Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Horror of (a) Playing God: Job's Nightmare and Michael Haneke's Funny Games

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Horror of (a) Playing God: Job's Nightmare and Michael Haneke's Funny Games

Article excerpt

Director Michael Haneke has affirmed that he made Funny Games (1997; American remake, 2010) to irritate, disturb, and manipulate his viewers into reconsidering their consumption of violence as entertainment. When absorbing "acceptable," "consumable" media violence, Haneke (2007) has declared that the spectator "always becomes the killer's accomplice" because he or she wants the violence to happen. Under other circumstances, this desire for bloodshed would be unacceptable, but in mainstream entertainment media, the typical audience receives a pardon: safe, moral resolutions and happy endings justify the mayhem that has been witnessed and enjoyed. Film in particular allows this strange form of voyeurism to thrive. According to Haneke, film tends to "a narcotized, that is, an anti-reflexive reception" (Haneke 2010, 576), and the result is numbness to real victimization and suffering in the world around us.

If this were the only implication of Funny Games, we would have to wonder why it caught so many viewers off-guard. As many commentators on the film have noted, the implicating the viewer in consumption violence was not new, even when the original, Austrian version of the film came out in the late 1990s. A Clockwork Orange (1971), Blue Velvet (1986), Natural Born Killers (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994), and, later, Fight Club (1999) and American Psycho (2000) all provoke along these lines. Halloween (1978) put the viewer inside the slasher's mask, both enacting repressed desire and bringing this desire to awareness. The Scream series (1996, 1997, 2000, and 2011) is very popular and also very self-conscious about the conventions of gory horror-film entertainment. Even the Saw (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010) and Hostel (2005, 2007, and 2011) films offer meta-commentary on the sickening tortures they portray and their audiences' desire to watch. (1) This saturation of ironic self-awareness, among other factors, (2) explains the tepid response to the 2007 American Funny Games remake, both at the box office and among critics. As much as the auteur/director thought that American audiences needed to experience his film, almost exactly in its same 1997 form, many of us had seen this movie before. (3)

So, I would argue that this is not the issue that continues to make Funny Games so potent. Instead, Haneke has communicated its deeper provocation in a constant refrain that we hear in his interviews and meta-commentary: in order to invite his audience to engage in active interpretation and response, he refuses to let his films offer obvious explanations for the violence that they portray. Sometimes the very identity of the perpetrators is obscure, as in Cache (2005) and Haneke's Oscar-nominated tour de force, The White Ribbon (2009). But even when we know who is doing what--a family commits suicide in The Seventh Continent (1989); a teenager kills a young girl and films the murder in Benny's Video (1992); Peter and Paul torture the family in Funny Games; musician descends into sadomasochism in The Piano Teacher (2001); a father is shot dead in Time of the Wolf (2003); and despite the mystery, much brutality occurs out in the open in The White Ribbon--these films never come right out and tell us why the perpetrators act as they do. As viewers, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

Thuswaldner (2010) has proposed that this disruption of "psychological interpretations of [Haneke's] characters' actions" "offer[s] the potential for a certain liberation of thought," and in particular, "the importation of questions of spirituality in the gaps between characters' actions and their unclear motivations" (190). Understood in this light, Funny Games is striking because of its depiction of raw suffering and the seemingly pointless games that can produce it. Funny Games is a disruptive anti-fable that offers a glimpse into the potential for arbitrary, sadistic malevolence to break in, unabated, and for it then to torment, torture, and kill. …

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