By Bradley Lane
Michael Haneke is a provocateur. I mean this statement not as a pejorative, but rather as a neutral descriptor of his work as a writer and director. His mission is not to entertain an audience so much as it is to introduce questions and ideas to them in order to make them think critically. I say this because when I first encountered his directorial style, I reviled it. It was not until I read essays and interviews from him that I came to enjoy his work and realized it was not Haneke that was to blame for my lack of enjoyment, but rather my own expectations. With this framework in mind, Haneke’s breakout film, 1997’s Funny Games is such a confrontational piece of filmmaking that it qualifies it as essential horror viewing for any movie lover.
Haneke sets up the story as a conventional horror film, with George and Anna driving to their summer home to spend a weekend away with their young son and dog. This ideal weekend quickly gets interrupted when a pair of polite yet imposing young men, Peter and Paul, show up to borrow some eggs from the couple. However, it isn’t too long before the duo makes their true intentions known to the family as they restrain them and inform the couple that by the end of the night both George and Anna will be dead.
While this might seem like a straightforward home invasion film, Haneke merely uses this subgenre of horror as a base to explore more complex ideas. In the film’s first of many telling moments, Paul turns to the audience and gives a sinister wink to the audience after forcing Anna to find the corpse of the family dog, in a twisted game of hot or cold. Haneke films these moments of horrific violence with a cold dry point of view that is entirely antithetical to the stylized violence found in American action and horror cinema. In doing so, he undresses the audiences’ pre-conceived notions of what purpose violence serves in the stories and films we consume.
Chief among Haneke’s goals in creating Funny Games is to force viewers to consider their role in the viewing and enjoyment of violence on screen. His route to explore that idea, which makes the film both so captivating and reviling, is to involve the audience in the violence of the film. By violently confronting both the characters and the audience Haneke pleads with us to be critical of violence on screen. It forces us to ask; who is showing us this violence, and more importantly, why do we so often react positively to violence in movies?
By making the audience as complicit as the characters in the violence of the film, Michael Haneke created one of the most thought-provoking films of all time in Funny Games. – 5/5 stars
Funny Games was not released in the U.S. in 1997 so it is not rated but is intended only for mature audiences. Funny Games is available to stream on HBO Max.