DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke
FEATURING: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski
PLOT: Held captive by two charming but very twisted psychopaths, a family tries to outwit them as they are forced to play sick parlor games.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Funny Games is a more substantial captive torment tale than most. It features enigmatic villains, and unconventional breaking of the fourth wall. At times parts of the plot are relayed from different points of view. But overall it is still a straight-forward psychological thriller, too conventional in structure and subject to be considered weird.
COMMENTS: With son Schorschi (Clapczynski) in tow, rich yuppies Ana and Georg (Lothar, Mühe) arrive at their vacation house on a remote mountain lake ready for a quiet summer of relaxation and solitude. And what better setting for it than a security gated compound in a security gated community where everyone minds his business and doesn’t come knocking unless invited?
Despite their hi-tech Maginot line of fortified privacy, Ana and Georg have no phone line to their house. Their only link to the outside world is Ana’s cell phone and she’s not prone to be careful with it. No matter. Nobody is planning on getting in touch with them, nor is anyone expecting contact from the couple for a few weeks. Or longer.
Of course, all of the security in the world is useless when one lowers the drawbridge to admit a Trojan Horse. Charming Peter, a guest of friends down the way, shows up to borrow some eggs, and of course Anna lets him right in. Peter accidentally destroys her phone, and then just can’t seem to leave.
Peter’s friend Paul arrives, and the next thing you know, the family watchdog is mysteriously dead. Now neither Peter nor Paul can seem to get out the door and go home. Georg. who had been out, returns and won’t listen to Ana’s assertion that the beguiling young men are trouble. One mustn’t be rude to guests. Georg discovers too late that he should have listened to wifey for a change. He meets the business end of one of his own golf clubs—with his knee. And a little help from Paul, of course.
Ever the gracious guests, Peter and Paul decide to stick around indefinitely to make sure their new hosts are content. They devise some rather unique parlor games to keep everybody occupied during their visit. After all, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
While there have been countless movies about the naive being held captive and tormented by the psychopathic, most such stories are redundant and sick in a gratuitous way. A little suspense is always nice, but not at the expense of seeing helpless victims tortured in the absence of any sort of thoughtful point or purpose. Surprisingly, with the setup to be just such a film, Funny Games manages to avoid the stereotype. It evolves into something that amounts to more than the sum of its components. Not that Funny Games is art. It isn’t. But it is formalist in a meaningfully dramatic way. In the case of Funny Games the form is terror.
Although Funny Games is not particularly gory, it is scary, edge of the seat material for the following reasons. The attackers are very clever, and so even though Ana and Georg are dumb, the viewer still cares about them. The two psychos holding them captive are smart enough to have tricked the viewer as well. For this reason the beholder never gives up on the hapless couple (trio to be precise, as Georg and Ana’s young son is stuck in this mess too.)
To add insult to injury, it’s their own fault that the family is in their predicament. Paul and Peter preyed on a natural human instinct: Georg and Ana didn’t want to seem rude. And neither do Paul and Peter, who are excruciatingly polite and proper throughout the encounter.
Furthermore, although the prognosis appears hopeless, we feel compelled to see what will happen. This is because we known or understand nothing regarding Paul and Peter’s background or motives. There is no way to know what it is that they are after, what they will do when they get it, or how far they will go to do so. They seem too clever and well- prepared to be senseless butchers. They have a well-conceived plan which they execute with great precision, so they must have a purpose. But what the devil is it?
Another captivating plot feature is that the incident unfolds like an automobile accident, from the point of view of the driver. Like any awful transportation mishap, the cause is the sum total of numerous factors and missteps. Once trouble occurs, it is too late to remedy it; one can only enumerate what should have been done differently. This amplifies the feeling of helplessness. When a car careens out of control, beyond any hope of recovery, everything slows down for the driver, who can only hang on and wonder how far he will go, what will he hit, and how much will it hurt.
Similarly, the viewer of Funny Games suffers a terrifying sense of helplessness because like the driver in the example, Ana and Georg are no longer in control. We wants to see them as the protagonists, and so we adopt their perspective.
But this is Paul and Peter’s game board. The audience realizes this when the pair blatantly and arrogantly break the fourth wall. Paul and Peter are in control, and the events have actually been presented from their perspective. This turnaround causes a disorienting effect and adds to the frightfulness. Although breaking the fourth wall is not new in horror movies, it is rare and unsettling. When it happens in Funny Games, the viewer comes to the stark realization that Paul and Peter have now taken him on board for the ride as well.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…tricked out with a number of Brechtian devices to catch audiences in a voyeuristic trance… Posing as a morally challenging work of art, the movie is a really a sophisticated act of cinematic sadism. You go to it at your own risk.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
Funny Games trailer