t all comes down to that first wink. About half an hour through Michael Haneke’s 1997 cause célèbre Funny Games, Paul (Arno Frisch), one of the two politely psychotic young home invaders who’ve taken a family captive, leads one of his victims to the yard and plays a cruel game with her as she looks for the carcass of the family dog that he has just clubbed to death. It’s a harrowing moment—the first truly repulsive act in a film that will be filled with them. And right then, Paul turns to the camera with the hint of a devious smile, in full-on close-up, and gives us a playful little wink.
How to interpret that wink? It is, of course, part of Haneke’s stated mission, expressed clearly in plenty of interviews since, to reveal the audience’s complicity in images of violence. The wink jars us out of our passive reverie, making us aware of our position as spectators, and as consumers. And Haneke has never shied away from admitting that we—the viewers—were always his true targets. “It was intended to be for a public of violence consumers in the English-speaking world,” the Austrian filmmaker explained in Filmmaker Magazine in 2008, speaking of the original in light of his English-language remake—it’s just that not enough people saw the first one. “A film can do nothing, but in the best case it can provoke so that some viewer makes his own thoughts about his own part in this international game of consuming violence, because it’s a big business.”
Seen in that light, Paul’s little wink, along with his subsequent asides, could be understood as a confrontation—a horrific prelude to the picture’s dismantling of bloody spectacle. But watch closely and you’ll see that the gesture also soothes us, at least a little bit. Because for all our high-minded ruminating about metatextuality and deconstruction, breaking the fourth wall is ultimately a device used by mainstream filmmakers as well as by postmodern provocateurs. (The works of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven, so popular around the time Haneke was making Funny Games, are replete with such self-aware tactics.) And like a true genre auteur, Haneke makes sure that Paul’s asides come almost always during, or right before, Funny Games’ most objectionable developments. He pulls us out of the film at precisely the moments when it threatens to become too disturbing to bear. In so doing, he seems to reassure us that it’s all just a movie.
The next time Paul turns to the camera is right after he has informed the family—Georg (Ulrich Mühe), Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son, Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski)—that he and his pal Peter (Frank Giering) will kill them within twelve hours. Mother and father both look at their terrified little boy and tenderly caress his small hands. Surely Haneke will not break the cinematic rule that you must never harm a child? Especially one as fresh-faced and innocent as this—that would be unthinkable. (But then, so was the death of the dog, another no-no in the bible of contemporary popular filmmaking.) Right after he informs the family of his murderous plans, Paul turns to us again. This time, he speaks to the audience: “What do you think?” he asks, casually. “You’re on their side, aren’t you?”
Are we, though? True, in genre efforts, the victims are usually the ones to whom we’re supposed to relate. We see ourselves in the particulars of their lives, and then, as the suspense plot kicks into gear, we recognize their anguish, and mull over what we might do under similar circumstances. And Funny Games does begin in such fashion, showing us the daily life of this seemingly ordinary upper-middle-class family as they arrive at their vacation house. As the suspense slowly kicks into gear, the growing identification between the audience and the protagonists functions smoothly: When Peter comes to ask Anna for eggs, “accidentally” breaks them, and refuses to leave, we feel her frustration and suspicion. Our nervousness and discomfort gather as Paul joins Peter and the two of them corner Anna, feigning the utmost politeness but quickly insinuating themselves into the home. And when Paul proceeds to kneecap Georg with a golf club, we will ideally find ourselves scared and outraged.
But as much as we may imagine that we’re aligned with the victims, Funny Games dares to suggest that the opposite is true. Even as Paul asks us if we are on the family’s side, through the very act of addressing us—not to mention his cheerfully conversational manner—he makes us his secret sharers. After all, we have come to watch a thriller, and the villains of Funny Games are our shock troops, there to do the audience’s bidding with just enough plausible deniability to let us continue with the fantasy that we have nothing to do with the horrors on-screen.
“If it sounds like Haneke is trying to have it both ways here—exposing our complicity while coddling our sensibilities—that’s because he is.”
If it sounds like Haneke is trying to have it both ways here—exposing our complicity while coddling our sensibilities—that’s because he is. But that, too, is in the spirit of the genre he’s simultaneously targeting and perfecting: violent thrillers always go through the motions of putting us on the side of their protagonists, even as they ultimately deliver on our not-so-secret desire to see those same people victimized, sometimes even killed.
