Addressing the Controversy of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2008)

Warning: Spoiler Alert for Funny Games 1997 and 2008 

Over the past year I’ve grown to genuinely treasure Michael Haneke’s 1997 feature-length Funny Games. What that movie has to say about our consumerist lust for violence is not only awakening as hell, but it also forces us to make constructive observations when it comes to the preposterous McGuffins that often pop up in saturated theatrical releases vs. how real-life atrocities that we tend to glamorize may actually play out. Additionally, a majority of the creative choices that Haneke implements in the film’s execution all add to fruitful criticisms, such as the panning to uneventful shots that purposely don’t give us the degrading satisfaction of seeing the villains we supposedly detest murder, or the elongated shots of people suffering at their height to further prove how effortlessly it is for us to sometimes situate ourselves into the reality of cinema as we feel for these characters in the moment, or the anticlimactic kills that purposely toy with the audience’s polarizing gratification. These decisions result in an unapologetic ping-pong game that uncovers our contradicting desire to see the protagonists win, yet at the same time, see some visually gratifying “kills.” 

Consequently, in Haneke’s 1997 release of Funny Games, he was able to use the media of film to craft a holy original output that used a philosophical thesis and a ranging amplifier in visual execution to parody the b-rated home invasion genre. It is one of the most insufferable yet satirical cinematic experiences out there, yet that’s what makes it so fascinating. It makes the audience contemplate why they may have contradicting self-interests in a particular media. This sick game really does define what makes experimentation in cinema sometimes worth the risk.

But, in 2008, Haneke made nearly exactly the same movie, shot-by-shot. The colorization is much better, yes, and Michael Pitt’s performance doesn’t compare to Arno Frisch’s from the original, yes, but it is essentially the same movie. The exterior contrast between the two, however, is that the remake was made for U.S. audiences, to further Haneke’s claim about media expectations depending on the country. Now the Austrian/original version, which is pretentiously considered a “foreign arthouse movie” by our country (America), has become pretty well-received by Austrian audiences. Yet, the U.S dominated viewers consider the new and more popular English version of the movie confusing and disappointing despite it being a replica of the Austrian version that they initially refused to watch because it was foreign. This savagely proved Haneke’s point about how majorities in the United States only want to take chances with the strictly glorified, American horror movie and not any other outside cinematic project that may be different. Haneke proved a large case of stubbornness in our entertainment culture.

Conclusively, this risky director certainly seems to know how vanilla our country’s perspective on international movies are, and he flips them off quite well by making an entire English remake of his original Funny Games just so that stubborn Americans can finally watch it without thinking that it’s “arthouse” produce. Of course, Americans ending up hating this movie that critiqued themselves the most out of any other country wasn’t a big surprise either. Amusing, indeed.

A Robert Ebert critic Jim Emerson’s quote concerning the remake I find to sum up the inexcusable issue people have with both Funny Games movies’ themes: “…as the press kit explains, it encourages its viewers ‘to see their own role through a series of emotional and analytical episodes.’ In other words, this isn’t a movie, it’s a thesis.” 

Wow. As if film can’t possibly transpire as anything else besides what you conventionally want it to be. As if film was never a testament to discovering our own beliefs or selves in the first place. As if film was never a practice of glorifying the entities we so desired as entertainment. As if films never had ulterior motives to their existence. If a movie can’t be made to be an experiment, then a movie can’t be made to be a thematic statement either—like many praised ones are. You can’t have either or; the motives of why artistic creation transpires should be endless. As long as that creation can be admired as a product on its own, it shouldn’t be immediately gainsaid because it has secondary motives that exist outside the actual movie itself. 

To stray back on topic with the main highlight of this quote, “…this isn’t a movie, it’s a thesis,” to be frank, you could extract the substance of any film and write it on paper exactly as the sequence of themes play out. As obvious as this may sound, what you can’t do is watch those events, unless of course, you can visually see that movie. To use an event in Funny Games as an example, there’s a mental difference between dramatically witnessing with your own eyes a mother loathing over the death of her child for nearly 15 minutes straight on screen compared to reading a thesis-like phrase such as “watching a mother lose her child shows that these murders aren’t satisfying when you associate them to a more reality-based setting” for a mere five seconds. When I watch a movie about war, I don’t watch it because I want to be told that war is traumatizing; I watch it to be put into the shoes of what it may feel like to be traumatized. That’s what’s so dominating about visual media when compared to just a “thesis statement” like Emerson may suggest that you could get the same amount of knowledge out of when it comes to the 2008 remake. I watch Funny Games to be convinced, not to recognize that a theory exists. Words can sometimes just mean bluff, but evidence and recreation are what pushes us to really conceptualize. 

The idea of criticizing a movie because it could’ve been written out as just a thesis statement seems hypocritical to me, considering all movies originate from a screenplay that features the exact themes of what it wants to create. The art of film has no code and boundaries that say, “your film can’t be this, this, or this because this, this, and this isn’t what it was meant for before.” You can certainly say that you don’t like what the film itself represents and what its content is defined in, that in itself is the beauty of subjectivity within the art of substance, but to insinuate that it isn’t what makes a movie a “movie” sounds unbearably pretentious. Cinema doesn’t break boundaries without breaking rules, and the history of the Funny Games movies breaks loads of the rules and that’s what can make them interesting to witness. 

Howbeit, I am a moderate believer of rating the art based on the content withheld in it rather than what the intentions behind the artist were, so I suppose I’ll continue mainly judging this movie as if I’m partially rewatching the original. It’s nothing more than that, certainly. 

Again, Arno Frisch’s performance is the unavoidable factor that slightly levitates the original Funny Games above Haneke’s remake. Mostly everything else though is so spot-on similar that it’s easy to look at the two versions as the same films with different but equally as important ulterior motives—unlike Disney’s The Lion King remake which was made out of financial propositions. Yet, I’m convinced that Haneke purposely made the acting a broader mix of happy-go-lucky facial gestures and intensely dramatic facial gestures in this 2008 remake to make even more of a mockery out of what Hollywood exceedingly expects from performers when romanticizing our entertainment. That I would reckon is another addition besides the fresher cinematography that I can say I appreciated more than the original Funny Games. It seems as if Haneke’s main goal with this remake was to make it optically appear more like an American-made project with its cleaner look and more unrestrained performances. 

In the end, I feel comfortable claiming that the remake of Funny Games is pretty marvelous on its own like its predecessor, and I can imagine myself hopping back and forth from each version during my subsequent future viewings. 

Verdict: A-

Disturbance in the Art (Ranked List)

“Funny Games” is now available to stream on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and Vudu.

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