Leading into the release of his 1997 thriller Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke had already begun teasing audiences with his own sadist brand of arthouse cinema. The director was working toward what academics now refer to as his “glaciation trilogy”. The trilogy was initiated by his festival breakthrough Benny’s Video (1992), a disturbing story of a child murderer, whilst, his feature release prior to Funny Games, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, detailed the moments leading up to, and including, a mass murder. The director has since cited these films as a representation of Austria’s “progressive emotional glaciation”, wherein the country became increasingly desensitised to violence in a time just after the 1986 presidential election of disgraced former UN Secretary, Kurt Waldheim. Fast forward eleven years and the tip of this abrasive iceberg presents itself in the form of Funny Games, a near-two-hour ‘experiment’ on the complacency of movie audiences.
What begins in a serene Austrian highway, populated only by a white, middle-class family and their German shepherd, soon spirals into a intense hostage situation when two peculiar young men take the family hostage. Although these relatively sudden proceedings suggest a cat-and-mouse action flick, moving at breakneck speeds, the following drama is much more subdued and calculated.
Is it okay to enjoy such cruelty if it's onscreen?
Take the chase scenario of the cat and mouse, and picture the mouse lifeless, submitted to the inevitability that, regardless of its efforts, it will eventually be caught by its hunter. In a similar manner, audiences are subjected to the torturous actions of the two violent perpetrators upon our atomic family as we soon realise our role is one of pure passivity. A master puppeteer and provocateur, Haneke continuously probes at our sympathetic eyes viewing these horrific events and turns a mirror unto ourselves; is it okay to enjoy such cruelty if it's onscreen? Or should we pacify our viewing at the expense of our own morality? Such lofty questions are only one part of the stubborn aftertaste that this film leaves; a bold, unapologetic critique of our passive engagement with visual art.