Austria (1997) Dir. Michael Haneke
Before he became an Oscar nominated darling of the arthouse film fan with such sublime works as Hidden, The White Ribbon and Amour, Michael Haneke was something of an enfant terrible of European cinema with low budget affairs like this psychological shocker, which he later remade for Hollywood in 2007.
A well to do family Georg (Ulrich Mühe), Anna (Susanne Lothar), son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) and dog Rolfi arrive for a boating trip at their lakeside holiday home. Shortly after their arrival, two young men, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch), show up at the house asking to borrow some eggs and as Anna obliges Peter drops them, asking for some more.
Meanwhile, as Peter’s clumsiness continues driving Anna to distraction, Paul takes one of Georg’s golf clubs outside as Rolfi won’t stop barking, the dog suddenly falling silent. George and Georgie return to the house to find Anna in a state, demanding the pair leave which Paul takes offence at. Their obstinacy drives Georg to slap Paul so Peter breaks Georg’s right leg with a golf club. With the family at their mercy Paul and Peter decide to play some games at their expense.
Haneke seemed to divide opinion with this film to such extremes that people either love it as a tense and challenging work or those who hate it with a passion and question Haneke’s sense of humanity for making it! It may not be a horror in the truest sense but it is a horrifying film because of the extent of the actions of the two unhinged antagonists, but is it really any worse than the senseless graphic torture porn films out there?
Possibly because of how Haneke directs with such detachment and is sparse with his presentation that Funny Games feels chillingly close to reality than horror films with a clear fictional basis to it. Haneke has said that the intention for this film was to make a comment on the rise of violence and how is portrayed in the media, questioning if we have become desensitised to it thus making an essentially “pointless” film with heavy violent content.
However the film isn’t actually that violent as none of it shown – the aftermath certainly is and the effect is equally as chilling as if we had seen the act take place. It is down to the observant direction and superb and convincing performances that make this such an unsettling experience and hard to watch, but as ever Haneke has a trick up his sleeve to further blur the lines between reality and fiction.
On a few occasions Paul turns to the camera with knowing look or wink establishing how much of a game this is for him, this breaking of the fourth wall adding a further layer of intrigue to the mindset of these disturbed young men.
Similar to Hidden where the whole film appears to be shot from the point of view from a distant observer, Haneke paces the audience in the position of being that observer here, and it is our frustrations and not being able to assist the protagonists that stirs our emotions so deeply. Or perhaps worse still, that we find ourselves assuming a complicit role by watching this ordeal unfold?
The conceit of the film, aside from the central bet made, in which Peter and Paul wager that the whole family will be dead inside twelve hours, is that no valid reasoning or rationale is proffered for their behaviour. Paul tells so many lies inside one minute that we don’t know what to believe, yet the last declaration that they are just as affluent as their captives but are simply bored rings the most true.
Of the games they play, the prize is at the expense of the family, or more accurately their pride and dignity. Anna in particular suffers here, being forced to strip to protect her son; The camera stays on her face at all times but we can feel her humiliation as an injured Georg is forced to sit by and endure the pain. Later the stakes are raised and the danger factor increased when a gun is brought into the picture.
Everything is so simple in its execution and indeed in the premise yet it feels deliberately and masterfully subversive, especially when flying in the face of graphic horror films, but some conventions are adhered to. We are given a couple of hope moments to create a sense of respite from this torture for both the family and the audience, but Haneke is particularly cruel in swiping that particular rug from under our feet in arguably the most divisive twist of the film.
The performances can’t be faulted and if we didn’t already know that this wasn’t fiction we’d swear this was genuine. It’s odd seeing Ulrich Mühe, noted for being the strict and humourless Stasi officer in The Lives Of Others, playing such a submissive role but that he does as Georg, admittedly due to his broken leg but his emotional torture is palpable. A committed Susanne Lothar truly suffers for her art as Anna, being forced into the role of the family’s backbone whilst being the prime target of the humiliation.
Youngster Stefan Clapczynski is superb as Georgie, and we hope the poor kid wasn’t traumatised by this film, but making the deepest impression are Frank Giering and Arno Frisch as Peter and Paul respectively. With one being tall and smooth talking and the other a chubby man-child, both men are physically perfect for their personas and frighteningly authentic in creating such calm monsters.
It would appear that enjoyment or appreciation for Funny Games rests on being able to discern the points Haneke was raising vis-à-vis media violence. In other words, if you “get it” there is a supremely dark, tense and knowing psychological thriller to be found here; if not this will be indulgent arthouse hubris at best.
Divisive cinema at its best.