Manners and Guilt: Audience Horror in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games remake.
by Greg Scorzo –
Upper middle class people are not simply the beneficiaries of economic inequality. They exist in a social context in which there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of the unjust nature of the very existence of an upper middle class. It is almost as if certain members of this class exhibit a peculiar kind of guilt; a guilt which manifests itself in an exaggerated politeness that appears more civil than ordinary etiquette. This civility, of course, is an illusion born out of defensiveness. It is an elaborate performance that aims to justify the money, property, and social status that the upper middle classes deserve no more than anyone else. Such etiquette is a way of saying, “I should have more than others because I am more refined, more sophisticated, and more considerate than those who have less than me.” It would be bigoted, of course, to assume any upper middle class person who happens to be polite is displaying this particular etiquette. It would, by the same token, be naive to deny that this etiquette exists.
When one understands how this etiquette functions, it ceases to put one at ease or generate comfort in social situations. It is horrifying. It is horrifying because this particular brand of politeness functions to psychologically justify the notion that class disparities are products of deservedness. Upper middle class etiquette literally makes people believe that the well off really do deserve more than everyone else. It is this belief which functions to exacerbate hostilities towards wealth redistribution, the expansion of social welfare states, and the poor itself. These hostilities create a world which reinforces financial and social inequality. It also reinforces the dependency of people on markets that do not distribute resources fairly or reward them for their hard work, creativity, or vision. Because we live with these social phenomena in the West, it is easy to forget just how unjust, pointless, and cruel they make the world. It is even easier to forget how horrifying the attitudes and behaviours are which make people sympathetic to these phenomena. This horror is the subject matter of Michael Haneke’s 2008 film, “Funny Games.”
“Funny Games” has a deceptively simple structure which gives it the appearance of a Hitchockian thriller. The film tells the story of an attractive, pampered, upper-middle class family (The Farbers) who visit a gated summer house to fish, play golf, and socialise with other business associates and their families. The family consists of father George (Tim Roth), mother Anne (Naomi Watts), and ten year old son Georgie (Devon Gearheart). Shortly after their arrival at the house, the family are greeted by two extremely polite, well dressed, and slightly effeminate young men in their late teens. They introduce themselves as Peter (Brady Corbitt) and Paul (Michael Pitt) and then proceed to play a series of sadistic games with the family. They first annoy, then harass, and then torture and humiliate the Farbers into a state of helpless acceptance before murdering them. Part of what makes this process so terrifying is the fact that throughout it, Peter and Paul exude the articulate manners of upper-middle class etiquette. Like good movie villains, Peter and Paul offer the family the brief possibility of escape at nearly every turn. Yet the family is essentially powerless to stop the plans of these two, who we eventually see have an omniscient quality that allows them to literally control the events of the film.
Funny Games, like classic Hitchcock films, presents the audience with suspenseful, nail biting scenarios. These scenarios wind up defying the audience’s expectations while increasing its psychological engagement with the story. The film uses expertly crafted cinematic devices to toy with the audience’s desires while simultaneously being terrifying.
The film is able to do this because of its intense emotions, powerful performances, and tightly controlled narrative. Unlike typical Hitchcockian thrillers that have similar audience effects, Funny Games has engendered a uniquely hostile reaction from critics. The main problem critics have with Funny Games is they believe it to be a film which condemns the audience for actually watching it.
