“There exists, at the bottom of all abasement and misfortune, a last extreme which rebels and joins battle with the forces of law and respectability in a desperate struggle, waged partly by cunning and partly by violence, at once sick and ferocious, in which it attacks the prevailing social order with the pinpricks of vice and the hammer-blows of crime.”
– Victor Hugo
All the way back to Aristotle, tragedy has been examined in many forms. One of those modern forms is horror. Particularly of interest in horror is the concept of the monster. By watching horror, we engage with various forms of monsters— some are literal monsters, others are monstrous in their actions. Cynthia A. Freeland writes in her essay “Realist Horror” that these monsters “do not threaten us directly” because we know they don’t exist, we understand by way of an agreement with conventions of the horror genre our engagement is a mere fiction. In a sense, horror allows the viewer a safer space in which to confront our fears, and also our mortality.
Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games was the auteur’s self-confessed artistic expression of the effects of media violence on real people, real life. Even with the director explaining his intentions, there’s more underneath. The film’s themes are best viewed through the lens of Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, something that disturbs our idea of social reason, and our our sense of self. Haneke achieves this social disruption by subverting the horror genre, attacking social order as a family unit is attacked figuratively and literally at once.. When lead protagonist Paul breaks the fourth wall and makes the audience an active participant in the horror that follows, our role becomes that of the subject. Haneke also questions the social order of good and evil by exploring two banal characters whose violence alters our perspective on what we perceive as innocent. Ultimately, the film confronts why we consume horror, questioning the viewer subtly every so often between the brutality: why are you still watching?
Funny Games begins with archetypal views of family and of supposed normality. Immediately, we’re in the car with a family— a mother, a father, their son. They listen to beautiful classical music, heading out to their cabin by the lake. All of a sudden the peaceful stillness is broken, the ears assaulted with brutal heavy metal. Haneke’s already playing with us: the classical music and the family talking cuts out entirely, the metal song is the audio we hear while the family’s mouths move in silence. Haneke intentionally shatters order, prefacing what’s to come.
Kristeva defines the abject as the disturbance of our “identity, system, [and] order.” Paul and Peter— two well-dressed, yachting, golf loving young men— represent the story’s confrontations about how we see innocence, good versus evil, and the societal idea of our expectations about the seemingly upper class and how they’re meant to conduct themselves. We’re in the land of polo shirts, yachts and private docks on private properties, a place where neighbours share eggs. These eggs, symbolic of the social order we expect in this place, are what precipitates Haneke’s first real disturbance. After Peter breaks a few borrowed eggs from Anna and George, he and Paul become overly insistent they’re given more to replace them. When an argument begins feeling sinister, George slaps Paul across the face— a physical break of the social order.
Following this disturbance, Paul initiates more violence. Kristeva’s abject draws us “toward the place where meaning collapses,” just as the two young psychopaths have no motive or meaning for why they play their little games. More than that there’s no meaning whatsoever to the plot of Haneke’s film, outside of standing as his repartee to violence. While we can extract meaning, seeing abjection in the raw horror of a whole family dying, it is horror for horror’s sake. Haneke is challenging us to explore why this type of horror captivates us, even in all its brutality.
The breakdown of social order is a challenge to meaning. The polo shirt wearing villains are the opposite of what we expect of a horror villain. The genre dictates young men who look upper class, fraternise with upper class people, who dress nicely and come around asking for spare eggs to help their hosts with her cooking aren’t the typical killer.
The most significant breakdown of meaning comes through the viewer losing the ability to distinguish between subject and object— that is, between us as the audience and the characters as fictional people. Haneke does so by having Paul occasionally break the fourth wall, looking at and talking directly to the audience. This has two functions. First, this is the director speaking to us through his character, wondering why we continue to watch even while we know where this horror is heading. Second, Paul’s speaking to us directly effectively makes the audience a character in the film, blurring the lines of reality and incorporating our entertainment into the plot. At the 95-minute mark Paul quips that they haven’t reached “feature film length yet.” Haneke at times frames Paul so that he’s looking directly into the camera. Although there are scenes where he’s speaking to a character, the perspective continually makes the viewer consider whether they are actually playing a part in the story. Our meaning of self, as audience, collapses.
