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Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997)"What are you looking at and why?"
Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997) with his audience

In this Brechtian-influenced analysis of Michael Haneke's most controversial film, Tarja Laine looks at how the director "manages to depict violence not as entertainment or even as an innate part of life, but as inconsolable."

According to Philip Hallie, one cannot understand evil unless one empathises with those who are being victimised.[1] Empathy provides understanding and an inner view regarding another person's situation, and this can take place in the cinematic realm as well: films make available to us new emotional experiences, and through films we have the opportunity to understand human problems from someone else's point of view. Empathy is often characterised as an emotion in which one feels as if one was experiencing the other person's feelings as one's own, losing one's self-awareness in the process. This is not the case, however. In empathy, one experiences a sense of closeness with the other, but it also requires awareness of one's own emotions, for otherwise empathy would not lead to a deeper understanding of the other's situation.[2] In this article I will show how, in Michael Haneke's Funny Games (Austria, 1997), empathy invites the spectator into a process of critical thinking about violence in the media.

The progressive potential of empathy

In Funny Games, two decent-looking and seemingly well-educated young men who call themselves Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering)—but at times also Beavis and Butt-head, or Tom and Jerry—force their way into the holiday residence of Anna (Susanne Lothar) and Georg Schober (Ulrich Mühe), and their little son Schorschi (Stefan Olapczynski), and start to systematically torture the family. First Paul kills the family dog with a golf club. Then Peter strikes Georg with the same club, shattering his kneecap, after which Anna must undress in order to stop the young men from torturing her son. With a friendly smile on his face, Paul suggests a "funny" game: "I'll wager a bet that in twelve hours you three will be kaput?" The game of physical torture and psychological humiliation now begins in earnest.

Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997)Funny Games is by any measure a shocking film experience. According to some critics, it is also a shockingly contradictory film experience. This may be the case because the film is not meant to be "mere" entertainment, but a critique of entertainment, mass media and mainstream cinema generally. Funny Games is purposefully shocking rather than enchanting, and it is meant to question the use of violence, rather than to actually use violence, as a major narrative element. Yet in the view of some, the film fails in its ethical pursuit because it invites the spectator to empathise with the protagonists. For example, Jari Lindholm, a film critic for Helsingin Sanomat (the biggest newspaper in Finland), writes that:

The film is oppressive, but it is not repulsive, because the spectator's central concern is not his own peace of mind—no more shocks, thank you—but the fate of the sympathetic protagonists: kind director, please don't hurt them anymore. As long as the spectator follows the plot of the film perfectly still, he cannot really be shocked and define his relationship to film violence anew, because he misses the most gruesome aspect about violence: randomness.[3]

Lindholm's critique reflects an attitude that many contemporary critics share, one that has its roots in the thinking of Bertolt Brecht. According to Brecht, emotions and identification with fictional characters serve to contaminate the audience's reasoning and renders viewers susceptible to the workings of ideology. Through his paradigm of "distanciation," Brecht defined the privileged model for political theatre and cinema, and, until recently, there have been no systematic attempts to elaborate an alternative model.[4] But identification and emotional response also have the potential to serve as an agency for psychic and social change, and to invite the viewer to take a reflective, critical stance towards the film in question.

My argument is that it is precisely the empathetic response produced by Funny Games that invites viewers to question, and possibly redefine, their own relationships with violence in the media. By empathising with the film's victims, the viewer is able to better understand the consequences of violence. This does not take place in films like Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (UK, 1971) or Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (US, 1994) where the viewer feels little or no empathy, instead watching the violence as a distanced observer. As a result, Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers are (in a sense) too clever for their own good, too self-reflective to be really radical.

Violence as a way of life

Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997)In their essay "Austrian psycho killers and home invaders: the horror-thrillers Angst & Funny Games," Jürgen Felix and Marcus Stiglegger write that horror in Funny Games is based on the fact that the situation the protagonists are facing is at the same time terrible and absurd, "one that exists beyond the pale of all reasonable behaviour, psychological motivation, or logical explanation."[5] This contradiction between the "normal" and the "senseless" provides a space for empathetic understanding on the viewer's part, one that involves him/her in a critical process as well. The contradiction in question is established from the very beginning of the film: as the Schober family is driving to their holiday home, the soundtrack changes without warning from the elevated sounds of George Frideric Handel to John Zorn's aggressive heavy metal.

At the level of rational understanding, neither the Schobers nor the audience have any access to the world of senseless violence with which they will soon be confronted, and which provides the conditions of empathy for the latter. Empathy arises on the audience's part from the feeling of mutual helplessness directed towards the senseless, homicidal world introduced by the young men in the film. The first reaction to this senselessness is irritation—within the diegesis, Anna gets increasingly frustrated and upset with Peter's deliberately clumsy behaviour—but annoyance is soon replaced by horror as the situation gets out of control with the first violent outburst.

