‘Funny Games’ (1997) on TCM

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes films that confront and challenge his audiences. From his early films Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) to his Palm D’Or and Academy Award winning Amour (2012), he has used cinema to paint a portrait of humankind alienated in modern society, lacking in compassion at best and utterly amoral at worst.

Funny Games (1997), his fourth feature, couches those themes in the form of a horror film, but one in which he challenges expectations by twisting the conventions back in on themselves. The story follows a couple of painfully polite, insufferably smug frat boy-ish young men (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) in Bermuda shorts and white gloves who invade an innocent family’s holiday. What begins with juvenile horseplay quickly turns into a sadistic reign of terror with a lethal edge. The title itself is a provocation, a blackly satirical suggestion that it is all simply a game, something fun and humorous. “I try to give back to violence that what it truly is: pain, injury to another,” explained Haneke in an interview. “[T]he film isn’t about violence, it’s about the representation of violence in films and its reception in the media.”

The characters stop to wink at the audience, to implicate them with a conspiratorial smile, and even discuss their behavior in terms of horror movie conventions. Haneke directly comments on violence in cinema as entertainment by treating the experience as a home video, complete with a character rewinding the film itself for a do-over. It is self-reflexive and self-aware, but in a manner opposite of films like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), which played with conventions and familiarity of the genre to entertain and surprise audiences.

”The problem is not: how do I show violence,” wrote Haneke in the press notes to the film, ”but how do I show the viewer his own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?”

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