“Post-Horror” or Just More “FUNNY GAMES”? (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1 of this article, I questioned the recent coining of the buzzword “post-horror,” which has been applied only to certain recently-released, independently-produced horror films. My main argument was that horror filmmakers have been playing with and subverting the conventions of horror films for many years. If playing ‘fast and loose’ with ‘the rules’ is the definition of a post-horror film, then post-horror is not a new thing. If it’s nothing new, then there doesn’t seem to be a reason for creating a new subgenre based on it.

If anything, post-horror is really post-modern in its sensibility — and postmodernism has been around for quite a while (at least since the late 1970s in film and much longer in some other art forms). Undermining the norms of modernism is one of the favorite preoccupations of postmodernists. In cinema, this means playing with established, ‘classical’ screenwriting and filmmaking practices in such areas as characterization, narrative structure, cinematography, and editing. These postmodernist games often deliberately disrupt the cinema audience’s suspension of disbelief, which is built on devices like the seamlessness of classic continuity editing and the beginning-middle-end story structure that has been around since Aristotle wrote about it in his Poetics (ca. 335 BC).

 

In this second part of my article, I focus on the film(s) that I introduced at the end of the first part: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997 / 2007). The original German-language film and its English-language remake are examples of post-modernism applied to the horror-thriller genre in film — the post-modernism that’s recently been called post-horror. Haneke deliberately frustrates audience expectations about character and story using means that lead to the breakdown of the conventional boundary between the world of the film (its diegesis) and the world of the audience (the so-called ‘real world’). This breakdown involves the audience in the film in ways that are uncanny and sometimes downright annoying to viewers.

 

Two postmodern devices are particularly on display in Funny Games (1997): irony and self-reflexivity. In fact, ironic self-reflexivity is evident from the opening sequence. This quality might not be apparent on a first viewing. Still, it prepares viewers unconsciously for what is to follow, through a shift from inside to outside the diegesis and then back.
From the opening sequence of FUNNY GAMES (1997)

From the opening sequence of FUNNY GAMES (1997) – image source: https://keithandthemovies.com/2014/07/21/review-funny-games-1997/

While towing a sailboat behind their Land Rover, Anna/Ann (Susanne Lothar/Naomi Watts) and Georg/George (Ulrich Mühe/Tim Roth) play a family version of “Name That Tune” with classical music (Händel) playing through their vehicle’s sound system. Their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski/Devon Gearhart) observes from the middle of the back seat. As the opening credits start to roll over this scene, the musical genre abruptly switches to punk (written by John Zorn and performed by his band, Naked City) at a much louder volume. This music (and the accompanying credits) continue until the family reaches its destination: a large summer house on a picturesque rural lake.

 

The three family members are clearly unaware of this switch. The music is non-diegetic; it’s outside their world, so they can’t hear it. They appear to continue to respond calmly to and interact happily over the classical selections playing through their vehicle’s sound system. The audience, however, receives a jolt from the ironic contrast between what it hears and what it sees. This example of a Brechtian alienation effect also informs the audience that something bad is going to happen to this blissfully unaware, economically privileged nuclear family. It also notifies them that Haneke’s film is a self-reflexive one. The non-diegetic music and the credits rolling over the scene are reminders that they’re watching a film. Finally, the audience is shocked back into the world of the film as the music ends when the Land Rover’s horn sounds at the end of the sequence.*

 

 

Other horror films begin in similar ways but do so mainly for the shock value. They don’t intend to explore the boundaries of cinematic reality as Haneke does throughout the rest of the film. This intent becomes overt as the border between inside and outside the diegesis slowly breaks down, cutting the “suture” that binds the audience to the story on the screen through its identification with the camera as narrator.

The first example of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ happens when Paul (Arno Frisch/Michael Pitt) plays a game of ‘hot and cold’ with Anna, who is searching outside for the family dog. The audience knows that Paul has done something evil to the dog with one of Georg’s golf clubs. During this ‘funny game,’ Paul turns to the camera with a knowing smile, as if he is letting the audience in on the grisly joke. In the process, he acknowledges the audience’s presence by appearing to make eye contact with the viewer. This action exposes the gap between diegesis and audience as it crosses this boundary. It also calls into question the audience’s neutrality as observers. It’s as if Paul is saying that he believes the audience is really on his side and is enjoying his sadistic treatment of Anna. This is apt to offend the audience, which has likely been repulsed by Paul’s obnoxiously obsequious manner and his partner-in-crime Peter’s (Frank Giering/Brady Corbet) recent assault on Anna’s husband.

Still from FUNNY GAMES (1997)

Paul (Arno Frisch) lets the audience in his ‘joke’ on Anna (Susanne Lothar) in FUNNY GAMES (1997).

Behind this offense is a further realization — that the audience already has identified with Anna’s privileged family, whose stuffy and somewhat pretentious manner Paul and Peter mock through their twisted imitation of it. The intention here is, once again, to shock the members of the audience out of the passivity of their conventional roles as observers who hide behind the camera. Moreover, Paul serves notice to the audience that he is not just controlling Anna and her family — he is also beginning to manipulate the film’s viewers. 

Many film directors would be content with this teasing sort of boundary-crossing, which causes only a mildly annoying, yet almost amusing sort of discomfort. Not Haneke. He allows Paul’s power over the narrative to grow, further unnerving the audience as he addresses comments directly to the audience. Paul also plays with the story, demonstrating his power over the diegesis. For example, as he repeatedly ridicules Peter, he also offers two alternative stories about Peter’s past. This is very post-modern, as it calls into question the basic coherence and validity of narrative. It is also a continuation of Paul’s ridicule of the values and pretenses of his captives.

