The American Society of Cinematographers

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Superman Returns
DVD Playback
The Passenger
Funny Games
Post Focus
ASC Close-Up
Funny Games (1997)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Kino Video

If you’re the sort of moviegoer who has a lurid fascination for violent films, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has a stern lecture in store for you in Funny Games.

The film begins innocently enough, as an SUV carrying a well-heeled married couple and their young son snakes through the Austrian countryside to a perfect lakefront summer home. But in the first of many blindside hits, this placid image is overlaid with atonal, downright evil music (composed by avant-garde musician John Zorn) that bluntly portends the severity of the next 104 minutes. It’s almost as though Haneke, one of contemporary cinema’s most cunning tacticians, is sending out a warning to the viewer.

Upon settling into the house, the family is visited by two clean-cut young men (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) who are clad in tennis whites and, curiously, white gloves. After asking to borrow a few eggs on behalf of some neighbors, the men proceed to terrorize the family psychologically and physically, for no apparent reason beyond their own amusement. What makes the film most unsettling is the weird disconnect between the jauntiness and good cheer of the assailants, who could be characters in a light comedy, and the incredibly convincing terror of the family members. Holding these two diametrically opposing tones together is Haneke’s icy directorial precision. Agonizingly long takes, judicious edits, and a neutral visual perspective offer the viewer no relief from the family’s ordeal, while the soft-lit, almost antiseptic look of the cinematography by Jürgen Jürges, BVK augments the palpable unease. (Unfortunately, Jürges’ work has been given short shrift in this soft, muddy transfer.) Unlike a “conventionally entertaining” horror movie or thriller — a concept that must make Haneke break out in hives — most of Funny Games transpires in bright, unforgiving light while the actual violence occurs mostly offscreen.

As the film goes on, the viewer comes to realize he is being toyed with as cruelly as the family onscreen. The two assailants wink at the camera, directly address the viewer, and, in one particularly shocking moment, use a TV remote control to rewind the action when one of the family members unexpectedly turns the tables on them. By breaking down the fourth wall, Haneke aims to make the audience complicit in the violence by directly confronting us: why, he asks, would you want to watch this? At one point, the mother (Susanne Lothar) asks one of the interlopers why he doesn’t simply kill them, as it’s clear that the proceedings will not have a happy ending. “Don’t forget the entertainment value,” he replies. “We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.”

Since receiving a notoriously divided reception at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Funny Games has become something of a cult classic. In English-speaking countries, the film has even gone on to score considerable DVD sales, a fact Haneke notes with no small irony in a fascinating 18-minute interview included on this DVD (the disc’s lone substantive supplement). One of this reviewer’s first reactions upon encountering Funny Games was intense curiosity about what kind of person could come up with such a diabolical piece of work, but Haneke seems like the most normal chap in the world, with an easy laugh and some very keen philosophical insights on just what he was getting at with Funny Games. Of the film’s two mild-mannered but deeply aberrant assailants, who certainly rank among the most disturbing characters in film history, Haneke explains, “They make fun of all the rules that exist to keep society running. They don’t care. You don’t stand a chance when you’re faced with a character like that. [The shock is in] the anxiety of being faced with someone who doesn’t react at all the way you’re supposed to in this society, where you respect the ‘untouchability’ of other individuals. That’s a fundamental trust, and if you’ve lost that, you’re truly lost.”

Haneke also sees the extreme nature of Funny Games as a sort of litmus test for viewers. “I’ve always said that it’s a film you watch if you need this film. If you don’t need it, you go away. If someone stays until the end, he needs to be tortured during that time to understand. It seems hypocritical to me for someone to watch the film to the end and afterwards protest, ‘You can’t do that!’ I say, ‘Then why did you stay?’”

Funny Games is the third installment of Haneke’s “emotional glaciation” trilogy, which comprises films concerned with the intersection of media, alienation and violence. The first two pictures, The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny’s Video (1992), have also been released on DVD by Kino; both feature interviews with Haneke. Kino has also released 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Haneke’s 1994 meditation on the effects of television. These films are sold separately and as part of the boxed set Four Films by Michael Haneke.

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