Reviewer David Ansen accuses the film of “moralistic finger-wagging”, in which director Haneke “scolds us for lapping up what he’s serving.”1 Ansen also writes that Funny Games is an infuriating experience because “the relentless barrage of psychological and physical torture is extremely well made and performed.”2 Ansen believes that the heroic conviction with which Naomi Watts hurls herself into the physically demanding role of Anne actually makes the unpleasantness of Funny Games even worse than it would otherwise be.3 Reviewer Andrew L. Urban writes that, “The film is nothing more than an actors’ showcase and a hefty serving of Haneke’s self-indulgence,” because “the idea that Haneke is implicating the audience in his funny games of violence and torture to prove what decadent lovers of screen violence we are is nonsensical.”4 Urban then goes on to accuse Haneke of failing to see how audiences can tell the difference between screen violence and actual violence.5 For Urban, Haneke is guilty of hypocrisy in having created the very on-screen violence that Funny Games condemns.6
This interpretation of the film stems from the fact that Peter and Paul periodically address the camera and break the fourth wall of the film before and during their sadistic violations of the Farber family. Paul winks at the camera while Anne finds that the pair have beaten the family dog to death after politely borrowing George’s golf clubs. Later in the film, Paul also announces to the Farbers that he and Peter are going to play a game where they both bet that within 12 hours the entire family will be dead. As the family becomes frightened upon hearing the severity of Paul and Peter’s threats, Paul looks to the camera and addresses the audience. He says to us: “I mean, what do you think? Do you think they stand a chance? You’re on their side, aren’t you? Who are you betting on?” Later on when the Farbers have resigned themselves to their own impending deaths, Anne pleads to Peter, “Why don’t you just kill us?” Peter responds with a glib smile, “You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
Haneke’s own statements on his motivations for having made Funny Games are often used to support the general interpretation of the film as condemning its audience for watching it. Haneke has famously been quoted as saying that Funny Games is a “film you come to see if you need to see it. If you don’t need this movie, you will walk out before it’s over.”7 Haneke has also said that Funny Games is “a reaction to a certain American cinema, its violence, its naivete, the way American cinema toys with human beings.”8 For Haneke, Funny Games is a protest against the ways in which such American cinema can present violence without hurting the audience. “As an audience, you feel good about it. It’s almost like you got on a rollercoaster-it’s a thrill. In my films, what I’m trying to do is depict violence in such a way that it becomes reality again for the audience.”9 Perhaps the most controversial claim that Haneke has made on behalf of Funny Games is the oft quoted comment, “I want to rape the viewer into independence.”10
Haneke’s comments can certainly be interpreted as lending credence to the interpretation of Funny Games as a film that condemns its audience for watching it. However, there is an alternative way of interpreting his comments. One can interpret Haneke as having created a film which is designed not so much to condemn its audience as to present that audience with an authentic, uncompromising depiction of violence which is unpleasant because of what it illuminates. On this interpretation, the sarcasm and disdain displayed in Peter and Paul’s breaking of the fourth wall is not mere audience scolding. Rather, it establishes a line of communication with the audience that differentiates Funny Games from mainstream cinema. Mainstream cinema induces its audience to enjoy violence through its superficial treatment of that subject matter. This superficiality involves protecting the audience from the unpleasantness of violence. Such protection comes in conventional Hollywood cinema’s tendency to simultaneously entertain the audience and satisfy its desires in a way that feels more like a fun romp than an authentic presentation of violence’s horror. By contrast, Funny Games induces its audience to reflect on the horror of violence by forcing the audience to consider its own spectator position in relation to Funny Games.
This second way of interpreting Haneke is superior because it illuminates something about the film that the standard interpretation is silent about. Although Funny Games adorns the clothing of a Hitchockian thriller, Funny Games is not a thriller at all. Funny Games is a horror film. A thriller film is a film in which the characters are in suspenseful, tense situations and where their future safety and outcomes are uncertain.11 A horror film contains the suspense of the thriller but also adds a further element not present in the thriller. A horror film is designed not so much to thrill an audience as to force the audience to confront something abject. An abject phenomena is a phenomena that appears monstrous because it is both socially discarded and confuses our understanding of certain conceptual categories.12 Abject phenomena are the stock in trade of horror films. They include vampires, zombies, werewolves, and various supernatural phenomena. Abject phenomena can also include psychologically disturbed personalities such as violent psychopaths and sociopaths. The fundamental difference between a thriller and a horror film is a thriller may use an abject phenomena as a device to further the tension and suspense of the film’s plot. In a horror film, the tension and suspense is used to get the audience to experience the horror of the abject phenomena.
Funny Games wants its audience to be right where it is. This is so the film can expose the audience to two kinds of abject phenomena. The first abject phenomena is the horror of upper middle class politeness. The film powerfully exposes this horror in the way Peter and Paul sadistically mock upper crust etiquette. However, this mocking leads directly to the second abject phenomena Funny Games illuminates: the spectator role of the audience. When Peter and Paul sarcastically address the audience by breaking the fourth wall, the aim here is not to generate either a light hearted comedic effect or an expression of disapproval. This addressing of the audience is here to expose the audience as viewers who are complicit in what happens to the family. This is again, an aspect of the film that critics have largely interpreted as condemning the audience for watching Funny Games. This is a mistake.
What the fourth wall breaks expose is the horror of being in the Funny Games audience. This audience position is horrific because it demands that the audience become self-aware regarding its need to see bad things happen to fictional characters in order to experience Funny Games. After all, if the audience is steadfastly opposed to watching bad things happen to innocent fictional people, it won’t be able to watch Funny Games. In fact, it won’t be able to watch horror films, thrillers, and most other forms of cinema.
Despite this, the fourth wall breaks effectively create a sense of guilt in the audience. This guilt isn’t simply guilt over having an interest in watching a horror film. It’s a more confusing kind of guilt than that. The Funny Games audience can’t rationally feel guilty for choosing to watch a horror film because Funny Games uses the horror genre to make a political statement. The statement made by the film is that upper middle class manners are a performance designed to mask brutality and injustice. The Farbers use this mask in order to justify their own priviliged existence. Peter and Paul, in contrast, use this mask as a form of parody. Unlike the Farbers, Peter and Paul have no guilt about being seen as individuals who want to directly inflict brutal injustices on other humans. Yet they wear the mask of middle class politeness as an ironic joke. The joke illuminates that the brutality and injustice of Peter and Paul is inherently part of the politeness manners performed by the upper middle classes.
Nonetheless, Funny Games is also an attempt to make its audience aware of the close psychological connections between its ability to agree with this political statement and its ability to enjoy the very things this political statement rails against. This is the crux of the confusing audience guilt that Funny Games expertly induces in its audience. One can see how this guilt works most clearly when one considers that Haneke’s 2008 Funny Games is a shot for shot remake of his own Austrian version of the same film from 1997. Critics often claim that the 2008 version is inferior because it adds nothing new to the original and contains an attractive Hollywood movie star cast. The high attractiveness of Naomi Watts is often interpreted as a way that the 2008 version minimises some of the horror present in the 1997 version. According to this line of thought, the casting choice of Naomi Watts allows the audience to be titilated by the sexual and psychological brutality inflicted on her by Peter and Paul.13 The titillation then minimises the horror, purportedly cheapening the whole Funny Games experience. The problem with this attack on the 2008 version is it ignores the extent to which this audience titillation is actually adding a layer of depth not present in the original 1997 version. This depth comes about because of the specific guilt that the 2008 version creates in its audience.
In the original 1997 version, the Farbers were portrayed by Ulrich Muhe and Susan Lothar. Both actors are attractive, but not unusually stunning or glamorous as is the norm of a Hollywood film. The visual ordinariness of Muhe and Lothar gives the 1997 Farbers a relatability which inspires immediate empathy in the audience.
As the Farbers are brutalised and humiliated throughout the 1997 Funny Games, the reaction from the audience is one of sympathy and revulsion. It is ironically this sympathy and revulsion which minimises the horror of looking at a frightened mother being psychologically and sexually dominated by two men in front of her family. When one feels nothing but sympathy and revulsion at the oppression of another human being, one is simultaneously comforted by one’s own moral virtue. When the reaction of revulsion and sympathy is coupled with an awareness of eroticism, we are presented with a much more disturbing portrait of our own character. We are, in effect, confronted with the fact that we can understand the pleasures of the very oppression we simultaneously are revolted by.14
In experiencing not just the horror but the potential eroticism of cruelty, we are experiencing the potential amorality of our own psychological reactions to the world. There are few things more horrific than believing oneself to be moral while being forced to encounter our ability to imagine pleasure gained from doing something unbelievably nasty. This hypothetical sadism is the flip side of universal human empathy. In much the same way that we can imagine the pain of others, we can also imagine the joys of inflicting it.
No matter what level of moral virtue we attain as human beings, we still operate with a set of desires that are plastic enough to become expressions of benevolence or cruelty. In order for these desires to become expressions of benevolence, we must first be honest with ourselves about the limits of our moral virtue. Because we have an impossible to get rid of biological capacity for mischief and sadism, we can never be completely free of the ability to imagine having fun at the expense of others. Mischief, like eroticism, can be a warm expression of affection. Yet both mischief and eroticism can be inconsiderate, selfish and sadistic ways in which humans enjoy the thrill of dominating others. We may morally disapprove of the selfish and sadistic ways in which we have the capacity to enjoy these thrills. Nonetheless, we can never rid ourselves of the capacity to imagine the enjoyment of cruelty. As ethical human beings trying to attain competent, socially acceptable levels of moral virtue, this aspect of who we are is horrifying.
Funny Games does work to acquaint us with this element of our moral psychology by commenting on how mainstream cinema is normally dishonest in the way it also tries to grapple with it. Mainstream films allow us the voyeuristic thrill of watching others suffer. Yet those same films reassure us of our own moral virtue by allowing protagonists to either escape or get revenge on the very movie villains we get a mischievous (and sometimes erotic) thrill from watching. A conventional thriller will showcase a conventionally beautiful actress being brutalised by charismatic and very masculine male villains who she then can defeat while saving her family. We can be entertained by and enjoy the cruelty of the charismatic male villains because we know they will ultimately be defeated. We can enjoy the brutalisation of the attractive female lead because we know that she will ultimately be powerful and strong enough to defeat the male villains. We can assure ourselves that we are in the audience to watch a strong and clever woman become empowered in a difficult situation to save her family. The villains themselves will be stereotypically masculine, with big, broad shoulders, and strong bodies that normally fuck smaller-framed, traditionally beautiful women in pornographic media. All of these cinema cliches trigger the primal part of ourselves that has fun watching violence and the sexual domination of others. Here, we are in a confrontation with the darker side of who we are. Yet it’s a confrontation that winds up giving us ways to ignore or deny the darkness.
Haneke’s 2008 version of Funny Games subverts this tendency by deliberately removing or subverting the cliches which shield the audience from the full horror of their reactions to what is on the screen. In Funny Games, we do get an idyllic family tortured by charismatic bad guys. We also get a beautiful actress in the role of the strong and noble mother who shows an incredible amount of bravery and strength in fighting for her family. Unlike mainstream cinema, all of her efforts fail. Her husband George is completely ineffective and helpless like most men would actually be in such a situation. Anne is sexually humiliated in front of both George and her ten year old son Georgie. All three members of the family, throughout the running time, are harassed, brutalised, and then casually killed. It is the ten year old son who is killed first, being shot by Peter though the head. Parents Anne and George are forced to watch. Throughout all of this brutality, we never see any nudity or onscreen violence.
Worse yet, the two killers are charismatic without being particularly masculine. Peter and Paul look like two handsome, slightly effeminate teenagers who are terrifying because their manners are more dainty than aggressive; more boyish than grownup. By the logic of both Hollywood movies and heterosexual porn, Peter and Paul are visually neither potential brutalisers or potential lovers of women who look like Naomi Watts. In mainstream cinema, they are normally the sons or nephews of such women.
The lack of traditional masculinity in Peter and Paul is no coincidence. Rather, their dainty, boyish femininity is an attack on the Hollywood gender roles embodied by Anne and George’s nuclear family. However, Peter and Paul’s attack on Hollywood gender roles is not some progressive move towards combatting heteronormative conventions about who should get to have sex with a conventionally beautiful mother. Rather, it is part of an attack on all social roles. Because Peter and Paul represent the selfish pathology of upper middle class manners, they function so as to create social destabilisation. While this destabilisation winds up destroying some reactionary social roles, it is ultimately too destructive to replace them with anything positive. The roles disappear simply because the people who have internalised the roles are being systematically destroyed by Peter and Paul.
Here, the film is doing more than merely commenting on the vapid dishonesty of mainstream cinema that depicts violence. It is also holding a mirror to the psychology of an audience clever enough to understand the way the film comments on class politics. On the one hand, Funny Games is illustrating that middle class politeness is a mask for a horrific form of anti-social pathology. In this regard, the film is playing up to the progressive sympathies of the probably left-leaning fans of art cinema and director Michael Haneke. On the other hand, the film is acknowledging that even this audience is there to see bad things happen to the rich and beautiful Farbers. More importantly, the enactors of such carnage are two men normally seen as having less social and sexual power than the Farbers. As members of the Funny Games audience, this is also the position that we are in.
When Peter and Paul address us by breaking the fourth wall, they are sarcastically reminding us that a part of us is secretly thrilled by the domination of the Farbers. Because we can see that Funny Games is a critique of upper middle class manners, we can allow ourselves to initially enjoy and be titillated by the sexual and psychological domination of a family we envy. As the film continues and gets more and more disturbing, we are eventually repulsed and terrified by Peter and Paul. Yet we can’t stop watching them. The film finishes its running time with us in front of it. We remain captive to the film in part, because we want to see the Farbers triumph so that we can be rid of our audience guilt. Yet because we are watching a horror film in which the Farbers are the victims, we on some level gain satisfaction from watching two non-masculine male teens systematically destroy an older, richer, attractive, and idyllic gender typical family right before our eyes. Uncomfortably, these two young non-masculine men periodically turn to the camera to remind us of all of this. This exacerbates rather than relieves our audience guilt. It’s like staring into an unflattering but uncannily accurate photograph of our own moral psychology.
Funny Games still goes a step further than this. It doesn’t merely exacerbate our audience guilt. It reduces its entire narrative to an acknowledgement of that guilt in the film’s final act. In the final 15 minutes of the film, George and Ann have been reduced to bruised, beaten, and exhausted playthings for Peter and Paul. Both George and Anne have accepted the death of their son Georgie as well as their inability to evade Peter and Paul. Both are so brutalised that they are simply waiting in anticipation for their own deaths. Peter and Paul use this to their advantage and force George and Anne to play more games to see who can win in a sadistic competition for a less prolonged and painful death. While Paul is forcing Anne to recite prayers in exchange for quickly shooting (rather than slowly disemboweling) her husband, Anne gets a surprising opportunity. She manages to grab a shotgun from a nearby table and successfully shoot Peter in the chest while Paul isn’t paying attention. It seems as though Anne has finally gotten the familiar cinematic upper hand, giving the audience hope that she can stop the scary villains from murdering her and her family. However, Paul quickly grabs the remote control from a nearby sofa and literally rewinds the film to the point before Anne grabs the shotgun that enables her to shoot Peter. As the scene starts to re-play again, Paul grabs the shotgun before Anne can reach it. Instead of Anne shooting Peter, Paul instead shoots husband George in the head.
This strange cinematic omniscience on the part of Peter and Paul is a way that the film stops telling a story which is independent of what the film is directly saying to the audience. There is no reason, internal to the story, why Peter and Paul have this cinematic omniscience. The only reason they have it is that Funny Games wants its audience to know that the Funny Games plot is pre-determined from the outset. The two antagonists will win and the family will die. The idea that the Farbers have a chance against the onslaught created by Peter and Paul is an illusion. Yet rather than show this illusion by presenting failed attempts by Anne and George to escape, the film shows Anne beginning to succeed only to have Paul rewind the film again so that she can fail. At this point, Funny Games is no longer telling a story that the characters interrupt in order to address the audience. The story itself simply becomes a direct communication between the film-maker and audience. It is now Michael Haneke, rather than Peter and Paul, who are talking directly to us. With this scene, Haneke is telling us, “I know what you want from this film. I know you want me to absolve you of your guilt. Nonetheless, I am willing to stop telling a coherent story if that is what I have to do in order to prevent you from being able to absolve yourself of your guilt.”
Our guilt is horrific; it is as horrific as the horrors of middle class politeness that the film skillfully rubs our faces in. Funny Games wants us to experience the horror of middle class politeness and our role as viewers of Funny Games simultaneously. This is evidence of the lengths that Funny Games is willing to go in order not to be an example of upper middle class politeness.
It literally is rude in the way it presents us with an abject phenomena and then prevents us from viewing that phenomena at a comfortable and entertaining distance. When watching Funny Games, we can’t understand the horror of upper middle class politeness without also understanding horrific aspects of ourselves. Funny Games knows we are justified in condemning the vast inequality that the entitlement of the Farbers represents. Yet it also knows that we can’t help but understand the mischievous thrill that comes from dominating and oppressing such a family.
Here, Funny Games reminds us that behind every righteous and perhaps justifiable moral outrage is a lurking envy. Because this lurking envy is human, it is an envy that can express itself in violence, sadism, and cruelty. This is the human condition. The human sentiments that drive us towards equality are closely related to the envy impulses that express themselves in the ravaging of those we perceive as being unjustly entitled. Because of this, developing sound moral judgements is a matter of being at war with oneself. When we deny this element of who we are, we become complacent and vulnerable. Much like the Farbers.
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- Ansen, David. “A Rottweiler, Now in English.” Rev. of Funny Games. Newsweek [New York City] 8 Mar. 2008: n. pag. Newsweek. 13 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.newsweek.com/rottweiler-now-english-83715 .
- Urban, Andrew L. “FUNNY GAMES (2007).” Urban Cinefile. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=14767 .
- Collis, Clark. “‘Funny Games’: The Violent Truth.” com. N.p., 10 Mar. 2008. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20183048,00.html . Here, Haneke is interviewed by Clark Collis and responds that people will watch Funny Games until the conclusion of its running time if they need to when Collis asks Haneke if he has encouraged the audience to leave the film before it finishes.
- Jeffries, Stuart. “Master Manipulator.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 Mar. 2008. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/mar/31/austria .
- Ibid., Collis.
- Wray, John. “Minister of Fear.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2007. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/magazine/23haneke-t.html?ref=magazine
- Dirks, Tim. “Thriller and Suspense Films.” Thriller and Suspense Films. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.filmsite.org/thrillerfilms.html .
- Childers, Joseph W., and Gary Hentzi. 1995. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia UP, p. 1 Also see Kristeva, J. and Roudiez, L. S. 1982. Powers of horror. New York: Columbia University Press.
- For example of this, see Girl, Zombie Met. “Funny Games by Michael Haneke (2008) | Z ZONE.” Z ZONE. N.p., 10 Apr. 2008. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://zuriz.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/funny-games-by-michael-haneke-2008/ . Also see Orr, Christopher. “The New Republic.” New Republic. N.p., 14 Mar. 2008. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/the-movie-review-funny-games . Also see Wagner, Annie. “The Stranger.” On Screen by Brendan Kiley, Annie Wagner, Charles Mudede, Paul Constant and Annie Wagner. N.p., 13 Mar. 2008. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=532231 . Also see Frey, Mattias. “Michael Haneke.” Senses of Cinema RSS. N.p., Dec. 2010. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/michael-haneke/ .
- This audience effect is also created in the famous rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (Warner Brothers, 1971).