Naomi Watts in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2008)
Naomi Watts in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games 

Funny Games, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth is director Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot US remake of his own German language thriller from 1997. Why has he remade his own film? Because the English language offers a new and bigger audience for him to lecture and a lecture is what Funny Games is really all about. Haneke either wants the audience to reevaluate their response to violence in movies, or he wants to abuse them for taking pleasure in that same violence. If it’s the former, he’s a fool and if it’s the latter, he’s a smug, superior prick. Either way he’s created a film on which he expects you to walk out. If you don’t, he aims to punish you for it. Unfortunately for the director, he’s tripped himself up in his own intellectual arrogance and he’s bungled his message. The result is a film that will resonate primarily with the sadists he hopes to counsel or to those who already accept his message. Either way, both versions of Funny Games are nearly complete failures.

Watts and Roth play married couple Anna and George Farber. As the film begins, they’re driving out to their fancy vacation home with their young son for a week or two of golf and sailing on the lake. They’re a comfortably soft, upper middle class family listening to opera in their SUV, but when the opera is interrupted on the soundtrack by the harsh, discordant, thrash and squeal of Naked City’s Bonehead, it’s clear Haneke has something else in store for this trio besides a peaceful holiday idyll.

When the family arrives at the lake, something’s already amiss. The neighbors are acting oddly distant and there are strangers in their midst, two young men dressed for tennis and wearing white cotton gloves. Rational explanations are assumed as they usually are by civilized people, but all notions of reason are distorted and ultimately defeated by what eventually transpires. As George and the boy tend to the sailboat and Anna prepares dinner in the kitchen, one of the young men (Brady Corbet) shows up at the door, introducing himself shyly as Peter and looking to borrow some eggs. What begins with a simple request slowly and strangely escalates into a game where Peter and his partner Paul (Michael Pitt, The Dreamers) toy with the family, seemingly for their own amusement. Before the evening is over, toying turns to torture and the Farbers find that the clock is ticking on their very lives.

For the first three quarters of the film or so, Haneke succeeds at mounting a seductive and very compelling thriller in a traditional horror or suspense vein. The Farbers first react to these intruders with the social niceties you’d expect, but Paul and Peter use the family’s ideas of etiquette against it as they continually up the ante, making stranger and more extreme requests. By the time the Farbers realize they’re dealing with two people who operate outside of the rules of society, it’s already too late.

What follows is genuinely suspenseful and horrifying. As the abuse is escalated, you keep hoping the victims will find a way to escape and the tension increases as they fail at every turn. When one character is forced to make an impossible choice between two deadly outcomes, it’s thoroughly nerve jangling. This is classic material and it’s undeniably well executed, but when Paul at one point turns to the camera and winks directly at the audience, even if you’ve never seen another Haneke film, you know he’s got something else on his mind besides a good suspense yarn. It turns out, he doesn’t want to entertain you, he wants to teach you a lesson.

These smug, winking asides from Paul (there are 3 or 4 of them) are a transparent attempt to implicate the audience in the horrors on screen. Haneke would blame you the audience for the tortures to which he’s subjecting his characters. The irony is that, not only is this intellectually dishonest, it completely misfires. Instead of making us culpable for the horror, the gimmick lets us off the hook. This smart-assed breaking of the fourth wall reminds us we’re just watching a movie and, rather than becoming a part of the action as Haneke intends, we’re distanced from it. Haneke thinks he’s smarter than you when in fact he’s too dull-witted to realize he’s just destroyed his own film.

Another trick Haneke pulls is to keep all of the sex and violence largely off screen. His intention here is to deny the audience what he thinks it wants and also to keep his own hands clean, essentially having his cake and eating it too. He wants to push your face in the muck he’s created while staying above the exploitation himself. Unfortunately, it’s yet another technique that creates distance between the audience and the horrors on screen and it further undermines the director’s intentions.

Breaking the established pattern, there is one act of violence Haneke shows quite explicitly. This is intentional because Haneke is trying to get a certain reaction out of the audience so he can then rub their noses in it like dogs when he ultimately pulls the rug out from under their feet in a bit of cinematic trickery. I won’t reveal what happens exactly because, unlike Haneke, I have respect for the audience. If you still want to see this movie once I’m done with it, its your choice and you should have every chance to see it the way I did. Best of luck to you on that score.

