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Funny Games and the end of narrative

Michael Haneke’s blood-spattered parody-of-a-thriller unwittingly captures bourgeois European fears of ‘the American virus’.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!’ So Charles Baudelaire famously addressed the consumers of his volume of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, in 1857. This charge of hypocrisy captured something of the modernist dilemma, of the dependency of the artist upon those – les bourgeois – whose espoused values he detests. Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, their philistine consumption appeared as an affront to art itself.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, director of Hidden and The Piano Teacher, seems to sit firmly within this distinctly European tradition of épatez le bourgeois consumer-baiting. With his latest effort, Funny Games US, a virtually verbatim remake of his 1997 effort, Funny Games, Haneke takes his crusade against audience complacency into the perceived heartland of unthinking consumption: the United States of America. Indeed, as the original’s English title and curiously American-looking setting – despite being filmed in rural Austria – indicated, the USA was always the target of the film, both as cultural entity and audience.

Funny Games US opens with disconcerting calm: a Vivaldi opera serenades the journey of a wealthy middle-class family – Ann, George and their son Georgie – to their Long Island Beach House for a weekend of sailing and entertaining. But the classical music is not a score imposed from without. It is being played in the car as part of Ann and George’s ‘guess that tune’ classical music game. Inside the car, then, their world is perfectly ordered: the games that are played are played according to the family’s own rules.

The mood suddenly changes, however, as a discordant, thrash-punk John Zorn track breaks in upon the scene from without: the director’s score. It is an unsettling juxtaposition. While we’re still seeing the happy family symbolically cocooned within their car, enjoying their operettas and symphonies, we are now listening to something ugly, a violent aural testimony to the brutality of which they are oblivious.

The family’s car stops at the gate of their neighbours’ house and Ann shouts over to their friends Jean and Fred who are out in the garden. Their response is reticent, stilted even. And there’s something else, too: two teenage boys clad in tennis kit and wearing pristine white gloves are with them. Later, while George and Georgie are out sailing, one of these knowingly gauche boys, Peter, turns up at the door of the beach house to ask Ann, alone in the house, for some eggs. Ann kindly gives him some, which then, out of camera shot – like the violence it portends – he drops. He returns to ask for some more which, again, out of camera shot, he drops. The scene is immaculately executed. Although little visibly happens, the interaction is charged with an unspecified menace.

Increasingly upset, Ann urges Peter to leave. But he doesn’t. Instead, he is joined by his friend, the equally effete Paul, and the family’s torment begins in earnest. This, the family’s attempt to survive their teen captors’ reign of terror, makes up the main passage of the film.

In a sense, it sounds like a particularly disturbing psychological thriller, but a thriller nonetheless. This, however, is Michael Haneke: to thrill would be to pander to the audience’s craven desires. What Haneke offers, rather, is a ‘parody of a thriller’. Conventions are subverted, expectations thwarted. The audience is forced to think about what they might previously have enjoyed as an action thriller, to question the generic reality presented by mainstream Hollywood movies. This at least is the idea. As Haneke explained recently: ‘People don’t like to be confronted with reality. They like to be confronted with a consumable reality. Even the most brutal violence is shown in a way that you can consume it so that you are thrilled, not touched. I always try to find a way so that people are touched, too.’ (1)

In an interview from 2004, Haneke talks of his films addressing a great historical ‘crisis’, that is ‘our collective loss of reality and social disorientation…What we know of the world is little more than the mediated world, the image. We have no reality, but a derivative of reality, which is extremely dangerous, most certainly from a political standpoint but in a larger sense to our ability to have a palpable sense of the truth of everyday experience.’ (2) Hence he aspires to draw attention to the manner in which the masses’ experience of the world is mediated, to the fact that what we consume as second nature via the TV and films is merely one image of the truth.

Shock, or better still, the ‘estrangement effect’, becomes, for Haneke, a means of revelation. His objective is to shatter the audience’s unthinking agreement with the manufactured reality of the mass media. And in its own terms it works. Halfway through Funny Games US, when the family has been terrorised for hours and after something truly unspeakable has occurred, the inordinately drawn-out shot of a blood-spattered TV showing motor racing is distressing.

