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The Reeler Blog

Love, Hate and Michael Haneke

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I should preface this item with a couple of advisories: First, it contains major spoilers for readers who haven't seen Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games; and second, despite that film's irredeemably offensive stupidity, I have huge respect for Haneke as a filmmaker. I often assume Funny Games was Haneke's Faustian bargain for the decade of terrific work that followed. Or, more realistically, the 1997 version bought him the masterpieces Code Unknown and Cache, while his upcoming American remake paid off the merely excellent Time of the Wolf and The Piano Teacher. (I have yet to see the Naomi Watts/Tim Roth updating, but as a shot-for-shot retelling Haneke gleefully claims to be only eight seconds off the pace of his original, its own bankruptcy is almost certainly assured.)

The wink abhorred around the world: Arno Frisch in Michael Haneke's Funny Games (Photo: Kino)

To my regret, my fandom did not compel visits to the Museum of Modern Art's recent Haneke retrospective, among the most comprehensive of the filmmaker's 30-year film and TV career. I did, however, escape the Reeler HQ rubble long enough to catch Haneke screening and discussing Funny Games, the kick-off event of MoMA's nifty new Modern Mondays program. Rewatching reminded me of the genuine creepiness Haneke sustains over a good 80 or 90 minutes, during which a pair of white-gloved youths (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) torment, torture and kill an upper-middle class family in their summer cottage. Amorality will always be tension's bitch (someone tell Eli Roth, whose films are pillow fights compared to Haneke's), and Funny Games applies its sadism in the most dynamic of ways: by teasing viewers with their own smugness. What we call "evil" can and often does win in this world, Haneke says unblinkingly; bad guys can and often do wear white.

In this way, Haneke loves to think of himself as a master manipulator. (His recent Times Magazine profile crystallized this for the ages.) But adherence to convention is not the same thing as smugness, which is why Funny Games' climactic upshot -- wife Anna (Susanne Lothar) steals a gun and blows one of her assailants away, only to have the survivor grab the VCR remote control, rewind the film, anticipate the coup and wrest the firearm away -- is such a gross betrayal. Almost to the end of his grueling psychological horror film, Haneke introduces a time machine.

In fairness, the MoMA audience clapped in support of her attack, and the filmmaker got the sense of deflation he wanted after its sudden reversal. (More on this later.) But this isn't exactly a spiritual precedent to the paralyzing movie-within-a-movie in Code Unknown, or the surveillance-cum-class war propelling Cache. Instead it's the cheapest, most embarrassing technical stunt of Haneke's career. Worse yet, it epitomized his own smugness Monday night while in conversation with MoMA curator Josh Siegel, who asked Haneke to explain the difference between obscenity and pornography.

"Cheating is not very nice": Funny Games director Michael Haneke

"I think 'obscene' is something that breaks the rules," Haneke replied. "So from that point of view, I hope all of my films are obscene. Pornography, to me, is a consumer article." The comment drew an uncomfortable laugh from the MoMA audience, no dummies they, who deduced more overlap than separation between the qualities in Funny Games. But whatever; that ambiguity isn't the point as much the one guiding Haneke's differentiation between rule-breaking and bald-faced cheating. Code Unknown is a rule-breaker -- open-ended, impenetrable, cold to the touch. Funny Games is a cheat -- subverting its own well-established terms for the sake of its director's gratification.

"How do you mean cheating?" Haneke replied through his translator when I asked about the distinction.

"Rewinding the film isn't really manipulating the audience, is it?" I said. "It's a technical device you're using to change the story."

"I'm trying to show that you can manipulate an audience, and how you can manipulate," he said.

"Well, there's a big difference between Hitchcock and that, for example," I said, bringing up Siegel's own comparison from minutes before. "It's narrative versus technical." (More accurately, it's visual narrative as opposed to technical narrative, but such is l'esprit d'escalier.)

"Maybe you think it's cheating," he said.

"Yeah, I do," I said. "But what's the difference for you between someone who cheats and someone who breaks the rules? Or is there a difference?"

"I think cheating is not very nice," he said, smiling. "Actually, [my translator] happened to come in 10 minutes before the end, just at the moment the tape was being rewound. [She] heard the audience applaud, and [she] told me that reaction. And I said the same thing happened at Cannes when the film played for the first time. It was exactly the same reaction: People applauded, the tape was rewound and there was the most horrified silence. And that was the reaction that I wanted. People fell into the trap of applauding a murder -- someone being killed."

Hats off, I guess, for the rousing deconstruction of cinematic violence, but really: What does it prove? That audiences crave catharsis? That's a new one. That moralists are hypocrites? Shocking! That Haneke is a cynic's cynic? Did it really take a time-travel implement to convince you? Maybe the contrivance will be more at home in the American remake, itself a stunt whose very existence blots the accrued nuance of Haneke's complex, classic 10-year run. I wouldn't dream of second-guessing the man, but I can't say I'll miss this kind of bullshit when he's gone -- if he isn't already. I told you there were spoilers.

Posted at October 17, 2007 1:00 PM

Comments (9)

In relation to Funny Games, what point would catharsis have made? The entire premise of the film is built around the frustration of that impulse and what that frustration means in terms of our own complicity in the violence itself. Why not walk out of the theater, which seems the proper response to all forms of cinematic violence (if you think about it?) I think Haneke's point with the film, and with the 'rewind' moment in particular, is to make you confront your own emotional voyeurism; Especially now, in this moment in time, when our own culture could been seen as advocating that some lives as "more valuable" than others, the nastiness of the catharsis one gets from watching Susanne Lothar put a bullet in Frank Geiring is exactly the point Haneke is making.