What I began to realize as I watched Funny Games is that Haneke’s contempt for his audience is also directed at his victims. He doesn’t like these soft materialists with their artificial surface niceness. This is especially clear in the US version of the film as Watts and Roth are relatively unsympathetic and the villains are kind of charismatic and amusing, particularly Michael Pitt. Furthermore, the gulf between the original and the remake makes it clear that, for Haneke, Anna and George are stand-ins for the United States. He doesn’t like us very much, particularly in light of recent current events, and he buys into the perception that we’re a spoiled and content, but violent and revenge-happy people. The fact that he may have a valid point and that American cinema may bear its share of responsibility for our behavior, particularly in the last 6 or 7 years, makes it all the more unfortunate that Haneke has blown it.

Through his numerous missteps, Haneke has created a grim, nihilistic mash-up of Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. In the process he’s stripped both films, which are superior in every way, of their meaning. As a clever bit of sadism, it’s expertly crafted. The performances are terrific, Pitt and Corbet are genuinely creepy and unsettling and the suspense is wrenching at times, but Haneke’s anti-violence message is utterly fumbled. Funny Games will probably amuse parts of the very audience Haneke believes he is enlightening and will otherwise only appeal to those who already grasp its message.

A final word about the original vs. the remake: if you’ve seen the original, you can skip this new version. It’s a nearly shot for shot and set for set recreation. There are a couple of minor changes and some of the dialogue seems different, though this may have more to do with nuances lost in the original’s subtitle translation from German to English than any intentional changes. The victims played by Susanne Lothar (The Piano Teacher) and the terrific but recently deceased Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others) are more sympathetic in the original and the villains played by Arno Frisch (Benny’s Video) and Frank Giering are less so, but otherwise it’s essentially the same movie. I’d give the original an extra half star simply for being original.

Funny Games. Italy/Germany/UK/France/USA 2007 (released in 2008). Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet. 1 hour 52 minutes. MPAA rated R for terror, violence and some language. 2 stars (out of 5)

34 Responses to “Review: Funny Games (2008) **”

  1. Well there’s another one for me to skip….

    And to think I almost rented the original last night just to see what all the talk was about, but I rented The 400 Blows instead.

    What the heck is the point of remaking something shot for shot? I am confused, I am not against remakes all together, but this one seems pointless. And judging from your review, it is.

  2. If you like pointless, nihilistic thrillers, it’s pretty effective. If you don’t, there are some good conversations sprouting up over it which means maybe Haneke has succeeded where I’ve said he failed.

    Haneke remade it in English because he knows the mainstream American audience would never bother watching the German language version and it’s this audience he most wants to lecture to.

  3. I think that as regards the original, at least, if it wasn’t for all the fourth-wall-breaking-lecturing and if the bad guys were actually characters with motivations instead of abstract plot devices, it would actually be a pretty good movie.

  4. I’m not sure if giving the baddies a motivation would’ve changed much for me, the ‘senseless, irrational evil’ aspect was kind of appealing. I agree with you 100% about the fourth wall business though. It detracts from its qualities as a thriller while failing to help Haneke make his broader point.

  5. My version would totally change the point of the movie, and you can do ‘senseless, irrational’ while still having the characters play real people.

  6. Nick, “The 400 Blows” is my favorite film of all time. Hope you enjoyed it.

    Thanks for the review, Craig. I’m not a fan of this guy at all. I’m probably in the minority, but I was very annoyed by “Cachet.” I truly feel like the guy *is* a superior prick just on the basis of that one. There are filmmakers that are astonishingly full of themselves, but they manage to churn out incredible work consistently, so I cut them slack because the proof is in the pudding (paging Mr. von Trier). Haneke just infuriates me. And, by the way, I find his films remarkably forgettable and as enjoyable as a root canal.

    OK, got that out of my system :)

  7. I know I may be alone here but I loved the original, so I really want to see this one. It’s maddening and upsetting and utterly vile – but it wants to be and it succeeds brilliantly.

