An English-language remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) directed by Haneke himself is perhaps the most unlikely major studio venture of the year. In the original, two sociopaths hold an upper-middle-class family hostage in their summer home, forcing them to take part in torturous psychological games. That film was bleak, brutal, nihilistic, and emotionally unsatisfying—exactly the sort of difficult fare that Hollywood generally avoids.How could Haneke possibly find American financing? I assumed he would be forced to compromise his vision, similar to how George Sluizer had to tack an incongruous happy ending onto his Hollywood version of The Vanishing. Boy, was I wrong. The film Haneke has delivered is nearly identical to his 1997 original. Not only is the gloomy tone intact, but so is everything else, from the geography of the house right down to placement of the tables and chairs. Compared to this, Gus Van Sant’s shotby- shot remake of Psycho played positively fast and loose with its source material.
In the rare instances when foreign filmmakers have directed American remakes of their own movies, the boredom is usually palpable, yet the new Funny Games turns out to be every bit as good as the original. It’s still powerful, suspenseful, and absolutely merciless towards its characters and audience.Seeing Funny Games for the first time is an ordeal. There were many walkouts when it played at Cannes in 1997, and I remember that fateful day when I watched it on DVD, thinking about how nice it would be to turn it off, go out into the sunshine, and reassure myself that the world wasn’t so terrible after all.Haneke intended his film to be a dark satire of America’s glamorized presentation of violence. “In many American films, violence is made consumable,” says Haneke in the press notes. “I want to show the reality of violence, the pain, the wounding of another human being.” His point is that in being entertained by cinematic depictions of murder, we are on the same moral level as the murderers. At several points during Funny Games, the killers break the fourth wall and address the camera, as if conspiring with the viewer directly.Haneke goes beyond attacking the viewer’s taste in movies: he attacks the viewer personally. I hated the contempt that Haneke had for his audience. Movies like Psycho and A Clockwork Orange trick the audience into sympathizing with their depraved heroes, but those films at least offer considerable entertainment value. Funny Games, on the other hand, is no fun at all. Frankly, I wanted a film that would reassure me that I was on the moral high ground. Why should Haneke make me accessory to the crimes just because I rented his movie?Well…why not? Isn’t great art supposed to challenge us? Haneke has said he wants this remake to reach the multiplex crowd that supports the torture porn genre, but he is most skillful in challenging his own bourgeois art house audience. Most of his films paint lessthan- flattering pictures of the upper-middleclass lifestyle (in Funny Games, the family’s elaborate gate keeps them from escaping), and in interviews he has said that this film was not meant as a rebuttal to lowbrow horror flicks, but to the work of Palme d’Or winner and critics’ darling Quentin Tarantino.Watching his Funny Games, already knowing everything that was to come, I could appreciate just how meticulous Haneke is as a filmmaker. His decision to not use non-diegetic music deprives us of one of the medium’s most reassuring artifices. Watch how he creates a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere by frequently focusing the camera away from the characters that are talking. Look for moments where Haneke subverts the conventions of the typical thriller (near the beginning, the camera lingers on a knife, presumably to establish its importance. When the knife finally reappears towards the end, it’s as a cynical joke). And of course, keep in mind that most of the violent acts takes place off screen, something I didn’t even realize when I first saw the original.So what’s new in the remake? Well, very little. In fact, the few times where dialogue has been dropped or shot constructions have been altered will stick out like a sore thumb for anyone with a good memory. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbett now play the four central roles, and they fit their parts so perfectly that memories of the original actors rarely arise. Pitt in particular gives a great, creepy performance that deserves comparison with Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.If you’ve seen the original Funny Games, do you need to see the remake? Maybe not. But then again, if your first reaction was as negative as mine, you may find that another viewing can be a revelation. I certainly didn’t “enjoy” either version of this film, but they both made me rethink many of the violent films I’ve enjoyed. And for that alone, Funny Games is invaluable.