Funny Games U.S. Review
If there was certainly some scepticism about the idea of Michael Haneke remaking his own film Funny Games for a US audience, that scepticism soon turned to bewilderment when the new film revealed no new twist on proceedings, no significant updating of the material, but remained scene-for-scene and shot-for-shot identical to the original, only this time with new actors speaking in the English language rather than the original’s German. A tense thriller about a middle-class family held captive at their holiday home and tortured by a couple of sadistic youths, only belatedly revealing itself to actually be a commentary on how violence is exploited for cheap thrills on the screen, the Austrian director evidently felt that such a message would have more meaning and purpose directed at a modern US cinema audience, a wider audience that would never have been able to see the original. With cheap and not-so-cheap horror, stalker, slasher and torture films being churned out by the Hollywood industry at an alarming rate, Haneke could justifiably claim that the message of Funny Games was even more relevant today, and even more relevant to an American audience badly in need of a lesson in cinema.
Surprisingly, Michael Haneke failed to see the arrogance in maintaining such a stance, or perhaps it’s not so surprising in the light of the unfortunate tendency to preach to the viewer that was becoming increasingly evident in the director’s work. Before embarking on a remake of Funny Games Haneke had just seen the release of his latest film Caché (Hidden), a film that adopted the very same holier-than-thou attitude with regard to Western imperialism, and had seen it treated with almost universal acclaim from liberal press and critics keen to distance themselves from any personal culpability for the hidden actions of their governments and the dark undercurrent of racism in the general public. Having gotten away with it there through nothing more than insinuation and vague allusion, leaving it to the conscience of the viewer to do his hand-wringing for him, and even seeing a prominent American director, Ron Howard, wanting to do an American remake of the film from a US viewpoint, Haneke presumably felt that there was no reason why he couldn’t do the same with his earlier exercise in cinematic moralising.
There are a number of ways that Michael Haneke could have approached a remake of Funny Games. The direction that he was going in with Caché may have suggested an updating of the material, the director expanding Funny Games’ exploration of our relationship with violent imagery on the screen to take in the pervasiveness of such imagery in society that had become even greater since the making of the original film, and extending it to show the connections that may exist between viewing such material for entertainment in the cinema and watching it for real on the Internet, on YouTube and on news reports of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. That would not be an easy correlation to draw, but Haneke hasn’t been beyond making similar allusions and leaving it up to the viewer to make those tenuous connections in films such as 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance, Benny’s Video, Code Unknown and Caché, so there’s no reason to believe that he couldn’t have done the same with Funny Games U.S.. Haneke however believed that no such updating of the material was necessary. His original film said everything he wanted to say about violence on the screen and - although the lecture wasn’t universally appreciated even then – the film did indeed make quite an impact, so clearly there was no reason to change anything.
The thing is, despite its rather patronising tone, Funny Games in both its old and new incarnation, is indeed a fine lesson in cinema, if a somewhat problematic one, and the problem lies in its intent. In the same way that Caché ended-up preaching to the converted, giving its middle-class audience a little puzzle to play around with, mildly chiding them for their indifference and then leaving them with nothing more productive to do to address the issues raised than intellectualise about it, so too the problem of Funny Games U.S. is that it completely misses its intended audience if it is to have any impact whatsoever. If indeed the audience Haneke really intended to reach was the mainstream cinema multiplex popcorn-muncher fed on a side dish of blood, gore and violence rather than the arthouse theatres that it was actually largely consigned too, then either there was some kind of communication breakdown between the executives marketing and distributing the film or, more likely, Haneke never intended to reach them in the first place. Or perhaps the director is completely out of touch with who he thinks his audience is and what they expect to see in his films if he seriously believes that the average cinemagoer is going to appreciate being lectured and criticised for their taste in films, an audience that ironically has paid to see a Michael Haneke film and not Saw III.
If the ideology and marketing behind the film is somewhat unsound, and there is an unfortunate note of condescension in Funny Games U.S., it’s perhaps nothing compared to the hint of hypocrisy that is also attached to the film. Haneke is not beyond using violence as a lure and attraction in his own films, using it to create and have a specific impact upon the viewer, no more so than in the original Funny Games. The original film however, being addressed to an arthouse audience rather than a mainstream audience, somehow seemed to be more honest in its intentions, showing – and showing quite brilliantly, with precision and quite a degree of insight – just how easy it was for a skilled filmmaker to push buttons and elicit a specific response out of his audience through exploiting their fascination with violence and the moving image and then – by pulling out the rug in the film’s famous twist – showing that it’s not real and that we’re only watching a movie. It was like a lesson in cinema, directed towards an audience who were not complicit in the guilt of getting an illicit thrill out of the torture scenes, but appreciative of the observations the film was making.