When young Georgie is killed, Haneke again tips his hand in a way that lets us off the hook: this time, instead of a direct address to the camera, Paul wanders off into the kitchen while his sidekick, Peter, does the killing. We hear the offscreen shrieks while, on-screen, Paul casually makes himself a sandwich. While this moment does not technically break the fourth wall, it does function as something of an aside. And it’s one of the film’s most outrageous scenes—the nonchalance with which Paul prepares his sandwich is, in some ways, even more monstrous than what’s happening in the other room. But again, Haneke presents us with a stylistic indulgence that cuts both ways. For all its cruelty, this scene relieves us of actually witnessing the act itself.
Directors cutting away from graphic, disturbing images is, of course, nothing new, and Haneke is both following in and interrogating this tradition. He has cited directors like Tarantino and their savvy ability to edit around the violence, leaving everything to our imagination. To do it so openly, and brazenly, reveals the nature of the artifice, which is yet another way that Funny Games tickles and teases our most sadistic impulses. Because we are not shown the act, we are able to keep looking. Haneke wants to make an “unwatchable” film—one that disturbs us with its cruelty—but the only way to do that is to make a film that is supremely watchable, one that we cannot simply turn off, or leave. In this sense, the director is like a drug dealer who keeps plying us with just enough of his product to make us beg for more.
By stringing us along in this way, Haneke reveals the unnerving lie that governs the spectacle. For it is not the victims’ side that we are on but the perpetrators’. Without them, there is no suspense, there is no violence—there is no movie. As much as we are horrified at what is happening—and, assuming we’re not actual monsters, we should be horrified—Paul’s gleeful asides constantly pull us back to the truth of the matter, to the bloodlust that drives so much of modern filmmaking.
But if that were all there was to Funny Games, there wouldn’t be much of a film to talk about. For all his bold framing devices and metafictional indulgences, Haneke is not a mere pop-culture scold, here to tell us all the ways in which we are bad viewers (though he sometimes seems content to play this part in interviews). Funny Games may be simple and sadistic in conception, but it is complex and humanistic in its particulars. That’s why it works so well. The director is unusually attuned to the nuances of behavior, to the subtle shifts in power and affection that people experience in desperate circumstances. (This is also why his 2007 shot-for-shot English-language remake of Funny Games doesn’t quite succeed: working with different actors and in English, Haneke is unable to conjure a realistic, compelling family; they remain two-dimensional, and thus the cruelties inflicted on them never quite resonate.)
At the time that he broke out with the original Funny Games—most of his subsequent work would be produced in France, with bigger stars—Haneke was still making films for television, the medium in which he had started his career. These TV features were often adaptations, and quite different tonally from the movies that would later define him as a director. Though we can see some of his stylistic flourishes and thematic preoccupations in embryonic form in these early efforts, there’s also an intimacy, an obsessive attention to emotional detail that runs through them.
In a number of these titles, we find Haneke breaking down the briefest, most offhand interactions and ruminating on the forces that shaped them. In 1976’s Ingeborg Bachmann adaptation Three Paths to the Lake, he presents the story of a middle-aged woman joining her father at his lake house, where each exchange and gesture seems to open up new narrative pathways into her memories and past experiences. Haneke’s powerful 1993 film of Joseph Roth’s post–World War I drama The Rebellion is a genuinely humanist portrayal of a loyal amputee veteran’s unraveling in a society with increasingly little use for him.
In these early dramas, the nihilism about the cruelty of the world is there, but so, too, is a certain sincerity—a kind of warmth toward his protagonists, a desire to imagine their lives in full. This foregrounding of the human has never entirely gone away. Indeed, perhaps because of his reputation as a provocateur, Haneke does not get enough credit for his masterly understanding of psychology. An obsessive attention to the minutiae of individuals’ emotional lives is what fuels the panoramic narrative of Code Unknown (2000), for example. And it is the deep reserves of tenderness toward his subjects that give The Piano Teacher (2001) and, certainly, Amour (2012) such power.
You can see this in Funny Games, too, where the subtlety with which the family is drawn is overwhelmed and ultimately undone by the base, unreflective inner lives of the villains. The picture operates in two conflicting modes—the realistic and the generic. “I . . . try to build models in my films, but ones that are ‘filled with the world,’ where the effect is not just metaphorical but steeped in a verifiable reality,” Haneke told Film Comment in 2009, adding that “most film genres . . . offer prototypical modes of behavior that only interest me if I can reflect them as a filmmaker.”
