Michael Haneke, “Funny Games (English language version)” (2007)
Austrian director Michael Haneke originally had wanted to make “Funny Games” as an American film due to his belief that violence as entertainment was a peculiarly American phenomenon. Perhaps Haneke has not visited too many video arcades, DVD shops and multiplex movie cinemas in his native Austria or Germany next door, and the popularity of his original German-language “Funny Games” and its collection of various film awards would suggest he should reconsider his opinion. Anyway the director went ahead and remade his film about the upper middle class family on holiday being tormented, tortured and terminated by the two young psychopaths, one of whom makes an irritating habit of inviting the film’s audience to passively approve their activities. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play the roles of the hapless bourgeois couple Ann and George completely at the mercy of the two young squeaky-clean Ivy-League-preppy punks Peter (Michael Pitt) and Paul (Brady Corbet) who are no less vicious than their Austrian cousins. In spite of attempts to escape and to call for help, Ann, George and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are on a downward spiral from the moment they meet the polite young men, and the only thing the audience needs to worry about is how long the psycho pair take to dispose of their victims and how many Hollywood movie thriller conventions they break in doing so.
Now Haneke is a very good film-maker as can be seen from the way he generates and layers on the tension in a narrative that arises casually from an otherwise aimless holiday in the country. His style is sparing, quiet and low-key which emphasises the sheer horror of the casual and violent deaths that occur off-screen. The result is a film that seems too unreal, too formal and remote to resonate with its audience. In making Ann and George’s family upper-middle-class generic, Haneke errs in divesting them of the idiosyncrasies that could have made the three characters more human and the deaths they suffer more tragic. We do not know where Ann and George come from, we do not even know what they do for a living and why they are on holiday. Perhaps they have won the lottery and are celebrating, perhaps they have decided to make up after a long separation and getting away from the stresses of everyday life is their way of reconciling. There is no sense that before the film opens, they had a history; consequently the audience is primed not to feel any sympathy for their suffering. Likewise the young men who imprison and torture the family have no history other than torturing other middle class families and the film indicates that they will continue to do so; in spite of their stand-up comedy routine in which Peter teases Paul about his weight and Peter’s appeals to the audience, the duo are no more than robots programmed to play the same circuit of “funny games” each time they meet a new family.
Preoccupied with co-opting its audience as passive collaborators with its villains, and treating the victims as hopeless pampered bourgeois idiots reliant on technology that fails them and grasping at every straw that breaks, the film itself becomes as empty as its psychopathic pair who rampage across an unidentified rural community in an imagined middle class America. At least Lars von Trier in making his films about Americana had the excuse of fearing aeroplane flights. The film feels empty and hollow in making its message about pointless violence as it grinds relentlessly to its conclusion. The actors playing the villains have no chemistry between them and lack the necessary black humour that might have commented on people’s obsessions to cocoon themselves with technology and vacations away from the outside world. While Watts and Roth do all they can in their respective roles – it should be noted that Watts has been choosing roles of mothers in distress with unfailing predictability – the one-dimensional nature of their characters and the film reduce their emotional outpourings to banal gestures.
There is far more to remaking a film in a different language and in a foreign setting, even an avantgarde film like the original “Funny Games”. The cultural context of the film can have an impact that makes or breaks the new version. Violence in Hollywood movies is usually over-emphasised and over-stylised so as to make it seem hyper-real and it serves a purpose in building up and releasing emotion and tension in controlled ways that sensitise audiences to favour the films’ ulterior messages of obedience to authority as represented by police or the military, and the use of force and violence over negotiation and compromise to achieve objectives. Such morality as exists is whatever the wealthy and successful determine it to be and those who wish to strive for justice eventually have to adopt the same dog-eat-dog tactics merely to survive. Hence the need for film conventions such as allowing the victim a fair shot at getting even with his / her tormenters. Violence in Hollywood films does not serve as entertainment, it serves as a propaganda tool and this is what Haneke missed. Therefore what worked in the German film will not necessarily work in the American film and the remake of “Funny Games” ends up putting Haneke in much the same disturbing place as his villains: creepy and boringly repetitive.