Irritating Director

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Michael Haneke's'Funny Games' Offers Very Unfunny Look at Violence

With an operating slogan of: “Films are made to irritate people. Only irritation effects change,” it’s clear that the work of Michael Haneke will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s just fine with the Austrian director because his intent is to present questions about societal issues for audiences to consider. And recently, he presented the issue of violence for American audiences to consider.

“Funny Games,” an English-language remake of Haneke’s controversial 1997 German-language film of the same name, depicts an upper-class family terrorized by a couple of sadistic youths. The film was released as part of “Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation,” the just-concluded retrospective hosted by the Goethe-Institut and the embassies of Austria and France.

Haneke spoke to The Washington Diplomat, partly through a translator, about why he decided to do the remake, which paints a stark, unrelenting portrayal of America’s obsession with violence and torture.

“Because the film was in German, it never really reached the [American] audience for which it was intended. The film is more up to date than it ever was. The violence and pornographic images in media has increased tenfold in the last 10 years. Audiences are used to far more violence than you would expect. You dumb them down with violent productions,” Haneke charged.

But tackling such a major issue in a foreign language was not easy for the German-speaking director. “It was much more difficult for me. My English is not as good,” he said. Asked if he would make another English-language film, Haneke replied, “You should never say never, but it all depends on the circumstances.”

The director explained why he insisted on casting Australian actress Naomi Watts in the lead female role as the mother of the captive family: “I saw her in ‘21 Grams’ and ‘Mulholland Drive.’ She portrays a certain vulnerability that is perfect for the film. I think she is one of the best actresses in the English-speaking world.”

Commenting on the apparent “anarchy” in “Funny Games,” Haneke proclaimed, “The goal of an artist is always to create form, not anarchy.” In the case of “Funny Games,” though, he concedes, “It’s a Trojan horse, for sure.”

In one scene, for instance, a character uses a remote control to rewind the film that we’re watching, taking the plot down an alternate course. And a couple of times, the so-called “fourth wall” (invisible wall between the audience and the actors) is shattered when the audience is directly addressed by a character. “The point is to break the rules of the genre,” Haneke said.

“I directed the actors [to achieve] the alienation effect,” he added, referring to the way in which today’s audience is distanced from becoming completely enveloped in the film. “Sometimes you try to create a certain atmosphere. Sometimes it’s just easier to show them. You have to love your actors, make them feel that they can trust you. My tendency is to bring them there where I wanted them all along.”

Actor Michael Pitt, who plays one of the two demented youths in the film, recalled, “Anytime I [had a question], he was open to conversation. He knew that he was right.” Pitt’s co-star Brady Corbet added, “We have so much faith in the man that it’s OK.”

Asked how “Funny Games” compares to television, Haneke replied that the “bad guys” have “no back story. They aren’t characters. They’re cartoon characters like Beavis and Butthead.”

“It’s not easy to play the bad guy. In the original, the actor in Michael Pitt’s role was a non-professional, more limited in his abilities, more simple,” Haneke said. “[In the new version], it was a little bit more subtle.”

Interestingly, “Funny Games” is almost entirely a shot-for-shot remake of the original. “There’s 20 seconds of difference,” Haneke pointed out. “By the time you add the credits, it’s three to four minutes. In the U.S., you have to have a lot more credits. It’s absurd.”

Some frustrated filmgoers in the United States though have walked out of the screening long before those credits have even rolled. In response, Haneke simply said: “Those who did not watch it to the end apparently did not need it. Any good film should be an experiment.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999