    I’m sure Haneke, like Brecht (who would have loved “Funny Games”) before him, would be utterly thrilled to have infuriated so many people. That was, after all, the point.

    It’s hard to deny that this is a very well constructed film. Haneke knows his stuff, it’s just that a great many people are really pissed off by his stuff.

  8. When Hitchcock implicated the audience in the horror/terror of his films, it was part of the story, interwoven and seamlessly so at that. (Examples: the movie theatre full of laughing, giddy people, getting off on the onscreen violence of the movie while actual violence breaks out in the movie theatre in Saboteur; the way Grace Kelly admonishes Jimmy Stewart and herself for actually wanting the Raymond Burr character to be the villain they’ve been thinking he is in Rear Window… etc, etc.)

    Haneke is clumsy and the Funny Games movies are him at his most artless. The fourth wall-breaking shatters the message itself, as well as simultaneously choking the life out of the film(s).

    Craig, after months of battling people over their calling No Country for Old Men “nihilistic,” I’m glad to see someone call a truly nihilistic film nihilistic. To depict nihilism does not a nihilistic film make, and the Coens are incapable of making a truly nihilistic film–like Haneke’s Funny Games nonsense.

  9. Thanks for the review, Craig. I’m pleased that I skipped out on this one at the last minute, even though I liked Cache. I’ve got nothing against shot-for-shot remakes so long as they’re as good as or better than the original.

  10. i saw this. i chime in more monday.

    quickly a couple of things that i may as well claim as mine since their too minor to pop up in most reviews….

    one i’ve never seen an audience leave the theatre as qucikly as it did after funny games(usa).

    not so much because of the movie it self. but i think it was the final shot/still image of peter ?? the color change and then the quick volume increase and the naked city(??) music….

    a real room clearer. seriuosly. people were out the theatre before the real in red leters ending credits *started* and well i was one of those. *ha ha*

    ok there was only 17 people or so in the audience.but usually someone or few stay and watch some of the credits….

    i mentioned this someone that works in the theatre.(part oh his responsiblies was to clean bewteen screening/hell he had a broom/dustpan ) and he told me no one had said to watch any of the credits. ha ha.

    granted as i yeaterday when i went funny games had only five screening or so at the theatre i wnet too.

    i was curious about attendance and he also told me that friday each showunf did about 30 something (yep evn he said about 33 for friday night) people so 17(that’s what i told him my guesstimate was) for a matinee was good…..

    but i saw this at ah..an angelika in the south.

    this film was 3 bigger more mainstream theatre in town. i wonder how it did there ???

    also while sooooo may reviews keep mentioning how realistic a cool touch it was in the opening scene of ‘no country’ when anton attacjs the police office. and see the scuffs marks on the floor…..

    well it’s just as original/cool touch that considering the dresss ana(watts) is wearing it’s perfect that her undergarments not only don’t match. but that’s nothing ‘sexy’ about them either.

    oh and speaking of ‘sexy’ despite ‘sexy’ or something similair popping up on the screen during the trailer preveiw i saw….

    there’s nothing ‘sexy’ in this movie. trust me……

    even with the minutes of watts in her undergarments the word ‘sexy’.won’t come to mind.it’s not that sort of movie.a movie with watts in her underwear alot and i didn’t think ‘sexy’. well talk about a movie getting a surprise response from you. ha ha…

    craig. i zonked i likley babble more tomorrow.

    and surprise/surprise craig i got there early enough to do my famous/and lame audience profile/break down thing.nope and i’m still not good at this. but since i haven’t really down one on you page since i caught the juno screening.watchout…. ;)

    and craig….hmm didn’t the naked city song in the opening kick in when ana put the cd in or when the images started to pull away from inside the car ???

    i sure only the audieice hears the naked city stuff.and yeah i agree it’s a clue in to the audience. but it didn’t register to me as clue until the film progressed more….

    and it’s definitely a clue in(or something) the last time you hear the naked city song after that question has been asked/and get the red funny games lettering in same style it was shown in the film opening…..

