutes, of the couple's agonizing struggle to recuperate after an unexpected twist puts their fate somewhat in their control--temporarily, that is.

So might this critic dare to recommend such an unconscionable nightmare? Allow me to equivocate. "Provocative" like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, Haneke's film has the similar potential to leave a scar. (Does anyone really need more encouragement to feel afraid of the world?) At the opposite extreme, the thought that anyone might actually enjoy watching it is nearly as nauseating as the film itself--and yet, as a consummate example of what one might call a "Fuck You" Movie, it's certainly not without interest.

For me, Haneke's atrocity exhibition can't match the complicated critique of class-based bloodlust in Wes Craven's 25-year-old Last House on the Left, although I can admit, begrudgingly, that Funny Games probably represents a significant development in the evolution of horror cinema, a movie that cultural completists will want to grapple with, and perhaps abuse in return. That last point might even be crucial, because otherwise, at the end of Funny Games, Haneke the bully would retain his title as a heavyweight auteur--while his opponent, the viewer, would have only his wounds.

 

Funny Games screens at Oak Street Cinema on Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.; (612) 331-3134.

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