Sometimes, Netflix Instant delivers things that surprise you. Other times, they remind you why you've forgotten about certain films. Rewatching the original Funny Games so many years later is a combination of both effects. Writer/Director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Cache) plays a startling game of cinematic cat and mouse with the audience for just under two hours. Anna, Georg, and their son Georg become victims of a twisted series of games from two men--Paul and Peter--who were introduced to them as business associates of their close friends. While Georg and Georg set up the family's boat during vacation, Anna invites Peter in the house. He says he needs to borrow four eggs for Anna's neighbors. Paul soon joins Peter and Michael Haneke begins to toy with audience expectations.
I've mentioned in many reviews that the mark of a great horror film director is convincing the audience they saw things they did not actually see. You hear those stories all the time about people who swear Tobe Hooper showed the victims in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being hung on the meat hooks or Alfred Hitchcock showed the knife penetrate the skin in Psycho. It's a rare day that someone is actually shocked by seeing everything unfold onscreen.
Michael Haneke doesn't even give the audience that satisfaction. His vision of Funny Games is a horror film where you see nothing happen. A static camera stays on everyone in the room except for the people involved in a particularly violent or disturbing altercation. When he does show you action, it's nowhere near as upsetting as the stuff he only lets you hear or imagine. It's a twisted ploy that becomes even more unhinged when Peter begins to address the audience directly. The first time he does it, you assume he's talking to someone else standing behind the camera. Then you realize he's talking to you about things he won't even show you.
The performances in this film allow Haneke to play with structure and cinematography. Susanne Lothar gives one of the best performances as a mother fighting for her family I've ever seen. She's a raw nerve responding to every sensory impulse without any filter. Even the cute opening scene with husband and wife playing a guessing game with Classical music exposes her open attitude toward any interaction
In contrast, Ulrich Muhe is stoic and reasonable. He does not abandon his calm and contemplative demeanor unless he is physically forced to for most of the film. When the frozen visage drops, it's devastating. It's hard as an actor hide any strong reaction in an aggressive scene; Muhe does it effortlessly and to great effect for most of a film.
Arno Frisch and Frank Giering as Paul and Peter are something else entirely. They are the device of Haneke's film. They're psychopaths who insist on following all vocal and tonal rules of etiquette while violating all social order with their actions. They push each other to the breaking point constantly as part of their games, always reigning it in before it boils over with a laugh and an apology. If you didn't know what they were actually doing, you'd be rooting for the pair. I could imagine a version of this film that went all Rear Window on the story, showing Paul and Peter entertaining the neighbors as Anna and the Georgs watch throughout the day.
Funny Games is a brutal film to watch. While I saw it quite a few years ago, I still found myself needing multiple breaks throughout the film during this viewing. The problem is not the content itself but the realization of what is about to happen in the film. Haneke telegraphs everything and then doesn't let you see it happen. That's the scariest part of all. The waiting.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.