PRINT March 1998


Michael Haneke's Funny Games

AN EXCRUCIATING compendium of banalities posing as “radical” filmmaking, the Austrian movie Funny Games suggests that celluloid serial killers have grown bored with murder sprees, necrophilic rape, and ritual sex mutilations. No longer content with violence—for—violation’s sake, they feel the need to place their acts in the larger context of media representation: using torture and slaughter for educational purposes, homicidal maniacs must now not only kill but comment on the whole death—making process. Indeed, the movie’s cherubic duo, Peter and Paul—suggesting a pair of run-amok camp counselors for the mentally challenged—from time to time refer to each other as Beavis or Butt-head. These smug twits are meant to propel us onto what the production notes call “a rollercoaster of emotion and analysis.” In a stroke of triumphal displacement, we don’t have a frustrated intelligentsia who yearn to become killing machines, but video-bred killers who aspire to be cultural theorists.

Leaving no stone of cartoon violence unturned, Funny Games also references Tom and Jerry, though I can’t help thinking Sesame Street would be more in keeping with director Michael Haneke’s maddeningly obtuse game of show-and-tell. Picture a laconic psychotic teaming up with Big Bird to teach a nice, slightly dense family (father-mother-son, none of whom seems acquainted with the rules of the genre) the ABCs of agony and senseless murder. But first they must terrorize their designated victims with interminable Germanic thoroughness, as though the killers mean to bludgeon the family—and audience—to death with sheer vacuity. Archly remarking on the “entertainment value” of the pain he inflicts, Paul addresses the audience as a confidant, a coconspirator: we’re meant to see the mixture of stale shock and alienation effects as a rejection of conventional rationales for violence, not how it regurgitates undigested chunks of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer along with Peter Greenaway, Man Bites Dog, and untold faux snuff films. Hence the title’s deadly poststructuralist irony, which befits a work that seeks to fuse the stylized, hyper-detached realism of Henry with the Brechtian intertextuality of Beavis and Butt-head.

The director claims he wants to “find ways of representing violence as that which it always is: as inconsumable.” Perhaps Funny Games might work like this if it sought to implicate Haneke’s own attitudes along with those of the gore-consuming public. (If the Scream franchise is any indication, the general public is more sophisticated about the genre than lofty filmmakers who view it from atop an ivory abattoir.) Instead, the camera’s disengagement from the family’s ordeal turns them into frightened lab animals subject to grotesque random experiments (let’s measure the exact amount of despair on a woman’s face when she’s forced to strip at gunpoint, or test the parents’ emotional capacity to absorb the shock of seeing their son’s head blown off right before their eyes). This clinical mode of voyeurism is far more meretricious and numbing than the pathology it pretends to criticize. It elides the explicitly gruesome—the actual murders either take place out of sight (but not earshot) or are so emphatically casual they hardly register (e.g., the wife dispatched like a bag of soiled laundry). So the film concentrates on rendering profound psychic violence as a vicarious intellectual exercise, allowing us to see the corpses—in—training through their tormentors’ mocking eyes, as if redefining the Ulrike Meinhof term Konsumterror as a blithe endorsement. (I can see the blurbs now: “Funny Games is a must—see!”—Richard Speck. “Two thumbs up!”—Leopold & Loeb.)

Cult and mainstream films alike have been gravitating toward the serial killer’s omniscient point of view for some time. Ubermensch Hannibal Lecter and his hectoring brood are philosophers at heart (Charlie Manson may have become to the postliterate what Ayn Rand is to the semiliterate), believers in free will as a ruthless form of natural selection. A sequence near the end of Funny Games provides its raison d’étre: the abject wife suddenly gets her hands on the gun and shoots Peter, briefly dissolving the film’s carefully established logic. Then Paul grabs the remote and the scene rushes backward; in the replay, he keeps the weapon out of reach. A good Objectivist joke—the only freedom left lies in the erasure of another’s subjectivity. That this punchline takes an hour and a half to deliver instead of the five minutes any halfway sentient director would need indicates that the real joke is on anyone gullible enough to accept the movie on its own deluded terms.

Howard Hampton is a contributor to Film Comment.