The Confessions of Haneke

Not long ago, Austrian director Michael Haneke wouldn’t have seemed a likely candidate to jump across the Atlantic to create English-language remakes of his own films. The past has shown the move to Hollywood to be a tricky one for European directors, particularly when they attempt to translate their own work for an American audience. (If you don’t believe me, compare the menace of Dutch director George Sluizer’s The Vanishing with the pulp camp of his own American remake—or, for that matter, take a look at Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection.) Following the success of his 2005 film Caché, he could have gone the Sluizer route, remaking his biggest hit, or taken a page from Jeunet’s book and adapted his post-apocalyptic Le Temps du Loup into a big-budget spectacle. But Haneke, whose films treat their characters with uncompromising emotional brutality, could hardly be expected to compromise now. For his first English-language project, Haneke has revisited Funny Games—arguably his least palatable film, and certainly his least compromising.

It makes sense, really, considering that American attitudes toward violence are Funny Games’ target. [Full disclosure: this reviewer is housebound with a two-week-old baby, so the following comments are based on the 1997 original and not on the new version.] The film’s story is simple: a family vacationing in a lake house invites two young men (who claim to be friends of the neighbors) into their home. The two begin terrorizing and torturing the family in a broadening circle of violence, and before long they’re winking to the camera, making the audience complicit in the onscreen brutality. It is (as if it needed saying!) a powerful and disturbing film, particularly to anyone who enjoys action or horror films, genres to which violence is essential. In one key scene (perhaps the key scene) one of the victims wrestles a gun from an attacker and shoots him. It gives the viewers, who have been watching this unjust violence for two reels or so, a real thrill—finally, the bad guy gets it! But that’s precisely where Haneke pulls the rug out from under us. The other assailant scrambles for a remote control and rewinds the film, preventing the shooting and returning to the torture.

At first glance it seems Haneke is tormenting the audience as he torments his characters, taking away our last glimmer of hope by denying us redemptive violence. That guy deserved to get shot, we think. But what Haneke’s really doing is underscoring the brutality of the very concept of “redemptive violence,” the story logic that requires anyone to deserve it. Liberal viewers who oppose the death penalty, for instance, still expect the black hats to get killed in the final shootout. As much as we contend that no one deserves to die, we all throw our personal ethics out the window when we enter a movie theater. We’re all hangin’ judges.

The real reason it makes so much sense for Haneke to remake this film, then, is that its attitude toward sin is so thoroughly Puritan. The film essentially adapts Matthew 5:28 to a different sin: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Jesus states. Haneke is basically saying: “Anyone who watches Saw IV has already committed murder in his heart.” He makes the case for a direct link between watching torture porn and being complacent to real torture, if not actually committing it.

For a thoroughly progressive filmgoer who is nonetheless a big Dirty Harry fan, that can be a tough pill to swallow. But it’s not exactly a new argument: after all, the early Christian church objected to the theater as much as the gladiatorial arena. In book III of his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo writes regretfully of his youthful passion for tragic plays:

In my wretchedness I loved to be made sad and sought for things to be sad about: and in the misery of others—though fictitious and only on the stage—the more my tears were set to flowing, the more pleasure did I get from the drama and the more powerfully did it hold me.

What happens in a film is false, but the emotions we direct at the screen are real, and it is the shared argument of Haneke and Augustine that those emotions are potentially dangerous.

It’s little surprise that Haneke’s game has sparked the ire of many American film critics. Roger Ebert states that “Haneke’s essay fails because he hasn’t a clue about what makes American movies tick”; A.O. Scott’s New York Times review accuses Haneke of being a hypocrite who approaches violence “with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.” Many have been the comparisons between Funny Games and Eli Roth’s Hostel (and, indeed, there’s a telling similarity between the poster for Haneke’s film, which shows a weeping Naomi Watts, and similar images of Elisha Cuthbert advertising the film Captivity). But Haneke’s critique goes much deeper, cutting to the very heart of how American films work. The critics haven’t taken kindly to that attack, and their response says: Say what you will about our foreign policy, our cuisine, our tax law—but don’t mess with our movies.

It’s difficult to look at a film like Funny Games in the traditional terms of a film review, or even a casual discussion. You can’t really like or dislike a movie like this; it doesn’t work that way. In that regard, it’s similar to another recent film that is both about the depiction of violence and an example of it, a film that similarly seeks to make its audience complicit in the brutality onscreen: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. As with Gibson’s film, there are those who will hate Funny Games, but that’s generally because they’re looking at it as a movie among other movies. Ebert is onto something when he states that “this isn’t a movie, it’s a thesis,” but by that token it’s difficult to discuss in the terms of a movie review. Its goals and its methods are entirely elsewhere. But it’s not exactly a thesis—it’s a sermon. Haneke admonishes us to hate sin; unfortunately for him, it’s a sin that most of us Dirty Harry fans aren’t willing to give up.