“Should we enjoy being manipulated?”
Funny Games is less a work of art (an experience) than a statement. As such, its experiential values are hardly relevant, and the fact that it is a shot-by-shot remake – the subject of many critics’ complaints – matters little. Michael Haneke first made this statement in 1997, in Austria, in the German language; the new version is made in 2007, in America, in English. In these ten years, looking only at the U.S., 9/11 happened and a “war on terror” was declared. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq. The cultural landscape for the rest of the world, America especially, has changed vastly, and movies reflect this change; many American movies are now filled with paranoia (the same paranoia that gripped American film during World War II and the Cold War); America has always exorcised this fear of the alien Other in movies, and now this fear has found a new target.
It is significant that Haneke chose to change little from his original version. It is not artistic hubris; it is reasserting the same statement in a different political context. The fact that the problem he pointed out ten years ago is still prevalent in movies now – maybe even more so – is worth thinking over. The original Austrian Funny Games now seems a little ahead of its time – it was in the wrong language, and it came out in the wrong social context. Now, with Hollywood ahead of itself making political movies as entertainment, the need to examine the manipulation used in movies is more relevant than ever. If the message of Funny Games seems more relevant now, it is only because nobody was listening the first time round.
It is interesting how personally American critics have taken this new version of Funny Games. Most criticize it, under their sarcastic puns, as another anti-America rant by yet another America-hating foreigner. Some attack it as being over-didactic, forcing a message down the audience’s throat. Almost all agree that the best way for the audience to learn its message is to boycott it completely.
It is tempting to dismiss Funny Games because of its message; the film bears it so overtly that it’s impossible to ignore. But it is interesting that while Haneke is criticized for this, critics hail other “manipulative” masters like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Spielberg because they manipulate for entertainment’s sake. If Funny Games were manipulative but its message were hidden under a layer of suspense – like, say, Steven Spielberg’s Munich or even last year’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – I wonder how critics would respond. Would everyone praise Haneke for delivering white-knuckled suspense? Indeed, I don’t see any of the messages in these films being addressed among the critical community. Is it because the critics agree with the messages behind these films? Or is it because Haneke points out the hypocrisy of enjoying the films without thinking of their messages?
Critics who see Funny Games as deploring violent movies often deride it for using evil to criticize evil. I would point out, however, that in the film there is a conscious intention to exclude violence and nudity in the frame. Haneke refuses to play to the expectations of an audience that wants to see a violent movie (which is, no doubt, the audience being targeted by the film’s marketers), providing tension (manipulation) but not delivering the goods. A comparison with recent horror movies like Eli Roth’s 2005 Hostel is useful. Roth’s film displays maximum gore for those who seek it, but little psychological tension; it has a potent underlying xenophobia that is kept only as subtext. All of this seems to be the opposite of Funny Games, which, like Hostel, some critics call “torture porn.” Isn’t it significant, then, that Hostel was made after the original Funny Games? That the original film, if it was indeed a statement against violent movies, was completely ignored?
The most significant question explored in the movie (both versions) is not the evil of violent movies, but rather the audience’s willingness to be manipulated. I find it ironic that audiences are so eager to be manipulated, and yet when a film makes the manipulation its text, instead of its subtext, it is criticized for being too didactic. Funny Games is no more a message film than many other Hollywood films.
There are several conscious levels of manipulation in Funny Games, of which only the first two are synonymous with other thrillers/horror movies.
1. The premise of the plot. By bringing the family to the summer house, by having the two killers already there with their neighbors, Haneke is already setting the stage for violence and torture. To this extent, he is still playing to expectations of the audience who paid for the movie on the promise that people would get tortured, maybe killed.
2. Mise-en-scène. There is a scene in the beginning of the film, after Peter (Grady Corbett) momentarily leaves, when Anne (Naomi Watts) reaches for a kitchen cloth beside her to rub the water off her dress. It was especially memorable for me because it made me think: why was there a cloth placed so conveniently near her, so that the camera would not have to reframe when she reached for the cloth? Haneke’s manipulation through mise-en-scène only becomes more direct in the scenes where violent acts are committed.
3. Haneke’s refusal to give in to expectations. It is during the violent scenes that we become aware of Haneke’s manipulation: his refusal to manipulate is a form of manipulation in itself. Thrillers/horror movies play to two basic human needs –schadenfreude and catharsis. The camera always pans away or cuts away or stays on a single shot where the violence is unseen, denying us the pleasure of observing other people’s misfortune (the pleasure that gore movies like Hostel depend on). There is a single scene where actual violence is shown: when Anne turns the rifle on Peter, blasting him onto the wall. This single moment of catharsis is so significant that people often cheer at it, but Haneke makes Paul (Michael Pitt) reverse this sequence by rewinding it with the remote control – this is Hitchcock for the digital age. This denies the catharsis so needed for the audience exhausted by tension, and, in Haneke’s own words, forces them to consider the implications of murder. By subverting the audience’s wants and needs, Haneke holds up the mirror on himself. It is a manipulation that forces the audience to contemplate his own manipulation – why audiences feel the need to be manipulated by him, and why they have these needs.