In terms of the film's thesis and philosophy, the rewind is only one of 100 moments in the film that are intended to illustrate the complicit relationship between the viewer and the film's characters. I don't see how it is a cheat at all. Yes, there is a difference between Hitchcock's manipulation of an audience's expectations (show bomb under desk, show ticking clock, show man enter the office, cut between them to build tension, deliver catharsis) and Haneke's, which is the antithesis of Hitchcock, particularly in the rewind moment. Instead, Haneke delivers a shameful catharsis, then undoes it so that audiences can experience both catharsis and (hopefully) regret. Whether you appreciate the tactic or not, I don't think it is a cheat. Haneke is not the problem. Rather, the cheap trick is cinematic pleasure through violence, be it the constant moralizing about good vs evil or the cathartic release achieved by utilizing the same violence that makes us feel victimized when aimed at us (see the invasion of Iraq for this impulse writ large in real life). I love Funny Games, especially because it has the balls to tell it like it is; It's ALL manipulation.

Now, knowing how much you enjoy a confrontation at a Q&A, I'm surprised Haneke's prickly demeanor didn't tickle you a little more...

Sometimes you get really worked up about something and I can't really understand your fundamental reasons beyond righteous outrage.

Thanks for the thoughts, Tom. I think I was unclear about something: I myself am not interested in catharsis. I was just fine with the way things were going -- kill everyone, fuck it -- but I think Haneke compromised the truly subversive nature of the film by breaking a contract with the viewer 9/10 of the way through. The contract says: You implicate yourself. The rewind says: I implicate you. One could argue they're one in the same -- it's all the same film by the same filmmaker, right? But the difference is between frustrating expectations and frustrating narrative space. It's not a matter of whether or not it works (e.g. mitigating the clapping, etc) but whether or not it's intellectually honest. For someone who has so hauntingly introduced the morality of the recorded image into no fewer than three features, what reason would any viewer have to believe Haneke didn't simply cut corners in Funny Games?

And to Neighbor: You don't seem to mind when all this unwieldy righteousness applies to films I adore. Hardly seems fair, doesn't it?


Thanks for that. I think, as I said earlier, that this is the most obvious of them, but the film does the same thing (frustrating narrative space) over and over; The characters turn to the camera and talk to the audience, they wink at the audience, the sound in the car is Opera but outside the car its screeching John Zorn music, the killer goes to make a sandwich while the little boy is murdered in the other room, the camera sits on the murder scene for a good eight minutes, barely moving after the killers initially leave, etc etc. All of this is artifice and all of it seems as intellectually honest as the rewind; It's just another way to show the artificial relationship between the movie and your feelings.

I don't think the video images in, say BENNY'S VIDEO or CACHE, somehow undermine the rewind in FUNNY GAMES; If anything, the video images have always been a way for Haneke to state a remove between the emotional reality of a moment and the glorification of that moment by removing it from the "real"; Video distances us from the reality of experience, watching an act on a video screen in a film only adds to that distance (and complicity). Instead of "stating" that thesis, why not exemplify it? The rewind in FUNNY GAMES makes the same exact point but removes the "remove" of the video screen, reminding us that the movie itself is just as artificial. I think it's both honest, darkly funny, and judging from reactions of everyone I know, highly effective.

You ARE on a roll lately, Stu... great reading.

Ok, I loved that rewind, as I loved every time that Arno looks at camera and ask things to the audience, making the audience "vulnerable", and remembering you that the author has the control of the story and nor you neither your expectations.
Over the rewind scene I preffer one (or two..) that took my attencion for the first place.. that knife!! Hats off!!! intruducing it in firt place and making you to spect her to use it to save herself.. but no! Once again you were wrong! These are Funny Games.. accept it, you loose (picastes!)! But be a good looser and hats off to the wonderful player Hanneke is. ;)

Having first seen the film after viewing consecutively Code Unknown, Cache, and The Piano Teacher, I found the whole of Funny Games unforgivably cheap and facile, bizarrely smug in comparison to those three great and careful works.

I can't imagine a worse and more perplexing move for a director than remaking a such a sophomoric effort.

I am right with you on the cheapness and smugness of the directorial attitude in "Funny Games" -- something I don't find in any of the other Hanekes I've seen (and I also regard "Code Unknown" and "Cache" as masterpieces). "FG" is the only Haneke I've thought was pandering to the audience (and, of course, it's the one getting the remake). My response to the movie was to turn off the DVD because I didn't find it at all "dangerous" (or funny), just a sterile and self-congratulatory little intellectual exercise. Besides, I'd already seen "Be Black Baby" in "Hi, Mom!" (which worked) and "Man Bites Dog" (which didn't), and I didn't think Haneke was adding anything except to intellectualize the violence, putting us at a safe voyeuristic remove (we're congratulated for our voyeuristic superiority to the characters and the film itself), rather than seducing us with it and then turning it around on us (as Hitchcock and De Palma have done).

I later read that Haneke said anyone who walks out on "Funny Games" doesn't NEED to see it. Good point. It's the only Haneke film I've seen that I didn't think I needed to see. Only, of course, I had to see it in order to know that.

i agree with your take on this very much, Stu.

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