Having transitioned to the cinematic format from television, Michael Haneke immediately embarked on a long-winded quest to critique the malaise he observed within the Austrian society of the time. This came to be known as The Glaciation Trilogy and encompassed his first three features released theatrically: The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. Even though the three films are only bound together by an overarching clinically detached tone and a set of loosely woven threads, such as a scathing takedown of the wealthier classes unable to find humanity and compassion within their lives, or a detrimental role of the omnipresent media, they nonetheless set the tone for what would later become a monolithic filmography driven by a single cause (or an obsession).
However, at the time it was impossible to project where Haneke would focus his gaze next and it must have seemed equally plausible for him to continue his mission, as it was to look elsewhere for inspiration. Ironically enough, his next film, Funny Games, can be seen as both a continuation and a departure from what was shaping up to be a career-defining aesthetic trend, which is probably why it divided critical opinion so much at the time. It must be remembered that when the film screened in Cannes, nearly a third of the audience walked out of the screening, presumably in disgust.
This might be partially because of the way the film is structured, as it promises something predictable only to subvert this expectation of thematic familiarity and play the audience like a little fiddle so as to evoke a visceral emotional response. To achieve that, Haneke introduces the viewer to a wealthy family who are travelling to their house at the lake. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that once again the filmmaker focuses his gaze on the bourgeoisie. These people are not only reasonably successful, but rather obscenely affluent. After all, not everyone can afford a massive house at the lake, a top-of-the-range Land Rover and a sailboat, hallmarks of capitalist opulence at the time. To further underscore just how removed from traditionally-understood normalcy these people are, Haneke spends the entirety of the film’s opening eavesdropping on the type of banter the family gleefully engages in during a road trip. What they do is exchange barbs about classical music and pontificate over whether to listen to Mozart or Haendel next. This is also where Haneke first hints at his true intentions when – as the camera shows the family serenely ingesting a beautifully orchestrated piece of classical music – the viewer instead hears a chaotic cacophony of modern jazz. This is to indicate that the world outside of their perfectly insulated SUV is nowhere near as welcoming as they might think. It’s cruel, cold, indifferent and unfair. And soon these folks are going to find out what that means in practice.
In essence, the vast majority of the film is spent on methodically teaching these characters that their wealth is not going to shield them from the dangers of the outside world. As their lives are invaded by Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch), they are subjected to unspoken torture of both psychological and physical extraction. However, Haneke quickly reveals that although it is a central part of the narrative, dragging the rich through the coals is only a part of his mission. This is because he is equally interested in tormenting the audience by toying with their expectations of where the film should gravitate naturally as directed by centuries of storytelling tradition. This is likely a great part of the reason why so many viewers found it nearly impossible to process what was transpiring on the screen, because the film would consistently deny them reprieve, dangle cathartic release in front of their noses and take it away in a shocking twist.
This turns Funny Games into a deliberately infuriating experience and a bit of a halfway house between Benny’s Video (in which Arno Frisch also starred in the titular role as an adolescent sociopath) and Caché. It is an unsettling exercise in torturing the characters and viewers and teaching them a lesson about the fact the world doesn’t owe them any explanations and that sometimes horrible things happen to seemingly good people without a reason. However, just like Benny’s Video, it also functions as a direct jab at the audience who think they are safe from harm because they expect solace to come from the almighty narrative convention, according to which there must always be a survivor, rules must be obeyed and certain transgressions are off limits.
Haneke is clearly aware of the sacrilege he is committing by allowing Paul to wink at the camera, make direct remarks at the viewer or blatantly manipulating the universe with the use of a TV remote. He also knows how upsetting it must be for anyone to sit through a scene where a child is murdered in cold blood, which is further emotionally distressing to the viewer because Haneke deliberately denies them any visual confirmation of what is happening and instead orders the camera to shadow Paul as he is making a sandwich while a world-shattering horror is taking place in a room next door. He is openly mocking the viewer for even thinking they are in control because they read a few books or watched a handful of movies. But he doesn’t do it to take sick pleasure out of watching the audiences squirm, which is how he was likely understood at the time. He is teaching.
What Haneke is doing in Funny Games is anticipating expectations the audience would likely develop while watching what essentially is an arthouse take on a home invasion horror and weaponizing them to evoke a sense of complete befuddlement; discombobulation through horror. Just like the family being invaded by two malevolent sociopath thinks they should be able to find help next door or that the intruders would never harm their child, anyone watching this story is also likely to formulate a set of rules Haneke must surely follow, such as letting at least one person survive and guiding the story towards a climactic resolution where the villains would get their comeuppance. However, this assumption is inherently flawed because it fundamentally relies on Haneke willingly adhering to the convention. Which he simply does not.
This is in fact how he conjures the horrific and oppressively vile tone permeating the entire film because he lets the viewer assume things which are patently untrue and even hinted at since the very opening of the film, when the family is introduced. Because they are the first people we see and we are being acclimated to their presence on the screen, we are likely to assume they are the protagonists of the story. This is what tradition dictates – we usually follow and root for the good guys as they face off against the forces of evil. But this is not the case in here and truth be told, the realization that Paul and Peter are protagonists of the story instead is also a part of the lesson. The viewer is supposed to feel stupid for assuming the well-to-do family of upper-class Austrians on their summer holiday having to fight for their survival would be naturally central characters; not the reprehensible youngsters referring to themselves using pop-cultural references and taking immense pleasure in degrading defenceless people incapable of standing up to them. But if you flip this narrative around and see Funny Games as a story about a pair of evil wanderers who go door to door like a biblical plague and torture wealthy people whose hubris is nowhere near enough to defend their lives, everything makes sense. The winks at the camera make sense. The fact the family dies does, too. And so does the ending.
It is abundantly clear that Haneke is keeping his fingers crossed for the audience to figure out what he is doing before the credits roll, because by that time the emotional turmoil will have taken flight. Perhaps he assumed himself that having seen his previous exploits viewers would realize he is not at all interested in vindicating the struggle of the privileged few, which would render the notion of letting them be heroes completely contrary to what he has been consistently advocating. He wants us to realize that Paul, the charismatically magnetic young sociopath capable of truly despicable things, is the hero. He wants us to realize the sheer audacity of the assumption that the rich folks we meet in the opening scene must be the protagonists because they look the part. This is how he teaches the audience about the nature of privilege and shows everyone how easy it is for a determined individual to take it away. With great panache, I might add.