And the subsequent scene in which we watch Ann, bleeding and snotty, trying to free herself from the rope tied around her wrists and her legs, is painful – not because of its content, but because of the presumed tedium of its duration. It seems to go on forever, and it comes across as tedious in the sense that it resists the speed with which scenes are cut in the mainstream fodder that Haneke so despises. In this case, the viewer is not forced to confront the act’s exceptional violence, ‘gorno’-style. Indeed, the most violent acts in Funny Games US are heard but not seen; they take place out of shot. Instead, we must confront the pathetic banality of the aftermath of the violent act. Haneke is trying to show us the real, lived experience of extreme violence rather than what he considers to be the glossy version offered up in normal Hollywood fare.

But what does Haneke actually reveal? What is the ‘truth of everyday experience’ that the simulacra of mainstream culture is concealing? The answer, I would wager, is catastrophe. The carefully orchestrated sheen of his films, their elegant, extended takes, where characters seem stifled to the point of unreality, hints, in its essential sterility, at the end-of-man setting. Throughout Funny Games US, from the agonising politeness of Paul and Peter, to the inability of Ann to remember a prayer, there is a sense of a civilisation in ruins. It is submerged, Atlantis-like, beneath the apparent normalcy of the everyday. We have been alienated, Haneke seems to suggest, from the horror of our own alienation, estranged from the inhumanity of our relationships to others.

Whereas, in Haneke’s mind, mainstream culture reconciles us to a cosy, complacent version of reality, his films seek to restore to life the existential horror of living after the catastrophe, the guilt, if you like, of survival. No poetry after Auschwitz, declared Theodor Adorno. It is a sentiment to which Haneke might well agree. But, in this case, it is not the beauty of lyric poetry that would give the lie to barbarism, but narrative itself, from neat, life-affirming resolutions to the explicable motivations of characters. To George’s plea ‘enough’, Paul responds: ‘Do you think it’s enough? I mean, you want a real ending with plausible plot development.’ Haneke’s seeming war on narrative is also clear in the fact that Paul addresses the audience during the film, and even pauses and rewinds the action in order to thwart Ann’s attempts to fight back against her invaders. Here, Haneke makes the cinema audience itself complicit in the action; as Paul winks at us, he is effectively saying: ‘You are part of this. By sitting there watching this film, you are aiding and abetting its violent denouement.’ Indeed, Haneke has suggested that the proper moral response to his film is to walk out halfway through – if you don’t, you are an immoral person.

Haneke explains the reasons for this refusal to satisfy narrative demands in terms that echo those of Adorno: ‘In the German-speaking world, and in most of the rest of Europe, that type of straightforward storytelling, which the Nazis had made such use of, came to be viewed with distrust. The danger hidden in storytelling became clear – how easy it was to manipulate the crowd.’ (3)

In this sense, it would be a mistake to see Haneke’s films simply as an expression of disgust for les bourgeois, as represented by the complacent wealthy family and by their well-to-do, immaculately dressed tormentors. No, in arguing that storytelling itself can manipulate an audience, and instead presenting us with a story in which the audience’s presumed desires and failure to leave the auditorium play a role in pushing the film towards its terrible conclusion, Haneke is questioning rationality itself, and the ability of all of us to judge a story’s merits and worth and resist acting upon it in a violent or futile fashion. He has said of his characters Peter and Paul: ‘In a way they aren’t characters at all. They come out of the media.’ In short, they are the automaton products of our Americanised, mass-consumer, violence-glorifying society. Funny Games and its remake Funny Games US reveal at least as much about contemporary bourgeois European fears of ‘the American virus’ as they do about the end of narrative and the reality of media intrusion into our lives.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Michael Haneke: Interview, TimeOut London, 15 October 2007

(2) The world that is known – Michael Haneke, Kinoeye, 8 March 2004

(3) Master manipulator, Guardian, 31 March 2008

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