Haneke is never too far from the perverse. Yet, while his films often shock and disturb his audience, this is rarely his aim. Haneke’s cinematic CV asks his audience to step back and reflect on the experiences of his characters as if they were their own. However, Funny Games is something of an exception. It involves its audience to the point at which they are considered a member of the cast.
The 1997 German language original was met with acclaim by the film critic community, while the 2007 English language remake received mostly disapproval. However, this contrast in their favour is unjustified; they are akin to one another in all but the language they are performed in. They contain the same threat, roughly the same camera angles and the dialogue is close to identical – only the occasional quirk of culture separates them. Perhaps this is the cunning of a lazy director but Haneke’s exact portrayal supports the idea of the audience as a member of the cast, because the problem with the original was not the film but its audience. The original film was intended to reach the film-goers who paid their money to see I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust et al in order to highlight the perversion behind their viewing preferences. Instead it reached the indie circuits of western cinemas, and hence Haneke’s decision for a Hollywood remake.
The story of Funny Games centres on an affluent family’s weekend trip to their second home on a picturesque lake. In the car, they play a game of guess the composer from playing a snippet of a piece from a classical CD collection. This pleasant and benign game stands in stark contrast to the games that are inflicted on them later in the film. Peter and Paul appear on their doorstep posing as guests of their neighbours but soon their intentions become clearer. They inflict their own game of a wager with the family as to whether the family will still be alive come morning.
It is intentional that the characters of Funny Games are one-dimensional. Haneke in interviews has described the pseudonymous aggressors, known officially as Peter and Paul but also as Tom and Jerry and Beavis and Butthead, as ‘artefacts’; they are archetypes of recurrent circus characters: Paul the omniscient white-faced clown and Peter the submissive but volatile fool. Paul is the hinge between the fictitious world within the film and the audience as a member of the cast. He communicates directly to the audience: he winks into the camera, after the sadistic games commence he asks ‘what do you think? You’re on their side aren’t you?’ and later he asks ‘we’re not at the end yet. Want another plot development?’
Haneke’s employment of this technique is to remind us that violence in cinema has only come about as a direct response to audiences’ predilections; they ask for this violence and it wouldn’t be there without their desire for it. Film-makers manipulate the populace who are curious of the sordid allure of splatter films and torture porn (those who are still poking the dead toad Michael Haneke: #1 – The Piano Teacher).
This technique of talking directly to the audience is known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’. ‘The wall’ begun as a theatrical term to describe the barrier between the world existing on stage, and the world inhabited by the audience; the actors could address each of the three sides of the theatre but not the fourth: the wall where the audience sat. Film-makers are artfully aware if they get too close to addressing the fourth wall because of the suggestion of a direct address to the camera. However, some pointedly manipulate the convention. Woody Allen is a popular exponent and indeed the technique is mostly used for comedic effect.
Haneke is not the first to break the wall to explore the primal impulses of man. Before him was the twentieth century playwright Antonin Artaud. Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ revolutionised theatre by turning the focus on to the audience. Like in Funny Games, his characters were artefacts to unlock his audiences’ subconscious. Through the use of sound and lighting he entirely immersed them so that they did not only think about the events unfolding on stage, but lived and felt them too.
Like Haneke, Artaud exposed the violent inclinations of his audience and was inspired by an identical motivation: his aversion to what he viewed to be commercial, inferior art. He saw these as conveying “torments, seductions and lusts before which we are nothing but peeping toms gratifying our cravings”. In contrast, Artaud’s theatre was a plague – toxic and barbaric but ultimately remedial and restorative. He believed that theatre and plagues shared the quality of social necessity; they brutally exposed and slaughtered but purified the ills of man. Once an audience member was exposed to their savage instincts, Artaud attempted to unify his characters with one another and with the audience so as to provide a mass cleansing of the spirit.
Haneke’s Funny Games gives his audience a similarly therapeutic release. The film-goers who have paid their money to see the Saw or Hostel series have been manipulated by the film-makers’ acute awareness of the baseness of man. Haneke attempts to cleanse these very same audiences by making them a complicit member of the aggressor troupe. So when the action lingers for eleven minutes over the death of a child, the audience realises the consequence of their appetite for violence through the unrelenting torment and suffering on the faces of the child’s parents.
Funny Games is uncomfortable viewing because it is an attack on the viewer; it is the cinematic translation of punishing a child for smoking by making them smoke three packets without interruption. It is hard to tell if Haneke’s strategy has been effective but perhaps film-censors’ interventions are beginning to become sensitive to charges of degradation levelled at film-makers, as illustrated by last week’s rejection of The Human Centipede 2 because of the ‘potentially obscene’ sexual violence it contains.