DIRECTED BYMichael 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.

Still from Funny Games (1997)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTFunny 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.


“…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

6 thoughts on “CAPSULE: FUNNY GAMES (1997)”

  1. I loathed this movie.

    The late ’90s experienced a resurgence in stylized hyper-violence, due in no small part to Tarantino. Funny Games was Haneke’s supposed anti-venom to this trend, and it’s why I hated this movie.

    Haneke is constantly trying to indict the viewer for wishing to watch torture. All those nodding winks to the camera are trying to say we, the viewers, are here to see suffering. And how dare we?

    Except, that’s not why I watch movies. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a bit of the old ultra-violence and the extremities of the human condition as much as the next person. But torture is not the entirety of the point. Haneke tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by creating a film solely dedicated to torture and then lambasting the viewer for watching it. Thanks, Haneke, I was a teenager full of righteous indignation at one point as well.

    Of course, ten years later, a new crop of torture films such as Hostel and Saw showed up. I guess that’s why Haneke felt compelled to re-film his movie in English?

    But compare this film to something like Fargo, which treads much of the same territory, but has much more going for it. Funny Games is Haneke’s juvenilia, much less than it thinks it is.

    1. Personally, I don’t feel intimidated by Haneke. I do not get the feeling that his intention is to scold the viewer for wanting to watch this violent film.Quite the contrary, Hanke tells it how it is.
      There are psychopaths out there, whose idea of having a good time is by torturing to death
      animals and people .Equally, there are people out there, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes this film so disturbing, is the fact that, just about anybody can fall prey to a psychopath. Psychopaths are extremely good at using their charm and at acting normally, thereby taking in people’s confidence. There are films like this one being made all the time, only Haneke is one of those few talented directors, who, with an equally talented and skilful cast and crew, can work wonders and keep an audience gripped on the edge of their seats literally, for the entire duration of the film.

  2. Re “…that’s not why I watch movies.”

    That’s not why I watch movies either, Mofo Rising, I couldn’t care less that Haneke incorporated the observation that some people watch violent movies out a sense of vicarious cruelty, because it wasn’t directed at me.

    I didn’t know what the movie was about going into it and I stuck with it to see where Haneke would take the idea. While the director did make the criticism, I contest any assertion that it was made against everyone viewing his film, or that it was the sole purpose of the picture. I question whether the director was “lambasting” these viewers because I never got the feeling that he was rubbing anyone’s nose in it. Given the number of mouth breathers in any theater audience, I wonder if many viewers even picked up on the fact that Haneke made this joke on them.

    I liked the movie for other reasons: I found the articulate, clever psychopaths engrossing. I thought it was interesting the way they maintained an air tight grip over the situation, the way they exploited psychology to ensnare their victims, as well as the irony that the victims’ own security measures wound up working against them.

    Given the fact that I must frequently swallow a healthy dose of clichés, trite contrivances, happy endings and other tripe that makes me gag when I watch a movie, I was just grateful to find something that was reasonably well made. At least Haneke’s gimmick was thoughtful. I an willing to forgive it.

  3. As I have been rather engrossed in minimalist concept films recently, I must say i love this one. I watched it 10 years ago or so and thought it was tripe. Watching it again, I found it engrossing, intense, and well…brilliant, given the era of Tarantino in which it was released. Ultra-violence has different levels. What makes this movie special is the brutality that it conveys but never shows. Aside from the distracting “too-short” white shorts the skinny dude wears, this film brings home everything i want to see when watching a film of this type…anguish; and the devastation and magnitude of what life can bring no matter who you are. Haneke is one of the great modern directors (Cache is good too, but admittedly maybe a bit too minimal to be entertaining for most). I lump him into the same arena as Nicolas Winding-Refn (much more visually extravagant) and Lars von Trier (spirally into some sort of maddening controversial abyss that I think may trump his talent). One negative complaint is why Haneke did have to succumb to American movie-going ignorance and re-make this so English slobber-mongrels didn’t have to read………………………okay, two complaints; the whole breaking of the fourth wall was really unneccessary here. Even though it was not frequent, it was a mere detractor and lessened the impact of the horror. I’ve read that Haneke did not want to catergorize this as a horror film, but my god, what else would you call it? Anyway, excellent film and I’m glad I gave it another shot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *