Directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Frank Giering, Arno Frisch, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Cristoph Bantzer. (1997, NR, 103 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 18, 1998
“Fiction is real,” offers one of the the young psychotics in Austrian moralist Michael Haneke's visceral meditation on violence and the media. “What you see in the movies is what you see literally.” That's the guiding principle behind Haneke's film, and though the argument is fatally flawed, the director nonetheless makes an astonishingly disturbing case that rivals that of Rémy Belvaux's Man Bites Dog in terms of the issues it raises and the frisson it engenders. Lothar and Mühe play upper-middle-class mother and father Anna and Georg, who, with their young son Georgie (Clapczynski), are on their way to their lakeside home for a summer vacation. On the way, Anna and George play a game of “name that composer” as their car passes through the idyllic Austrian scenery. Not long after the family arrives, and while Georg and son are putting the boat on the lake, a stocky young man -- Peter (Giering) -- knocks on the door and claims to be a friend of the neighbors. Could he perhaps borrow some eggs? Anna happily agrees, though when Peter clumsily drops not one but two handfuls of eggs and still demands more, she becomes disconcerted. Enter Peter's friend Paul (Frisch), who appears at the door and begins verbally tormenting Anna. Flustered and unable to make this disturbing duo in white tennis shorts and gloves leave, Anna is relieved to see Georg arrive from the lake. And just as suddenly as things began, they escalate, with Georg overpowered, and the family suddenly in jeopardy from a ravingly calm pair of madmen intent on playing out their “funny games.” Haneke, intent on exploring the nature of media violence, pulls zero punches with his story. Although much of the violence is committed off-screen, the horrific aftershocks are as unnerving as anything Oliver Stone or Wes Craven have shown us. As Peter and Paul, Giering and Frisch are utterly cold, utterly alien killers, devoid of normal personality, acting as a sort of universal template for random violence. Engaging their victims in brief conversational gambits, they offer up transparently false rationales for their behavior, as when Paul excuses Peter's actions by referring to him as “a spoiled child tormented by ennui and world weariness, weighed down by the void of existence.” It's all so much psychobabble, and Haneke, knowing this, has Paul turn and wink at the camera. What, then, is Haneke's point? Funny Games is a firestarter for post-screening arguments, alight with ghastly images and actions, and essayed by a spot-on cast and storyline that flows seamlessly from one nightmarish incident to the next. It's an uncomfortable, distressing, and altogether provocative take on the global culture of media violence that not only draws in hapless viewers, but also forces them into fait-accompli acceptance, like it or not. Take notes, you will be discussing this one later.