Criterion Corner: The Cinematic Bystander Effect: Funny Games (1997)

“Why do we stand still on the motorway when an accident has happened? Looking at horrible situations is so fascinating because the spectator is not directly concerned.”

--Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997) is a controversial film that attracts praise and derision in equal amount. It initially sets itself up as a run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller, but gradually shifts to a fourth-wall breaking subversion of the genre and also a scathing critique on how popular media utilizes violence as entertainment. 

The plot centers around Anne (Susanne Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Much), a rich middle-aged couple and their young son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) who are relaxing at their vacation home by a lake. Later while preparing dinner, Anne is interrupted by an affable young man named Peter (Frank Giering) who knocks on the door asking to borrow some eggs. Peter seems harmless at first, but his true intentions are revealed when he is joined by his friend Paul (Arno Frisch). Both men become increasingly hostile until Anne tries to kick them out. Hearing the shouting Georg comes running in but the situation escalates until he slaps Paul in his face. Peter proceeds to grab a nearby golf club and shatters Georg's knee with a well-placed strike. So begins the "funny games" as Peter and Paul hold the family hostage and force them to participate in sadistic games to stay alive.

What sets Funny Games apart from other entries in the home invasion genre is the fact that Paul's character seems to be aware that he is in a film. He is the only one that is self-aware in this manner and periodically throughout the story will break the fourth wall to directly address the audience. The first break occurs when he is playing a game of "hot and cold" with Anne (to look for their dead pet) and he turns to look directly at the camera and gives a sly wink as if to say "isn't this fun?!" Haneke handles these asides masterfully as everyone else in the film gives fantastic naturalistic performances that draw in the viewer in between Paul's formula breaking. In this way, Haneke has full control of the audience by making them care about the plight of the family before cruelly ripping away any bit of hope that they will make it out alive.

The audience is "complicit" in this violence because if they were not watching the film then these things would not be happening. Paul is no longer just the antagonist, he is conspiring with the viewers to prolong the suffering of the family. The audience trusts that the director of the film will "help" the family (via writing them an escape) because that's how movies work, right? This is the "cinematic bystander effect". 

When Paul and Peter tie up the family and tell them they have twelve hours to make it out of the ordeal alive Paul turns to the camera (and us) and says "You're on their side, aren't you? So, who will you bet on?" Are we on their side though? Why are we watching this? The answer is the same as why these two men are torturing these poor people--for our amusement. We are no better than they are. Paul makes other comments like "We're not up to feature film length yet! You want a real ending with plausible plot development!" indicating that we will feel cheated by having the abuse truncated. 

One of the most common reactions to this film is indignation and anger at Haneke for daring to criticize our viewing habits. Who is he to look down at us for enjoying thrillers and violence, and isn't he a hypocrite for making this film in the first place?! Haneke is no stranger to dark and disturbing themes himself as a director. To be fair, while it may be disingenuous to remove Haneke's intentions from the film, this doesn't change how expertly the theme is executed and how powerful the impact is. It's important to scrutinize how we internalize the media we consume, if just for posterity. 

Haneke felt so strongly about this relationship between violence and the media that he remade Funny Games in 2007 and set it in America (the original film was set in Austria and was not in English). It was even more widely panned this time around but the message was still the same. Perhaps we just don't want to participate in self-introspection when it comes to our entertainment.

--Michelle Kisner