  11. as far as the funny games(usa) fourth wall smashing. uh i thought it was pretty minor and didn’t take anything away from the viewing.(but did it circa 2008/add anything ???)

    it ws done in such a causal quick way i doubt it was remembered when the off screen violence keept going up…

    and i’m pretty sure the ‘where’s the remote controll ??’ bit a lot harder and seemed more original in 1997. i’m just guessing on that….

    http://www.boxofficeprophets.com/tickermaster/listing.cfm?TMID=3994

  12. Craig, stumbled onto your site from Scanners, enjoyed your take on it.

    “I won’t reveal what happens exactly because, unlike Haneke, I have respect for the audience.”

    In my review, I took an unconventional tactic here by revealing everything that happens in the film, essentially breaking the film critic’s cardinal rule. My justification was that since Haneke is only interested in his little “will you leave or will you stay?” experiment, and that since he’s using plot as a bait-and-switch tactic, that revealing the ending 1) ruined his game and 2) highlighted the only redeeming part of the film: it’s value as a discussion starter. If you know the ending before hand, you either won’t go because it’s obviously not your cup of tea, or you will because being a part of his experiment interests you. That way I’ve guaranteed the film it’s appropriate audience.

    But you are right. Haneke is an arrogant prick.

  13. Clearly I’m with you Dorothy, at least based on Cache and now Funny Games. Because of what others have said, I’m willing to give Cache another crack and I aim to check out one or two of his other well regarded films just so I can be a part of the conversation, but I don’t have a lot of hope.

    Matthew, all I’d say is that just because it’s a filmmaker’s goal to upset people, that doesn’t let them off the hook if people are upset for reasons he or she hadn’t intended. I wasn’t upset by Funny Games per se, just irritated that this Euro Chump thought he was smarter than me.

    When it comes to violence in movies, he’s singing to the choir in my case as my personal reaction to Rambo should prove.

    I wasn’t disturbed or offended by Funny Games, I was annoyed.

    I don’t think you’re alone though Matthew. I’d say it’s at least 50/50 people who love (the original) Funny Games to those that hate it. Maybe higher. RT is pretty solid.

    That’s interesting you bring up No Country Alexander, because I was thinking about it as I was writing this review. No Country employed similar techniques of twisting the audience’s genre expectations and also not allowing the audience to participate in the violence directed towards the characters by having much of it happen off screen. The difference I believe is that the Coen’s were making a statement about the true nature of life while Haneke was simply deploying intellectual and cinematic trickery to try and prove a point.

    Glimmer. I think “sexy” and all the other words in the trailer were a deliberate manipulation to fool people into seeing the movie so that Haneke could turn the tables on them. Based on the dismal box office, it didn’t work.

    The Naked City song came on along with the red opening title, I don’t remember if it was tied to her changing a CD. She does change a CD in the middle of the song to let you know that Naked City is on the soundtrack and isn’t what they’re listening to in the car.

  14. Thanks for dropping by Evan. It’s funny you mention that because I thought of doing exactly the same thing.

    In the end, I decided to let each person decide for his or herself, though I don’t argue at all with your tack.

    I look forward to checking out your review.

  15. The original FUNNY GAMES is extremely disturbing, but that DOES NOT invalidate it as art, otherwise then we must invalidate THE VANISHING, Pasolini’s SALO, HENRY: A PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, Chabrol’s LA CEREMONIE, Kaurismaki’s THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL and Masumura’s BLIND BEAST, all of which make some claim to that designation.
    As I stated earlier, I fully understand and respect Craig’s position here, as it is (admittedly) extremely difficult to muster up any affection for such a nihilistic, depraved and souless enterprise. But the intent here was to make such a film, and it is one of the most jarring and horrifying experiences ever committed to celuloid. THE VANISHING, similarly proposed a central situation that was so psychologically terrifying that it must never be revisited agian.
    In the realm of sociology and aberant behavior, bot THE VANISHING and FUNNY GAMES are fascinating and brilliantly conveyed.
    Great cinema is not always reassuring, indeed it is often more unpleasant than one’s own worst nightmares. In this sense, Hanecke has envsioned that which we dare not think about, dare not speak about.