Paul’s first version of Peter’s story casts him as the product of a depraved “white trash” background which has made him “gay and criminal.” The second version creates Peter as a jaded son of privilege who preys on other families in his class in order to assuage the emptiness of existence. Each version of the story plays off the values and prejudices of Anna and Georg’s socioeconomic class. Finally, Paul states that he and Peter are addicts who rob rich families to get money to buy drugs. His sadistic, understated sarcasm is not lost on Georg, who replies that he “gets it” when Paul offers to invent another version of the story.

Paul (Michael Pitt) addresses the audience directly for the first time in FUNNY GAMES (2007)

Paul (Michael Pitt) addresses the audience directly for the first time in FUNNY GAMES (2007) – image source: https://theholyshrine.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/z-to-a-funny-games-1997-2007

Then, after betting Ann and George that they and their son will not be alive after twelve hours, he turns to the camera and asks the audience what it thinks about the bet. He also accuses the audience of being on the family’s side. As the plot continues to unfold, Paul continues to take a ‘meta’ attitude towards the very film in which he exists. He talks overtly about filmmaking conventions — at one point, for example, noting that the film’s runtime has not yet reached feature-film length. Paul ultimately reduces his power over the film’s plot to absurdity. In probably the most famous scene in Funny Games, he uses a remote control (a prop within the world of the film) to rewind the film itself. In so doing, Paul rewrites the story by editing out the death of Peter and thereby robbing Anna of the opportunity to turn the tables on the two home invaders. In so doing, Paul demonstrates his complete power over plot and diegesis as well as his influence over the audience outside the diegesis.

Paul (Pitt) again addresses the audience, this time with metatextual questions, in FUNNY GAMES (2007)

Paul (Pitt) again addresses the audience, this time with metatextual questions, in FUNNY GAMES (2007) – image source: https://www.tumblr.com/search/funny%20games%20gif

By the film’s third act, it becomes clear that Peter, unlike Paul, is not aware that he is a character in a story. As the two sail Georg’s boat towards the home of their next family of victims after having thrown the bound Anna overboard, Paul tries to engage Peter in a pseudo-philosophical discussion of the relationship between fiction and reality. Paul’s statements make it clear that he has the film in which he exists in mind, while Peter responds with vague, generalized replies that make it equally clear that he is clueless about his fictional status. 

In passing, it is important to note that Haneke uses Anna’s murder to undermine an almost-cliched cinematic convention involving props that foreshadow a future plot development. At his father’s request, Georgie borrows a knife from his mother in the first act. When his father goes to investigate what’s going on at the house, the camera deliberately zooms in on the knife as it is knocked onto the deck of the boat. This convention tells the audience that the knife will come into play later in the plot. In a horror film, the implication is that it will be a key weapon against the ‘monster,’ in whatever form it appears in that particular film. Here, Haneke subverts this convention by not allowing Anna to use the knife effectively against her murderers. Like Paul’s ‘rewinding’ of the film’s action, this is intended to frustrate the audience’s expectation that the ‘good’ victims will overcome their ‘bad’ attackers.

It’s notable that the ruthlessness and brutality of Funny Games ramp up as the breakdown in standard relations between film and audience occurs. The two invaders improvise ‘games’ for the family members to play that are, of course, rigged to result in humiliation, pain, and death. This association between the horrific and the experimental is one reason that this film has been referred to as “torture porn for the art cinema.” Yet Haneke (unlike his French colleagues of the New Extremity variety) does not show much of the violence and gore on-screen (in this film, at least). The one ‘kill’ that he does allow the audience to see in its entirety is the object of yet another of his ‘funny games’ with his spectators: the death of Peter and Paul’s subsequent erasure of the event. This trick disallows the catharsis that the audience wants — namely, retribution on the two home invaders. As such, it is sadistic, punishing the audience for its need for relief and forcing it to accept a masochistic and submissive role.

Sadistically dominant, Paul is the one character in the film who does not have to play by standard cinematic rules. Although he understands that he is a character in a movie, he also has the power to control its world. It doesn’t take a lot of theoretical gymnastics to argue that Paul is a stand-in for Haneke. As writer and director, Haneke controls both the world of the film and his audience’s reaction to it. Although any good director does the same, here Haneke rubs the audience’s nose in it by making his power overt through the use of postmodern cinematic devices. It’s also fairly clear that Haneke uses this power (through his avatar, Paul) to carry out a socio-economic class-based attack on the world of Ann and George. Although Haneke has claimed that Funny Games is a critique of violence in American popular culture (and Hollywood in particular), it’s difficult to find such an argument running through the film. It is much easier to argue that Haneke’s postmodern approach (along with other techniques, such as closed framing) uses violence as a tool to criticize and punish both the privileged white bourgeoisie in the film and those in the audience who are watching the film.

If this two-part series has provoked interest in watching Funny Games, the American remake (also known as Funny Games US) is currently streaming on Netflix. To read my thoughts about movies and video in genres other than horror and science fiction, check out my posts at Frisco Kid at the Movies, I’ll return to Loud Green Bird in the near future with my take on another horror or sci-fi flick — but probably in a more concise and pithy manner. To be honest, Haneke’s two Funny Games films have worn out the critic in me.


 

*Zorn’s punk track, “Bonehead,” will reappear later in the film, within its diegesis.