Although it has only one really graphic moment of violence, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games — both the German-language original made in 1997 and this shot-for-shot English-language remake — probably distresses audiences more than the torture porn in the Saw and Hostel series. And even that one scene makes viewers feel bad — not because of the gore but because they find themselves enjoying it. Yes, Haneke comes from Austria, the land of Freud, angst, and Sacher-Masoch. Now he comes to America, the land of guilt-free indulgence in the suffering of others, with a black comic, infuriating exercise in suspense, sadism, and Brechtian finger pointing.
The only differences in this version from the original, other than the language, the later-model cars, and the cellphone, are 10 years of history and a Hollywood cast headed by Naomi Watts (in her underwear) and Tim Roth. They play Eve and Fred, a contented (well, he might be a little grumpy), well-to-do couple who along with their spoiled but plucky little boy, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), are driving their Volvo to their summer home in a gated community on the lake shore. Almost before they can unpack the golf clubs and the white wine, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two squeaky-clean preppie types in white shorts and white gloves (like cartoon characters), drop by and ask Eva whether they might borrow some eggs.
The white gloves should be a tipoff, for, ingratiating good manners aside, the two are a couple of psychopaths whose idea of “funny games” is first verbal and then physical abuse and brutality. And the rules of these games, diabolical and repeatedly changed to keep screwing the unwilling players, have a kind of sick logic and a demented justice. As much as you want to root for the victims — excruciatingly portrayed by Watts, Roth, and Gearhart — you might also suspect that they’re getting what’s coming to them. Even the dog is an annoying yapper.
Yet not even Georgie deserves what these creeps eventually dish out. And Watts and Roth bring a slow-brewing dignity and perhaps heroism to their hapless characters. As for “Peter” and “Paul” (or “Tom” and “Jerry”), like the thrill killers in Compulsion, they seem to hail from the same privileged class as their victims. So what’s wrong with them? As part of their shtick, they provide varied and sometimes contradictory explanations from the lexicon of criminal motivation (drugs; repressed homosexuality; traumatic childhood) to explain what they’re doing. But the only explanation that holds up is . . . because it’s fun!
Haneke isn’t so sure. In one shot, blood spatters a torturously blaring TV set. Is he suggesting that the alienation effect of the media is numbing our sensibilities and turning us into jaded nihilist monsters? Or are we turning to the media to fulfill a need that’s already there? In another scene, someone mourns while the gruesome result of an act of violence lies just outside the frame. The camera holds the shot for an unbearably long time, and most viewers (myself included) would be relieved if Haneke had panned from the grief to the carnage.
Audiences, in America especially, are happy to be entertained by the spectacle of graphic violence and not so happy to have to confront the human toll in pain and loss. You could ask why, but what fun would that be? Moral queries aside, Funny Games is a masterpiece of making audiences squirm and understanding why they do.