I’ve been trying to decide if Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is totally immoral or not. As film-watchers we enter into a sort of contract with film-makers. “Here is my seven to ten dollars; you entertain me.” Whether that entertainment includes base, defecation-style humor or the mind-bending avant-garde, we don’t want to be “bored.” Ideally and arguably we reach for some sort of physically moving aesthetic experience (a jump, a flinch, a jaw-drop, a tear, a laugh). In this way we want to interact with the film.
It seems to me that Haneke exploits this desire in an extremely perverse, but extremely interesting way. By making the contract explicit (through an initial wink exchanged between on-screen perpetrator and audience) he questions what we demand of him, and then gives us what we think we want. He immediately starts us off with one of these aesthetic experiences. With the blaringly loud hardcore band Naked City interrupting the conventional classical soundtrack, we are immediately on edge. My initial delight in this Brechtian process is very quickly smashed as unrelenting, cruel, and pointless violence is inflicted on the characters.
The killer, as a stand-in for Haneke, gives us exactly what we think we want from this style of film: tension, violence, and horror. So why and how could this film be considered immoral? He is upholding his end of the bargain. I guess I just get the feeling that Haneke is the genie that is taking wishes way too literally. And my first reaction to that is to get upset that my judgment is being questioned.
Haneke takes the exploitation we expect to be inflicted on the characters of a typical slasher/horror film and turns it onto his audience. Instead of removing us from involvement in the story as Brechtian stories usually do, Haneke’s self-referential acknowledgment of the film form creates a new story of which we are explicitly involved. Our aesthetic experiences become the story. We are constantly aware of our own reactions as the villain continually reminds us of them.
Take, for example, the long-take in the middle of the film. At just over ten minutes long and shot from fairly far away, the shot creates a sense of the hyper-real. We have constantly been reminded that this is a film, however in this shot we are given no reprieve from the horror and destruction. We cannot look away, even when we desperately want to.
Haneke is also careful about what he does not show us. We do not see the mother in the film naked. We do not see the ultra-specific acts of violence. Does the fact that these acts occurs off camera attribute to our aesthetic experiences? The sounds off camera cause our imaginations to fill in the blanks, so the effects of the horror is debateable. The important thing here, I think, is that there is an attempt to avoid exploitations of Funny Games’s characters, while exploitation of the audience is clear. In other words, while shielding us from the character’s nakedness while also reminding us that this is only a film, the film creates a safe place for the characters as actors and an uncomfortable place for us as viewers.
Because of this turning of the tables, I think Funny Games is a very moral and important film, while also not one for wide audiences. While the killer, as narrator, leads us through this entire torturous process, we are continually associated with the camera and its interactions with the killer. Without the presence of the camera, the violence would never occur. No one would have to die, if we didn’t demand to see such things in the film. This obviously makes for a very uncomfortable viewing process.