4. Breaking that “fourth wall.” Finally, making the characters address the camera allows the manipulation of thrillers/horror movies to become the “text.” This manipulation, often rendered transparent or invisible in such movies, becomes something to be reflected on; the film becomes a direct dialogue (I prefer “dialogue” to “message”) between Haneke and the audience, wherein the audience is forced out of passivity to participate in the film. It denies the joy in voyeurism, the dangerous empathy that the audience expects out of a film; it’s like turning the lights on in the theatre, chasing us out of the comfort of shadows – we feel naked, exposed, and humiliated (thus, I think, the extreme reactions of critics so far).
Should we feel guilty if we enjoy Funny Games (or, for that matter, thrillers/horror movies)? Should we enjoy being manipulated? Despite Haneke’s claims to the contrary – “It’s a film you come to if you need to see it. If you don’t need this movie, you will walk out before it’s over.” – I think the film presupposes no such moral judgment. Funny Games stands between Haneke and the audience (two extremes), and brings out the issue of manipulation in movies, but goes no further. The reason why the villain Paul is so disturbing is because he rarely smirks to the camera (besides the first time he calls attention to his self-awareness); even at the end, the frame freezes on a blank stare into the camera, straight into the audience, seeing – it is his gaze that changes the equation. The film is only judgmental of its genre to the extent that its audience allows it to be. It almost seems as if the guiltier people feel about being manipulated, the more didactic they would call the film. In this sense,Funny Games does not judge the viewer; rather, it forces the viewer to judge and question his own wants and needs.
In a way, the “exposure” of the audience in Funny Games can be seen as empowerment. While Haneke maintains a sense of dread that denies the possibility of catharsis, he rejects the artificial release that thriller/horror filmmakers often feed their audience. Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes –(ironically, it takes a Frenchman to make an extremely American movie) offers an interesting example. Not only does Aja’s film provide a clearly defined enemy (the villains, for the most part, are deranged mutants who look grotesque and inhuman) that represents a tangible alien Other that can thus be vanquished, the film also provides a catharsis within an overriding political construct.
There is a scene in Aja’s film in which the protagonists, a white-bread American family tormented and murdered by deformed mutants, infiltrate the mutant camp to exact revenge. In a spectacularly cathartic moment that would have audiences cheering in their seats, the “good guys” kill an attacking mutant by ramming an American flag through his head. The political message cannot be made more obvious. But the scene is especially spectacular precisely because the dread and tension the director induces in the audience during the first half of the movie (through the torment of the victims) find a release when the victims turn the tables on the mutants to exact a revenge as brutal as their torment. The catharsis then serves two purposes: to emphasize the political message (whether it was meant to be ironic or not remains to be seen), and to give the audience a sense of satisfaction in the fantasy that they would be able to take matters into their own hands and exact revenge on the people who antagonize them. The filmmaker has oppressed the audience into feeling so much fear and anxiety during the first half of the movie that when the tables are turned, it almost seems as though the audience themselves are gaining the upper hand on the filmmaker. In reality, however, this emotional fantasy only underscores the filmmaker’s political message. Propaganda film uses a similar manipulation: it draws on the audience’s emotions to come to a common conclusion, one that is favorable only to itself.
Haneke’s “rewind sequence” in Funny Games serves the opposite purpose. The audience, naturally on the side of the victimized, would cheer when Anne turns the gun on Peter. It would be the moment when the audience gains power and “wins” over the filmmaker. But by making Paul rewind the sequence extra-diegetically, Haneke does not just deny the catharsis – he makes the audience consciously aware (at the risk of losing all seriousness) that he is denying it. He is exposing himself too, exposing his techniques and making the film vulnerable to attack. In a sense, his refusal to control the audience, or, like Aja, allowing the audience a false sense of control while himself retaining the rein, is in its own way an emancipation of the audience. It is this emancipation that critics reject; it is this reluctance to feed lies that critics find so problematic.
In the age where reality shows are being shot with several takes to hide technical mistakes, it says a lot about modern culture when exposing a film’s manipulation becomes shocking for so many people. Throughout the history of drama and tragedy, audiences have been used to characters breaking the fourth wall (Greek choruses and Shakespearean asides). Cinema, in its symbolically voyeuristic darkened room (darkening the world outside and creating a new world to escape to), has primed audiences into accepting an idealistic totality that resolves its own problems. It is no wonder that cinema is the ideal tool for political propaganda. Movies are preoccupied with hiding (their artifice, manipulation or technique, and message), and wherever there is hiding, things must be held suspect. In the closing scene of Funny Games, the two killers debate the reality of what we see. It seems that in today’s information-overload age, images are produced with such rapidity and ease that not much thought is given to their implications. Haneke’s Funny Games attempts, at least, to restore to images some of their responsibility – the implication that our gaze and its demands are never innocent as such.