By remaking the film for a US audience and specifically claiming that it is with the intention of showing American cinemagoers how bad they are for watching such films, Haneke removes the pretext of the Funny Games being anything more than a fascinating and often brilliant intellectual exercise in filmmaking and in the process destroys the only thing that made it valid in the first place. By directing it at a specific European arthouse audience, the original Funny Games seemed honest in its intent to create debate on the subject of violence in cinema (although even there certainly not everyone agreed that it succeeded). Remaking the film specifically for a US audience with the avowed intention of educating and even berating the multiplex masses for their "sin" of enjoying dumb horror films (which they watch fully in the knowledge that is not real), seems to me to rather patronising, misguided and a petty concern, one that fails to address the issue of what the viewers do after witnessing such "horrors". If on the other hand Michael Haneke wants to make the case that there is some connection between watching make-believe violence on the screen and it having more serious real-world consequences, then the discrepancy between the fundamentally flawed medium by which he puts his message across (it’s not real and shows itself to be not real) and the audience he actually reaches seriously undermines the validity of his approach.
Funny Games US is released on DVD in the UK by Halcyon Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The image is just a little bit soft, showing fine grain, but that would be in keeping with the normal aesthetic in a Michael Haneke film and the DVD seems to handle it well. Tones and colouration are mostly fine and reasonable detail can be seen with only one or two minor flecks on the print. There is some slight chroma discolouration, only really noticeable as blotchiness in skin tones and in faintly yellowish skies. The progressive transfer is presented anamorphically at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks stable throughout.
There are three audio mixes included here, which is more than is strictly necessary on a Michael Haneke film. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is sufficient and not greatly different from the Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 options. Apart from the use of birds and crickets for background ambience, the soundtrack isn’t called on for much more than effectively putting across the dialogue and tense pauses. It does that just fine, although the dialogue is fairly flat and lacking in dynamic, but that’s how it’s delivered by the cast and how it’s usually presented.
English subtitles are included and are optional in a clear white font.
There’s not a lot on the way of extra features, but you’d be expecting a bit much if you’re looking for a Michael Haneke commentary or even deleted scenes in a film that is designed not to have any superfluous material. Even in interviews, Haneke tries not to give away too much, but he always has a lot of interest to say and that’s the case here in the extensive Michael Haneke Interview (36:43). His views on the intent of the film are kept to a minimum, it dealing with "the pornography of violence one is confronted with on a daily basis", but he explains his decision to remake it identical to the original and the differences between shooting a relatively smaller European film and a US movie with 130 people where "maybe five actually work". There are other probing questions on the director’s attitude towards his own themes and filmmaking in general, and Haneke always provides broad, inclusive answers, only meandering later in the interview on the subject of craftsmanship. Four Trailers and TV spots are included, each of them clearly misrepresenting the film, but in a good way, although the black comedy version 'A Users Guide To Home Invasion' doesn’t really work.
Michael Haneke’s approach to Funny Games U.S. seems to be fundamentally flawed and misconceived. No matter which way you look at it, there seems to be no reason for its existence. From the point of view of those who have seen the original, the remake adds nothing new. Funny Games is not a film that benefits from repeated viewing. If you’ve seen it once, you’re unlikely to want to see it again. In fact, the whole point of the film was arguably to tell you to stop watching it NOW. That point made, there is nothing to be gained in repeating the experience, and the film loses a lot of the tension and surprise of the original when you’ve already absorbed its heavy-handed though effectively made point. Evidently however, Funny Games U.S. was not made for an international arthouse audience who has already seen it, but for a very specific American audience fed on a diet of Hollywood slasher films, an audience who would not have had the opportunity to see the original Austrian film. Essentially then, the film is the same one, remade scene for scene, shot for shot, blow by blow, only using new English-speaking performers. So why does Funny Games U.S. fail to reach its mark?
Remarkably, and pretty much uniquely in my experience, the problem seems to be a matter of intent. Made for an international cinema-literate audience a decade ago as a deconstruction of on-screen violence, the original Funny Games is a brilliant and controversial exercise in filmmaking. Remaking it in a manner identical to the original and trying to claim that it has an important message now for U.S. audiences is misleading and misguided. Cinema has moved on, the depiction of violence on the screen has changed enormously since the original version of Funny Games was made and, more pertinently, the real world has moved on. When non-simulated violence, torture and execution videos can be circulated and viewed by anyone on the Internet, Michael Haneke’s petty concerns about the dangers of make-believe horror movies and their impact on the viewer and society now seem terribly, terribly irrelevant.