Understanding Michael Haneke – Funny Games (2007)

I honestly don’t know how to review this film without repeating myself wholesale, because it is an exact carbon copy of its 1997 original. Therefore, if you’re after my thoughts on what this film says about us as a society and how Haneke masterfully teaches us about the illusion of safety provided by financial wealth, I refer you to my review of that film. Instead, I think it might be a good opportunity to use the fact these two films are nearly identical twins to see them as an experiment proving auteur theory exists.  

This phrase – auteur theory – has been thrown around a lot and I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking it has been rendered essentially meaningless. Admittedly, when everyone is special, nobody really is; so, it follows naturally to assume that if every single filmmaker carries an ‘auteur’ armband, it means nothing at all. It has seemingly become synonymous with a mark of greatness ascribed to influential and talented filmmakers in the online discourse among aspiring cinephiles. And it hasn’t necessarily been coined with such qualitative gravity in mind.  

If I understand it correctly, the idea behind ‘auteur theory’ as described by André Bazin, and later by Andrew Sarris, was to bring much needed structure to the way ownership of art is understood in the context of cinema, at the time a fledgling medium. That’s because in contrast to literature or music composition, cinema did not originate as a solo artistic endeavour. Even if you write your own screenplays, direct and star in your projects, you have to have someone operating the camera, make costumes, do makeup, light the scene, write music, not to mention other actors to populate the film. Granted, there are some filmmakers who can more or less successfully make their movies all by themselves, thus retaining complete artistic control over their projects, but they are quite scarce and they rarely venture into the artistic mainstream. What I think the term ‘auteur’ was supposed to denote – especially the way Truffaut understood it when he used to defend Hitchcock and Hawks – was that a director could still be considered an author of a project involving multiple collaborators, as evidenced by thematic connective tissue found in different movies helmed by the same people, stylistic traits recurring in films made with completely different crews and so on. I don’t honestly think the term ‘auteur’ was ever supposed to be understood as a gold star of awesomeness or some kind of seal of approval dispensed by the critical community.  

Interestingly, with the nascent of studio-driven big budget entertainment spearheaded by Disney, Marvel and others, director’s stature as an artistic commander-in-chief has been recently challenged. A simple google search will reveal that some are openly disputing the idea of directors holding authorial ownership of their films and attempt to invalidate the concept of an auteur as obsolete at best or even completely imaginary. While this might hold true for multimillion dollar blockbuster products that go through extensive audience testing and art-by-committee process focused at maximizing returns on investments sunk in their production, it must be remembered that the auteur theory as originally described will never be invalidated. And the best way to show this theory holds water is by proving its existence experimentally.  

Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of his 1997 Funny Games is one such experiment. To this day I don’t quite understand why he decided to make this movie in the first place, but I am glad he did nonetheless. If online sources are to be trusted, Haneke was originally intending to shoot Funny Games in America, but stars would not align for this to happen until much later in his career. He translated his original script into English, hired an all-American cast including Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet and filmed a shot-for-shot remake of his original vision. In fact, apart from a very few nuances, the two films are identical. They are lit, blocked, directed, and edited with an explicit desire to be indistinguishable from one another. So, how is this possible? After all, apart from Haneke himself (and Waldemar Pokromski, a makeup artist) the crews assembled for both productions were completely different; that is unless I have not missed anything because – I admit – I spent at best three minutes comparing credits for both films.  

Scientifically speaking, if the auteur theory was not real, the two films should be different enough to be told apart as a result of the artistic impact made by different sets of collaborators. Naturally, this distinction can be made just by looking at the actors or listening to the language they speak, but putting the craft of filmmaking under the microscope will immediately reveal there are marked differences between them. Now, a follow-up question begs to be asked: did Haneke explicitly state to his film crew that he was after recreating the original movie or did his notes and directions yield the same net result? Or is it a combination of both? Either way, the experiment conclusively proves that a single person – an author – is perfectly capable to communicate his vision to a completely new group of collaborators and obtain the same product at the end of the day.  

What is more, one would expect the remake to be artistically or thematically inferior to one another, simply by virtue of being an example of ‘recycled storytelling’. But this isn’t true either and the critical consensus reflects that to an extent. Both the 1997 Funny Games and its 2007 remake are equally powerful, poignant and disturbingly shocking, even though neither of them offers any additional information, thematic wrinkle or anything else for that matter. The two films are artistically identical in all respects, which extends fully into the realm of their thematic potential and gravity of their social commentary. For better or worse, Haneke showed the entire world how powerful his artistic voice is because he was able to tell the same exact story in exact same way twice and he never sacrificed even an ounce of the power the original film had in spades.  

Therefore, while it is certainly true the term ‘auteur’ shouldn’t be dispensed anywhere as liberally as it seems to be these days – especially in context of big Hollywood tentpoles – it certainly holds water. Some filmmakers definitely deserve this title, not necessarily because they are brilliant artists – even though Michael Haneke definitely deserves such recognition anyway – but because they truly own their work. Although Funny Games is an extreme example of this being the case, it is an undeniable piece of evidence to support the claim the auteur theory is not just an academic figment but a description of a fundamental law of physics governing the world of cinema.  

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