  16. “Hanecke is an arrogant prick”

    I fail to see what this says in a constructive sense, what the ultimate value of his work is. Von Trier is even MORE rrogant, but (in my view) he has created three masterpieces: BREAKING THE WAVES, DOGVILLE and DANCER IN THE DARK.

  17. Haneke’s smug prickishness merely adds insult to injury in this case. Watching the interview he did on the DVD of the original version was almost unbearable. I wanted to put a bag over his head and smash his kneecap with a Calloway driver. I’ll forgive the creator of a masterpiece for being a smug prick, but not the creator of Funny Games.

    And related to what I said to Matthew, merely being disturbing is neither reason to condemn nor elevate a work of art. It doesn’t give you a free pass and it doesn’t automatically disqualify you from greatness. To my argument against Haneke and the film it actually doesn’t apply. Due in large measure to the fourth wall shenanigans, I was aware the entire time that I was watching an intellectual exercise and my level of disturbance rarely peaked.

  18. I’m sounding smug and prickish here myself. I want you all to know it’s directed at Haneke and Funny Games, not anyone who disagrees with my opinion of the film.

  19. Craig, can’t you and Haneke, you know, learn to get along?

  20. I’ve never seen a Hanecke film so I have no frame of reference whatsoever.

    I actually think that what Evan did is a service to moviegoers everywhere. If Mr. Hanecke’s purpose is to involve his audience in a highly cerebral experiment that pulls out the rug from under them, then I think it’s only fair to let potential patrons know so that they can make up their own minds. If they still want to see this film, then they are the exact group of people that would be up for a game such as this.

    Normally I avoid spoilers like the plague but this time I actively attempted to find them. If something’s genuinely disturbing and nihilistic, then I need to know what colour the car is before I sit down behind the wheel. So, there were any number of critics that hated this enough – and were sufficiently outraged – that they pulled out all the stops. It was basically to say, “I told you so.”

    I honestly don’t know if I would like this, but I strongly suspect…NOT. But I could be wrong. I hated Straw Dogs with the passion of a thousand white hot suns. It’s one of the worst things that I’ve had the misfortune to witness. EVER. On the other hand, I think A Clockwork Orange & The Silence Of The Lambs are both five star classics.

    Naomi interests me a great deal. She’s gorgeous, gutsy and genuinely gifted. (That just came out right. Proper aliteration is rare indeed.) She likes dark, complex themes and she’s not afraid to take it to the wall. Even in her lesser films she always shines brightly. I own Flirting but if you blink you’ll miss her. She was also in Dangerous Beauty and Wide Sargasso Sea but I can’t recall her at all. So I imagine the only things I’ve seen her in are: Mulholland Drive, Le Divorce, 21 Grams and Eastern Promises. I want to see this woman win an Oscar one day. She’s an awesome character actor and she seems to possess real integrity.

    Interestingly enough, I found that out Naomi is the executive producer of this version of Funny Games. So she is largely responsible (or at least had some serious creative control) regarding the final product that ended up on screen.

    Dorothy, you’re a highly amusing woman of greatly superior taste. But we all know that.

    glim, I’m anxiously awaiting your impressions Monday. I’m really interested in what you have to say.

    Craig, you were fairly harsh on this picture. So I am rather surprised that you actually gave it two stars (as opposed to one or none). But I do give you a tremendous amount of credit for the detail that you went into. I’m impressed. Keeping your legions of readers happy is as much a priority for you as it is for me. Glad to see that.

    As you said, there are some stimulating conversations arising out of this material, even if – like me – people haven’t seen it. Perhaps it’s all worth it in the end.

  21. Haneke’s personal qualities have nothing to do with whether his film is good or not, I’m pretty sure that Hitchcock and Kubrick were hard to be around. And some of the greatest works of art are ‘not always reassuring’. But to quote Mr. Juliano, ” Hanecke has envsioned that which we dare not think about, dare not speak about”
    I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I think Haneke’s point of the movie is precisely to argue that the emotions of sadness and despair that we may feel while watching Funny Games (at least the original, still haven’t seen the new one) are stupid and pathetic and deserve to be mocked.
    Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange – those are movies investigating the depravity of the human soul. Funny Games is a meta-movie about those kinds of movies and how Haneke considers that we-who-appreciate-them are suckers.