“By denying us catharsis, the movie finally betrays the assumed pact a thriller makes with its audience.”
That helps to explain the unsettling mood of Funny Games, in which the “verifiable reality” of the family meets the “prototypical mode” of the villains, about whom we know nothing, and learn nothing. Paul and Peter offer up bogus backstories, which they themselves jokingly dismiss as lies. They have no pasts, nor much in the way of identities. We’re not even entirely sure what their names are. They often interact with their victims through a series of games, which adds an extra layer of cruelty to the proceedings but which also, importantly, reduces everything to binaries—“it” and “not it,” “hot” and “cold,” “winner” and “loser.”
By contrast, the portrayal of the family is quite realistic. Anna’s reaction to the two invaders goes from politeness to suspicion quickly, but Georg, arriving late on the scene, initially fails to understand her alarm. In his actions, we see the familiar figure of a man eager to avoid conflict. To some extent, he continues in that vein even after Paul beats his leg in with a golf club. Throughout Funny Games, Georg remains curiously subdued. In part, it’s because he’s wounded. But we also sense that he perhaps thinks he may eventually be able to reason with these lunatics, or at least buy his family some time. Anna, though no match physically for the two men, is far more resistant. She seems to understand, better than anybody else, that they cannot be dealt with rationally.
Part of the conflict in Funny Games is the subtle one between Anna and Georg, whose responses to this unprecedented and unexplainable attack on their lives differ sharply. But in each of their cases, we feel as if we’re watching a realistic response to a surrealistic problem. Mühe and Lothar’s performances convey real anguish, fear, indecision—an inner life shines behind their eyes. This attention to character detail may look like a waste, given what ultimately happens to these people, but it is, in fact, critical to Haneke’s project. Because the violence enacted on them is so absurd, the family itself has to be convincing. If we eventually see them only as objects, or as pawns, then Haneke will simply have achieved the very thing he’s trying to demolish—a movie that denies the complexity and value of human life.
And there is one group whose psychology Haneke understands even better than his characters’—his audience’s. Because the director does follow a conventional thriller structure to give us one big, graphic, visceral moment. Anna, late in the picture, grabs a shotgun and blows a hole in Peter’s chest. It’s hard not to feel as if the whole movie has been building up to this. Now Haneke doesn’t skimp on the on-screen bloodshed: Peter is tossed against the wall from the impact of the shot, like a true heavy. This plays like a cathartic action-flick climax—the kind designed to elicit an audience response. (Viewers reportedly applauded the shooting during the premiere at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, that supposed temple of refined spectatorship.)
And this is when Haneke pulls out his most outrageous fourth-wall-breaking tactic. Paul, stunned at what has just transpired, finds the TV remote, pauses Funny Games itself as if it were a video, and then rewinds the film, so that he can safely remove the shotgun right as Anna reaches for it. This, it turns out, is Funny Games’ true climax. If the it’s-only-a-movie-ness of it all was previously secretly reassuring, it now becomes enraging and tragic: it’s only a movie, so we can rewind and redo this scene.
This is perhaps Haneke’s slyest attack on the audience. Throughout Funny Games, he has been giving us what we want: suspense mixed with just enough self-awareness to keep us riveted. Whenever things would threaten to get too cruel, he would pull back the curtain a little, reminding us of the artifice. And for all its provocations, Funny Games has still continued to function as a genre film—a particularly ruthless one, but a genre film nonetheless. But by denying us catharsis at this point—or rather, giving it to us and then promptly yanking it away—the movie finally betrays the assumed pact a thriller makes with its audience. And it does so in a way that’s unusually discomfiting: it might be tempting to say that by redoing this scene, Paul assumes the role of filmmaker, but actually, in grabbing the remote and rewinding, he looks more like a viewer—in other words, one of us.
After this notorious rewind moment, we see the final murder, as the two men calmly take Anna out on a boat and push her into the water with a minimum of fuss, suspense, or drama. (Even a small knife that was left on the boat in close-up early on, as if it might become a narrative device that would gain greater importance later, is tossed away ever so casually.)
And what are they talking about as they kill her? They’re talking about seeing a film. Paul and Peter, we understand, are not just perpetrators but spectators as well. Have they become the audience, or were they the audience all along? Does it even matter? The final close-up, of Paul staring and smiling into the camera again as he prepares to attack his next victims, is no longer a confrontation. It is a reflection.