I should start by saying this: unlike nearly every other American film critic, I like Michael Haneke’s movie Funny Games. But if you’ve seen either version of the film and you’re ready to get up in arms because you found it patronizing, as did Anthony Lane, or tendentious, as did Mark Kermode, don’t fret. I would probably agree with those complaints as well, if it were not for the fact that, unlike those reviewers, I disagree completely with Michael Haneke’s interpretation of his film.
If you’re reading this article for a recommendation, then I ought to state right at the outset that there are few movie watchers to whom I would recommend Funny Games. It is a purposefully brutal, broadly cynical, and largely humorless tale about unmotivated murder. I recommend Funny Games only to those who already enjoy unconventional horror movies, and to those with an academic or foreign flair to their taste in films.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Funny Games, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film (either version, as, unlike with some other movies I have covered, the English-language remake of Funny Games—also by Haneke—is nearly as good as the original).
“Violence and the Media” and Funny Games:
Apparently, disagreeing with artists about their own art is the theme of the site at the moment, as my recent popular Tuesday Tome article was about how Anthony Burgess woefully misunderstood his own work in A Clockwork Orange. In this case, it is specifically the effect of Funny Games‘ most polarizing aspect (its fourth-wall breaking) that I see as openly contradicting Haneke’s stated aim of criticizing the relationship between (especially western) violent media and its consumers.
So, to begin, what is Michael Haneke’s stated aim? Well, he argues in his essay, “Violence and the Media,” that technological advance and limited airtime have blurred the line between presentations of actual violence and representations of fictional violence. The implicit empathy of a viewer for the action in a movie, then, normalizes and authorizes the acts of violence that occur in them, in turn normalizing and authorizing actual violence.
Thus, one can infer that an act of defiance against the traditional realism of film, such as the fourth-wall breaking in Funny Games, is meant to clearly separate the fictional from the actual. So far, so good. But Michael Haneke’s particular formulation of the problem relies on unsubstantiated assertions about the worsening world, and his particular strategy for enacting that separation (having the sociopathic characters control their reality and ask the audience who they’re ‘rooting for’) does nothing to combat—and everything to condone—what he refers to as the “guiltless complicity” of the audience.
My estimation of Funny Games‘ proper audience also differs from Haneke’s. In response to people leaving the theater during screenings of the film, Haneke famously declared, “Anyone who leaves the theater doesn’t need the film; anyone who stays does.” I don’t think anyone needs the movie, but I also don’t think anyone should be walking out on it (unless they have a heart condition).
Anyone literally driven from the theater by the acts of violence depicted on the screen is not likely to be leaving, as Haneke seems to wish, because they have decided not to participate in the mediation between violence in cinema and reality. I would contend that those leaving have simply failed to successfully compartmentalize fiction and reality. Indeed, unlike those inclined to stay, such audience members have not fully integrated the inherent falsehood of fiction into their perspective, even though that separation is the very thing that Funny Games is constantly foregrounding.
Guilt and Empathy and Funny Games:
Much is said by Haneke in the aforementioned essay on the topics of guilt and identification. In the following telling passage, he highlights what he takes to be the cognitive difference between perceiving a painting and perceiving a film:
(Upon, say, looking at Picasso’s Guernica, we see the suffering of the victims frozen for us to behold for all eternity. By virtue of the time allowed for becoming conscious of and contemplating the represented subject, our path towards solidarity with them is portrayed without any moral stumbling blocks. With the carnage in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now supported by Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” we are riding along in the helicopter, firing on the Vietnamese scattering in panic below us, and we do it without a guilty conscience because we – at least in the moment of the action – do not become aware of this role.)
Alright, so I’m with him as far as there being an implicit identity with the viewed individuals. But in what way are we not also identifying with “the Vietnamese scattering in panic below” while Wagner’s imposing tune menaces overhead? Is it the shot composition? The proximity of the camera to the shooters? I would contend that Haneke is not taking his notion of the totality of experience provided by film to its logical conclusion: we do not get to fully choose which role to take among the characters in a given scene. To some degree, we must be them all.
And, beyond that, I don’t think Haneke could have picked a worse example if he had tried. Apocalypse Now, to any but the most superficial viewer, capably transcends the three typical models of violent film-making sketched by Haneke near the beginning of the essay (i.e. the hyperfictional, the heroic, and the ironic). It is as though, at least at the time of his writing that essay, Michael Haneke was under the obviously false impression that no filmmaker had ever considered so seriously the role of violence in movies.