The nightmarish situation in which the Schobers find themselves in Funny Games has the capacity to touch the audience deeply. Anna and Georg cannot protect their son or themselves. As Felix and Stiglegger argue:

From that moment, right up to the end of the film, we are all involved in a "game" that we cannot accept or explain, one which isn't "funny" at all—not for the terrorised family, and not for the viewer who is terrorised as well— because he or she can't help but identify with the victims.[6]

The Schobers and the audience are asking the killers the same question: "Why are you doing this?" And all they get are ridiculous answers that cannot be taken seriously. Paul explains Peter's actions by referring to him as "a spoiled child tormented by ennui and world weariness, weighed down by the void of existence," at the same time winking directly at the camera.

The Brechtian paradox in the film is that the viewer occupies the same emotional level as the Schobers, while at the meta-narrative level s/he is invited to share the point of view of the psychopathic killers. Peter and Paul are constantly looking straight into the camera, winking their eyes at the audience, and addressing the audience directly: "Do you think they will have a chance? You're on their side, so who will you bet with?" When Peter shoots Schorschi dead, the audience is not shown the event (and thereby provided with the basis for catharthis, a conventional relief of suspense through violent imagery, as Felix and Stiglegger argue). Instead the camera stays with Paul, who is nonchalantly making sandwiches in the kitchen when the shooting takes place. The viewer is thereby forced to listen to and imagine the violent action, to experience its effects afterwards, or as it gets reflected on its victims' faces:

In Funny Games, it is Anna's ravaged face especially that we must stare at again and again: a face that gradually loses—torture by torture—all traces of human dignity, destroyed by escalating acts of humiliation forced upon her by her tormentors.[7]

The self-reflective nature of Funny Games—the fact that Peter and Paul constantly address the audience, even while our empathy is clearly on behalf of the Schobers—is quite disturbing, since it forces us to acknowledge our own position with respect to violence in the media. By combining elements of Brechtian distanciation with elements that encourage identification with and empathy towards the protagonists, Funny Games appears to be more efficient in its ethical pursuit than what it would have been had it stuck to only one of the tactics. When things in Funny Games take an unfavourable turn for the two young killers—towards the end of the film, Anna manages to snatch the shotgun from Peter and shoot him at close range—Paul grabs the remote control, "rewinds" the scene in question and reverses the events in order to change the outcome. In answer to Anna's question why the pair don't simply kill the whole family right away, Paul states that losing control over the game "would spoil the pleasure for all of us, wouldn't it?"

Precisely. Pleasure is the answer to the question, "Why are you doing this?" But such an answer is just as absurd as any of the others that are proposed in this extremely violent film. Nevertheless, such films are made for the pleasure, fun and amusement of audiences every day. The rule of the game in our contemporary society of mass media entertainment is to produce pleasure, even through violent action.

When Georg pleads with Peter and Paul to put an end to the torture of his family, Paul replies: "We are still under feature length." Addressing the audience directly, he continues: "Is it enough already? You want a proper ending with plausible development, don't you?" The Schobers' suffering does not stop, because the audience is willing to keep watching. But of course there really is no pleasure in Funny Games for the audience, because we are empathetically involved with the victims. By inviting the viewer to empathise so strongly with the victims of violence, Haneke manages to depict violence not as entertainment or even as an innate part of life, but as inconsolable. In Haneke's own words: "I give back to violence that which it is: pain, a violation of others."[8]

Tarja Laine

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About the author

Tarja Laine is a teacher and a researcher in the Department of Media and Culture, University of Amsterdam. She is currently finishing her PhD dissertation on intersubjectivity and film.

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1. Philip Hallie, Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm (New York: Harper Collins, 1997).return to text

2. For an extended argument on this point, see Tarja Laine, "Empathy, Sympathy, and the Philosophy of Horror," in Film & Philosophy Special Horror Issue (2001): 72-88.return to text

3. Jari Lindholm, "Kauheaa, miten loistava elokuva," (4 August 1998), trans TL.return to text

4. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans and ed John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964).return to text

5. Jürgen Felix and Marcus Stiglegger, "Austrian psycho killers & home invaders: the horror-thrillers Angst & Funny Games." In Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, ed Steven Jay Schneider (Surrey: FAB Press, 2003), 175-84.return to text

6. Ibid, italics added.return to text

7. Ibid.return to text

8. Michael Haneke, "Director's Statement.".return to text

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