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.”
“By denying us catharsis, the movie finally betrays the assumed pact a thriller makes with its audience.”
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