The abject Kristeva writes about forces us to see our own sense of self within the horror of Funny Games. Haneke’s abject comes in the form of the corpses, which by the time the film is over have relatively piled up. But it’s where the death of these bodies begins that matters most: the child. George Jr. is the first of the family to be killed, the parents made to watch. In the aftermath, Anna and George see their own deaths as imminent, and here is where our own mortality enters the picture. As the two grieving parents must literally be in the same room as the murdered body of their son, the audience, already a part of the plot like another character in the cast, must likewise stay with the body.
Again, Haneke’s question bubbles to the top: after all that’s happened, why do we keep watching? Kristeva would presuppose a modicum of joy “violently and painfully” existing in us as we suffer through viewing the suffering of Anna, George, and George Jr. Psychopaths certainly would love horror— Jeffrey Dahmer’s favourite film was The Exorcist III, for what were surely all the wrong reasons. The rest of us— those who form the cogs and wheels of the social order— we view horror with appropriate response, ranging in subjectivity from revulsion and disgust to pure fright, some even experiencing a physical reaction. Seeing a family die, involved as the audience becomes through Paul’s break in the fourth wall, is a traumatic event. Yet some aspect of Funny Games wills us through to the end, compelling us, as if we just cannot look away. Just as we question our sense of self in regards to our role as spectator, albeit one heavily involved, we question our own morality by continuing to watch the horror. No matter when the abject of Kristeva rears its head— the blood dripping over the television set, the vomit of the horrified and grieving mother— we still keep watching.
Freeland’s “Realist Horror” suggests moments like the death of little George Jr. “fascinate us because they violate our conceptual categories” such as the concept of children, or innocence, as sacred, somewhat of a protected category. When someone dies it’s tragic, but our society sees a child die and it is heightened to tragedy on another level, because children have not yet lived a life, they are pure. In addition, we keep watching because, as Freeland writes “we are somehow attracted to monsters and to the horrific spectacle itself.” This is punctuated in a simple gesture at the end by Paul, when he stares at the camera, a sly smile on his face, and he winks.
He is a monstrous character, though a real one. His wink acknowledges us, the viewer and spectator to this horrific realism, as monstrous, too. We have willingly sat through every last ounce of viciousness Haneke offers. If we are still there to see Paul wink, we are complicit in the horror, because as viewers we can, at any point, press stop, walk out of the theatre, or throw our DVD in the trash. But we do not. Neither does the director stop producing the violence we consume.
As director, Haneke does not escape his role as the medium through which we experience the horror and its violence. At a certain point, he purposefully acts as mediator in our journey through the abject, and, along with Paul breaking the fourth wall, he breaks with his realism, the order he has imposed on the film itself. He shows us a version of the plot’s events, then rewinds us back to a particular point where Paul continues on through a darker, more tragic course of events. Haneke acknowledges the creator’s role, the filmmaker’s part in the experience, as the ones who deliver these images and this visual violence to us. Then one last time, at the end of the film, Paul stares at us with a coy, ever-so-slight grin crossing his face, because it’s about to start all over again— the cycle of violence, the cycle of consumption, and so on.
Eggs. Motiveless murder. Private property and the expectation of adherence to a social order. Funny Games is not a film to trifle with, as it’s serious about its themes. Despite any of Haneke’s playfulness in getting at his points, attacking them in much the same way the killers of his film attack their victims with sly and unexpected terror, his film is intended as a thorough look at how we engaged with violent media— whether we are the creator or the audience, we are all cogs in the wheel. This film isn’t meant to judge us for consuming horror or violent action films or thrillers with extreme themes. Haneke only means to ask questions by drawing our attention to the way we consume media, hoping we won’t forget how we consume media and what sort of media we consume does have a kind of ethics at stake.