  22. In all fairness to Craig, the original FUNNY GAMES is so heinous, so unremorseful, so horrendously sadistic and devoid of feeling, so depraved, that a reaction like his (and of other close friends I have who agree with him) is perfectly in order.

    I do believe its intent was purposeful, as such it accomplishes what it sets out to do. But I could certainly see what a valid reaction could be, and truth be said, I will NEVER watch teh film again, so my defense of it as some kind of art has a stinging disclaimer. My HATE for those torturous killers was consumate.

    Just think, word is that Andrew Sarris stormed out of a screening of the comparatively tame STORYTELLING by Todd Solandz, as he furiously objected to the revenge enacted by the housekeeper against that suburban family. The Solandz film is a walk through the park next to the Hanecke! LOL!!!

  23. Jeff: I have a different perspective on it (as you yourself noted) but that is another aspect of Hanecke that crops up inb his work–multiple interpretations.

  24. The question you raise is, if a movie has a ‘purposeful intent’ and accomplishes what it sets out to do is it a success? Because I would say that Haneke does indeed deserve credit for that, but at the same time his intent is inherently corrupt. And I mean that in a very specific way that’s totally different from a ‘if you feel bad the movie succeeded’ kind of way. I mean artistically corrupt.

  25. I don’t think the movie is purposefully ambiguous, re: your most recent post. I think it has a sly, winking quality but its intentions seem pretty clear. When I think of ambiguous works of art, I think of filmmakers who are allowing for a range of responses and perspectives to the issues they raise.

  26. Jeff, that is matter of perspective. The fact that over 80% of America’s critics (and even more in Europe) feel otherwise does make me wonder. I am not using that obnoxious “critic card” with you, as your opinion is just as valid and as scholarly as any critics, only just to show there are varying opinions.
    I do admit what you say here is sensible and perceptive.

  27. Where are you getting this number? The original is 61% fresh on Rottentomatoes, and the remake is 46%.

  28. On Metacritic, the original scores a 72 based on 9 reviews while the remake scores a 39 based on 30 reviews.

  29. The original numbers at both Metacritic and RT were higher when the film released, but the present concensus posting has been “pared down” as a number of reviews have been either pulled off or are no longer available. The 72 at MC is a bit lower than the 80 it had there upon release. But the point is, it received a majority of favorable notices, even if (admittedly) my claim does not pan out now numerically.
    I made a case in earlier submissions that the film was brilliantly made, but I conceded that it was depressing, nihilistic and utterly devoid of spirit or any trace of levity. I further conceded that I am certain I will never watch the film (FUNNY GAMES) ever again.
    Still, Hanacke is a talent to be reckoned with. The numbers for CACHE are even more impressive, and I do consider that one to be his masterpiece. But in previous submissions I also cited TIME OF THE WOLF, BENNY’S VIDEO and a few others as being worthwhile (if not entirely successful) cinematic ventures.

  30. The remake, by the way has never entered into my own discussion. I have not seem this film, but I’m sure Craig is right on, Virtually the entire critical establishment has rejected or trashed it.

  31. Jeff, I know it seems we are going at each other (i.e FUNNY GAMES, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE etc.) but I am sure we will agree in future assessments on other films. I respect your opinion immensely and I don’t want it to appear as if we are just being contrary.

  32. Oddly Sam, contrary to Alexander, I really think the remake is on par with the original. Tim Roth is no substitute for Ulrich Muhe, but Naomi Watts is quite good and Michael Pitt is terrific. Otherwise the movie is quite literally the same. More than anything I suspect people give extra credit to the original because it appears ‘art-house’ with the subtitles.

  33. My colleague and I (who had opposing views) are engaging in a structured debate over this film on our website. I thought some of our points (about the nature of intent, acceptable audience manipulation, and what actually constitutes art) might be relevant to the discussion here.

    http://www.moviezeal.com/2008/03/18/doubleshot-funny-games-round-1/

  34. Evan, I just entered my own reponse on your website.

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