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Funny Games US (2007)
3rd Apr 08
Austrian cinematic provocateur Michael Haneke delivers a shot-by-shot remake of his 1997 film Funny Games, in which a bourgeois family are terrorised and tortured in their holiday home by two bored, jaded young men. The action is transposed to the US, but dialogue and narrative remain identical.
When the original Funny Games was released in 1997, the intentions of its director could not have been clearer. Michael Haneke’s early works – especially the bleak Benny’s Video about a young boy obsessed with violent movies – were preoccupied with the desensitizing effects of violence on society. In Funny Games that theme reached it apotheosis. More provocation than conventional cinematic thriller, this was a film with a simple clear intent; to provoke the viewer into testing and examining their own relationship with – and desire for – screen violence. “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film", Haneke opined on release, "and anyone who stays does."
It’s this brazen – and some might say patronizing – need to educate that is both the strength and weakness of the original film. A strength because Haneke actually delivered a brilliant piece of genre cinema to stand alongside other classic ‘home invasion’ films such as Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left. A weakness because regardless of its rug-pulling, post-modernist approach (including winks and asides to the audience from the ‘villains’ and a hugely contentious ‘rewind’ moment where a key character stops the action and winds it back for a different outcome) it never really convinced as a challenge to a mass audience supposedly inured to onscreen violence. How could it? A minor arthouse release at the time, it was actually seen by very few people.
Regardless of those flaws, what remains is a grim, partially effective intellectual exercise in meta-cinema that displays a ruthless, Kubrickian malice. It is also, dare I say it, enjoyable – albeit in a testing, anxious, exhilarating way.
So when Haneke announced he was to remake Funny Games and relocate it in the US, I was seriously intrigued. Particularly as Haneke’s more recent films have moved away from the cruder stance of his earlier works. Hidden and Code Unknown are masterpieces of restraint that ask ever more uncomfortable questions, implicating us in more subtle ways and exploring how we are all marked by violence in some way. What kind of funny game would he have in mind second time round, now that his vision has matured over a brilliant, provocative career?
And so it is that Haneke has played the most perverse trick of all. He’s only gone and done a Van Sant, albeit with his own rather than someone else’s material. A reworking down to the last drip of snot on the noses of it’s victims, Funny Games US is like a forensic recreation of a hideous act, where the only difference is that English-speaking actors play the roles.
The story, for those unfamiliar with the original, is simple. George and Anna and their young son Georgie are holidaying at their lakeside summer home. While George and the boy work on the family boat by the lake Anna is visited by two young men, Peter and Paul, who want to borrow some eggs. A seemingly normal situation soon turns sour when the eggs are broken and the young men refuse to leave without replacements, even when asked.
When George and his son return to the house the situation worsens. The men won’t leave and out of desperation George snaps and slaps Paul in the face. The eruption of physical violence that follows effectively allows Paul and Peter to hold the family captive, and torture them over the course of a day in the form of a series of ‘games’.
Considering an effective remake is always a thorny issue for any viewer of the original. Is Funny Games US a good remake? What even constitutes a ‘good’ remake? As a direct retooling of its source material it’s near-perfect – a virtual facsimile of the original. However, there are subtle variations in texture and performance. So, with comparisons being inevitable, let’s make some.
The immediate look of both versions is identical. The production crew used the blueprints from the 1997 original, and the set of the house in the remake has the same proportions. Framing and mise-en-scene are a mirror image of each other and the soundtrack too is replicated. Funny Games US carries the same sense of impending dread and anxiety as its original source (quite a feat if you’ve seen the first version and know what's coming). The close, claustrophobic framing in the moments of anxiety and unease followed by wide shots and long takes of aftermath moments also remains the same.
The key sequences – those drawn out, grimly anxious early moments, the initial demand for eggs from Peter, and the sudden swift attack from Paul with the golf club – are all present and correct. Importantly for those unfamiliar with the first film they all retain the same fascinating, hideous power.
Haneke has always been a brilliant director of intense, committed actors which makes his best films psychologically intense as well as emotionally rewarding. He’s committed to strong characterisation and instinctual character development, which also accounts for his ability to wring heart-stopping unease and suspense out of the everyday or mundane. Key to this is the believability of his actors and it’s here where some differences in the two versions shine through.
Brady Corbet as Peter is an eerie replica of his predecessor. Michael Pitt doesn’t have the wiry charisma and subtle menace of Arno Frisch in the original so instead plays Paul as a lissom Hampton’s cherub in court shoes. Tim Roth tries hard but inevitably can’t match Ulrich (The Lives of Others) Mühes’ subtle, pitiable performance and his accent is still distracting.
Naomi Watts though is, as ever, sensational. A brilliant, fearless performer, she essays a very different Anna to Susanne Lothar’s steely portrayal but is equally powerful. And is there a better woman at crying in contemporary cinema? She really is the titan of the tear duct.
Haneke's modus operandi is human cruelty, and of all his films this is perhaps the cruellest. He invites us to play the games, but rigs them from the start. The odds are stacked in favour of the aggressor(s), so the question is how much do we as spectators want to take part? In these unfunny games dogs are killed as opposed to coming to the rescue, people cry, scream or wet themselves from fear, escape routes and plans fail dismally and victims don’t miraculously recover from leg wounds to make daring escapes. There is no catharsis for the losers of this game - they die in great pain, alone. Those long agonising takes that follow the moments of devastation deny us even the chance to share the victim’s pain, to feel it.
It’s also a film built on contradictions – a violent film with almost no onscreen violence, a thriller that is actually an anti-thriller where people fail to make heroic decisions, a human drama that concentrates on the suffering of its doomed protagonists rather than any psychology behind the perpetrators. Perhaps its most radical proposition is that the threat comes from the bourgeoisie, not the margins of society. No matter how daring or radical Craven or Hooper’s films are/were, their criminals are all working-class or marginalised figures, addicts or crazies. Peter and Paul are cold, calculating pseudo intellectuals, rich idiots with a modicum of cleverness, justifying their immunity from the carnage with posturing and lazy philosophizing.
So why remake a film that has all this going on already? When an artist has a chance to revisit his work, you would expect some kind of revisionism or key changes. From Hitchcock to Mann, even the most exacting of filmmakers has seen an opportunity to refine an original vision. You could see this as an indication of the strength of Haneke’s self-belief (or indeed arrogance) that he feels that a film he made over ten years ago needs no reshaping whatsoever, that he’s simply happy as it is, and that it stands the test of time and changes or developments in his own journey as a director.
My initial suspicion was that Haneke was frustrated by the lack of coverage the original got outside of middle-class arthouse circles and wanted it seen more widely. A little online digging put some clarity on the situation. Despite its reputation (and a second life on DVD) the original made less than $6000 in the US. Haneke says he always intended the film to be seen by American audiences, so rather like a child who didn’t win the first time around he wants to play again, on a bigger scale.
To paraphrase Haneke’s quote from the original release, anyone who has seen the original really doesn't need the remake, everyone else can now choose which game to play. Perhaps it is best for audiences to play Funny Games US, and experience Haneke’s vision through the prism of an English language ‘movie’ rather than a European art film. From Peeping Tom onwards the invitation to think about our consumption and passive acceptance of screen violence has always been a game worth playing, even if it’s just for fun. Some recent horror films have had even sensible film commentators braying for the (self) censor, so perhaps the time is right for us to play again, if only to ask ourselves – particularly as horror fans – just why we like playing these games so much.