Today I watched a screening of Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) at a place called Sameheads, located in Berlin. My first thoughts are mixed, though the positive aspects are in the majority. There are definitely a few reasons to dislike some of the devices they used, but psychologically (within the narrative, from inside the story) it’s priceless. Also some dialogue parts are genius.
One of the rather regrettable things about Funny Games are probably protagonists’ direct appeals to the camera. I’m still not entirely sure why Haneke would do that (and only a few times, so that it does not become a significant something within the movie). To me it seems like a Bertolt Brecht move, an epic theatre thing that creates a diegetic distance to the internal drama. In my opinion this is something that is not only unnecessary but also distracts from what is important here: a gradual “progress” towards gross social rule violations all while retaining this politeness (as in adherence to social norms). I had to think of hypnosis and how certain suggestions are just being followed, also I don’t think the boys’ motivation was without purpose. I think their foremost premise, though not obviously based on any ethical values, is to challenge critical decisions and in this hindsight the family is losing due to its inability to adapt to extreme situations. They’ve been safe for too long.
I heard people comparing Funny Games to Saw, also known for torturing scenes. But the thing here is not torture itself, and also not a lesson that is being taught, it’s about the motivation to commit the torture. The bad guys in Funny Games are not following any outlined ethical guidelines, they just do it — hence the name, hence all the absurdity, hence the Why not?
As opposed to Saw with its semi-mysterious killer (who is mostly hiding in the background) the killers here are two polite boys who (almost) never overstep obvious social rules, such as politeness. These same social rules are getting exploited in the most obscene way possible. The bad guys never explicitly pose a threat, unlike the killer in Saw, until they do (i.e. until the situation escalates towards literal violence). They do enter the scene. Even though the killer in Saw also plays a game with his victims, turning violence and murder into something macabre and seemingly arbitrary (at least in its intensity), the kind of sadism involved in Funny Games, or its motivation, is different. In Saw, the suffering protagonists are being punished for something they did in the past, while in Funny Games there is no such (obvious) connection — it’s only about playing along. It’s not about following instructions, but rather about the desolate side of being embedded into conventions of communication. Funny Games doesn’t want to teach you anything. The movie almost makes a mockery of the act of violence, leaving it to the viewer to judge the ultimately inhuman deeds of the bad guys.
As opposed to Saw, Funny Games takes quite a long time to “warm up” for real, literal, physical brutality. Haneke shows more of an approaching threat, or a threat that boils under the surface for a while, until the literal things get unleashed. This makes Funny Games more of a pure(ly psychological) terror, rather than terror-horror mix that we get in Saw. For those who don’t know: Terror is the anticipation of something horrifying or torturing, while horror shows terror AND revulsion of its consequences (e.g. corpses, blood etc.).