Moreover, I think the totality of experience under study—which Haneke is rightly identifying—is being somewhat overstated: after all, our interaction with the progression of the events is mitigated by our certain knowledge that we are unable to intervene. I have discussed this same phenomenon in my philosophy series when considering the so-called paradox of fiction; however rapt in attention, viewers of fictional media in a theater (or a living room) remain armed with the certain knowledge of the fictionality of the depiction.
Indeed, I have never gone from feeling so tensely, emotionally involved in the prevention of harm to a set of characters to feeling utterly guiltless with more rapidity than in the moment at which the central sociopaths of Funny Games first address the audience. Far from inspiring critical intervention, such moments call directly to mind the artificiality of the presentation and set my mind entirely at comfortable ease. If Haneke wanted to appall me with violence, then he should have embraced the realistic mode he so despises. Real violence appalls me; fake violence (with some caveats concerning context, but especially fake violence that takes pains to remind viewers of its falsehood) does not.
As stated above, Haneke’s answer to this line of thinking is also clear in the essay: how does one draw the line, he asks, between fictional media like films and ostensibly factual media like television journalism? Well, to some extent I would say that he’s absolutely right: as our technology improves and these two factions battle for our attention, the line becomes blurred.
But there is a contingent way to distinguish some fictions as absolutely fictional: if they call attention to their status as fiction. The Russian Formalists, especially Viktor Shklovsky, called such moments the baring of the device (as an aside, if you’re interested, you can see some more extensive work of mine with the ideas of literary Formalists in this article on the indie game Papers, Please). And far from making the viewer recognize complicity in the affairs at hand, such moments serve to acutely highlight the distance between reality and the representation. After all, if I am complicit in the continued viewing of a fiction while being simultaneously aware that it is a fiction, then I am being complicit in the containment of a violent act within a fictional matrix.
Michael Haneke’s Background Assumptions:
Ultimately, Haneke’s thesis reminds me of some very common ideas; these are ideas that are as intuitive as they are wrong. In particular, I am referring to the allied notions that human society is growing more violent and that consumption of violent media is instigating violent behavior. Of course, as many of you are already aware, both of these notions are statistically false. While global communications and visual media have made the remaining violence in the world much more visible, human society is presently in its least (physically) violent period in recorded history.
And, while there are some correlations with aggression, sales of a medium arguably even more potentially immersive than film, video games—including violent video games—have not matched up with any increase in violent crime. In fact, in the United States, as video game sales have doubled over the past two decades, violent crime has fallen by about a third (while “murders by juveniles acting alone fell 76% in that same period”).
Near the end of that same essay on “Violence and the Media,” Haneke expresses his project thus: “How do I give the viewer the chance to recognize this loss of reality and his own implication in it, thus emancipating him from being a victim of the medium to its potential partner?”
Haneke is basically saying that work like Funny Games is something of a self-defeating act. It truly is hoping that its viewers will walk out on it. Otherwise I can’t think of what Haneke means by making the viewer cognizant of reality. What action can I take, after becoming hyper-aware of the fictionality of a slasher film, to change the course of the acts depicted? None. So this talk of becoming a “potential partner” of the medium is not very productive.
Haneke intends to deny the viewer the spectacle and the catharsis of a violent episode—to bring about a heightened awareness of the audience’s ‘reprehensible’ enjoyment of simulated murder—but instead gives the viewer something far more psychologically grotesque: a depiction of savage, inhuman depravity and torture which demands repeatedly that its viewers recognize its fictionality (and thus its total lack of consequences).
I would like to close this article by pointing out that, despite the tone and content I’ve written here, I am a fan of Michael Haneke. The premise of this article required that I take him to task for some areas of his philosophy with which I disagree, but I think he is an incredible director. I have seen only a few of his films, but their quality was so insanely high that I look forward to watching his others.
I have been reminded of the artificiality of a movie by the incompetence of a filmmaker or else as the sole premise of an otherwise forgettable script many, many times over, but Funny Games is one of the few times I can recall (aside from Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths and a few others) that a brilliant director actively destroys the fictive illusion within an independently excellent movie.
Put all of this together with brilliant editing, amazing sound design, phenomenal acting, patient and deliberate pacing, and the implication of cyclicality in the ending, and the result is an excellent, strange viewing experience. But Funny Games is a viewing experience that affirms the place of violence in fiction, rather than redefining it—where that place is necessarily fictional, and firmly in the fertile ground of literary defamiliarization.