Casting viewers as accomplices

Special to The Times

Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” which opens Friday, is a painstakingly exacting remake of his own 1997 film of the same title. The story begins when a pair of young men, dressed in immaculate tennis whites, arrives at the summer cottage of a pleasantly bourgeois couple, who are on holiday with their young son. After a seemingly innocuous misunderstanding -- something about borrowing eggs -- the boys take the family captive, subjecting them to brutal psychological humiliations and severe physical torments.

One of the world’s most respected filmmakers, Haneke, who turns 66 this month, is a winner of multiple prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and a subject of a recent retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. So there is something disconcertingly downmarket about such an upscale filmmaker doing an English-language remake of his own work. Yet in Haneke’s world things are rarely as they seem.

Despite Haneke’s use of formal devices of increasing audacity to break down the fourth wall and repeatedly remind audiences that they are only watching a film, “Funny Games” can feel at times like a dirty trick being played on viewers. The original sharply divided critics, many of whom could not stomach the cruel dispassion with which Haneke portrayed the sordid goings-on.


Which is precisely as it should be, according to Haneke. As in many of his previous films (“Benny’s Video,” “The Piano Teacher” and “Cache”), Haneke wants audiences to think hard about what they are watching rather than passively accepting the ideological implications of what flows from the screen.

“The film was always intended for an English-language audience because the subject matter -- the consumption of violence -- is most prevalent in English-language filmmaking,” Haneke said via translator recently on the phone from Austria when asked why he chose to revisit his prior work. “Because the [original] film was in German it just didn’t reach the audience for which it was intended.”

The new iteration came about when producer Chris Coen approached Haneke for the remake rights to “Funny Games,” and the director said he would prefer to do it himself. Having worked with such European stars as Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert, Haneke insisted on casting Naomi Watts -- he said he would likely have not made the new film if she had said no -- rounding out the family with Tim Roth and Devon Gearhart and casting Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as their captors.

For the shot-for-shot production, Haneke’s original script was translated into English with a few minor changes to accommodate cultural differences, and he used his original storyboards to plan the new shoot. Where Haneke’s shooting script during the production of the initial film was dotted with drawings, for the remake his script was augmented with screen captures from the original.

Where previous shot-by-shot remakes such as Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” often felt like cold exercises, Haneke’s remake adds additional layers of discomfort to the experience. Even when you know what’s coming, it still stings.

The cast members all watched the first version before shooting, in part to know what they were in for, but once the production started Haneke instructed them not to revisit it. Haneke’s precise instructions made the performers feel at times as if they were working within a straitjacket, but they nevertheless manage to imbue the story with a dark humor that is largely unmined in the original, transforming the material at times into an unlikely comedy of manners.

“He’s a pretty easy guy to have faith in,” said Corbet, “and he was tough on everybody. He was very precise, like ‘after this line, wipe your forehead here and place your right hand on the counter here and then take four steps forward.’ It’s not exactly organic.”

“Sometimes he would get fixated on a certain thing and how he wanted it to be the same,” explained Watts, “but he was careful to help us make sure that the first film was something separate. He didn’t want to just repeat.”

Close to the original

The re-creation was so detailed that those changes that do exist -- the way Pitt glances at the camera or an alarming alteration in costume for Watts -- take on the feeling of enormous, seismic shifts. Even Haneke was shocked by how precisely the films match up.

“The film, as it happens, is really only 15 or 20 seconds different from the original,” he explained. “If you look at the film as a whole, it’s a few minutes, but that is simply because the credits in the United States are so much longer.

“And I didn’t even do this intentionally. We shot about half the film and cut it, and when I asked my editor to compare it to the original it was just a few seconds’ difference. We found this really quite amazing as we hadn’t intended it to be that close on purpose.”

One key moment of the film is an excruciatingly long take in which Watts, bound, struggles to make her way across a room. The raw physical effort involved, as well as the emotional dread her action underscores, reads as all too real. Haneke does not rupture the reality of the moment, taking an almost sadistic glee in what his star endured as the shot plays on and on.

“He doesn’t believe in stage binding, he wants everything to be 100% real,” Watts said of the scene, which she recalled as the most difficult of the shoot. “At times, it was like torture.”

The hard-core gorehound action junkies -- those movie-goers whose lids could be most thoroughly flipped by Haneke’s inside-out convolutions -- will likely never turn up for something this heady. For Haneke, forcing viewers to examine their own expectations and responses is exactly the point.

“That is precisely why I made the film,” he said, “the viewer pays for it, as you say, with having to think about it, his role as a viewer and as an accomplice in the action. I often say those who watch the film to the end, they obviously needed it, and those who leave early did not need it.”

To reveal the ways in which Haneke continually throws viewers outside the action, only to reel them back into his false reality, would go beyond conventional spoilers.

“This is the method of the film, to show the viewer how manipulatable he or she is,” said Haneke, “because, after all, I show that it is a film and five minutes later [the viewer] is back completely with it. I show this again and again, so the viewer realizes his role in this whole process.”

“He messes with you as an audience,” is how Watts explained Haneke’s motives. “You’re taken by surprise. And I’m not preaching or saying I’ll never do another violent film, but I am quite proud to be involved in something that makes us as an audience question what we’re cheering for when brains are splattered on the wall.”