by Paul Deeter
Ah Funny Games. Or as I like to call it, "the film so nice made it twice". This in reference to Gerard Kenny's 1978 track "New York, New York (So Good They Named it Twice), and then on to be used for other such double named places or things. It's a great saying and I use it often, but what better analogy for it then in defense of Michael Haneke's double feature, his remake of his own film. Funny Games is two movies, as in the first film of the name was released by director Michael Haneke in 1997 and then ten years later that same director would release another take on the film, one could call it a remake. The two movies do not exist in order of each other, and the 2007 release does not attempt to uproot the original or pull a "do-over" on the director's first release. On paper, without listing the involved cast, the films Funny Games are nearly identical in plotting and even script-wise. The most discernable difference between the two is the casting, which makes it easier to rank one over the other. (I'll get into my favorite later.) Let's get into the idea of remakes in general, before analyzing why Haneke decided to do so with his own film.
A remake is defined by Merriam Webster dictionary as the "transitive verb: to make anew or in a different form", or more relatively as a noun one that is remade, "especially: a new version of a motion picture." They also note that synonyms with the word include terms like alter or change on top of adapt. So from this it's easier to understand, by definition at least, that remakes are usually examples of changes done to projects of something made anew but different from that in ways from the original product. Successful remakes for example would be films that either do justice from the original, or change from the original in such a way that define it as "anew". A Star is Born (2018) comes to mind as a good example, because this film had already been adapted once in a remake in 1976 with Barbara Streisand, but the critical acclaim and success of the 2018 version made it stand out. Adding a country-folk angle to it and reinventing a star like Lady Gaga for the leading role makes this movie a good example of a remake with a new vision, but respect to the original. It's a favorite of mine, as is Let Me In, which is a remake that came two years after the original Swedish vampire movie: Let the Right One In. The remake brought the foreign film into English translation with an American cast, and yet kept the scares and love for the overall genre.
So 10 years later, Funny Games (2007) is not just a remake of the original feature by the same director, it's also a shot-for-shot remake. This is a rare feat, and can be notably drawn back to Gus Van Sant's extremely unsuccessful remake of the Hitchcock classic Psycho, in 1998. Why Gus Van Sant attempted to re-do a classic alone could be considered a Hollywood mortal sin, but the paint-by-numbers approach to remaking it is even worse. In fact Roger Ebert puts it better than I can in his original review of the film, which is out of print, but quoted on the film's wiki:
Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave the film one-and-a-half stars, noted that the addition of a masturbation scene was "appropriate, because this new Psycho evokes the real thing in an attempt to re-create remembered passion." He wrote that the film "is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted."
You heard the maestro, masturbatory. Well, in so many words. So does a movie like Funny Games (2007) exists as a masturbatory experiment on behalf of Haneke? (I promise that's the last time I use the word). Michael Haneke, a director of fame and notoriety, has probably been accused of worse. When Funny Games initially came out in 1997 though, before he would make The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown, Haneke had already approached some dark themes in cinema. This release would make his name more known, with entry into the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and a wider critical reaction than his prior works. The film tells a dark tale, and one thematically heavier than most other thrillers in its genre. The family in Funny Games are well intentioned enough, if all too comfortable and bored in their wealthy status. Then Peter and Paul, two "well-intentioned" local neighbors come in, and slowly the menace of the film builds, with mild persuasion and mind-games turning into psychological torture of the mother and father and even young son in the family. What's maybe roughest for the audience to this film is the idea that we're participating as bystanders to their torment. It's like how 1985's WWII horror-film Come and See used the young protagonist as the traumatized audience to the atrocities of war. However, instead of using a character to witness these horrible acts, the two villains of the film look through the screen at those who are watching, breaking the fourth wall and implying in more ways than one that we could stop this at any time.
I won't go into the full narrative of the film or spoil some of the twists, but it truly is a horrible time that I can't recommend enough. Let's just say the elements of distress get higher and our involvement even more thorough, before the film finally lets us off the hook after over 108 excruciating minutes. It was overall received positively at 69%. The newer version of the film was released in 2007, to around 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics divided in more than a few ways. The newer version of the film had a few minor differences despite it's shot by shot method. The newer feature swapped out the original cinematographer Jurgen Jurges, for the more famously esteemed Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji. The new feature was an International remake by the Austrian director, so it can be considered a remake most notably in that sense. The setting was actually intended that way in 1997. And with the American setting and British contributions, the English-speaking actors are led by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, who stand out from its cast of unknowns from the original. Without knowing the complete story behind the casting decision of two big name leads, I can suspect part of the reason Haneke made that decision. While the original is rough because you're watching a family being tortured, it seems like the remake ups the ante by making the family include familiar faces, and going so far as tormenting the famous and loved Naomi Watts. Sure its a performance, but we're still part of the act, because the two psychopaths (this time including the brilliant Michael Pitt) look to us during some of the tensest moments. Haneke keeps us involved, even ten years later. And while ten years later, the "remake" was less received than the original, this film is still a nightmare. In fact, I prefer the remake, which is not something I say often, but Pitt adds a level of evil to his performance as Paul that the first can't quite match. And maybe when the 2007 release was reviewed, it was taken with a grain of salt for being such a strange experiment. It exists in comparison to the original, and it can't really be talked about without mentioning the 1997 release in the same conversation.
As for the intention of the 2007 film, part of me wonders if Haneke held the same message but wanted it be received from a wider audience. It was not a successful film, but it did make its way into U.S. theaters, and it feels like a larger project. Maybe not more realized, but polished up, or touched up in a way. Funny Games is so important Haneke wants to make the message stick:
Haneke states that the entire film was not intended to be a horror film. He says he wanted to make a message about violence in the media by making an incredibly violent, but otherwise pointless movie.
On that note I don't think the film's themes change from one version to the other, but maybe he wanted to shout the message out a little louder for those of us in our comfy country watching from our national screens. The acts of violence in this film, along with our part in it, and the part the media plays in it, have not changed. They're certainly not getting better. So ten years later, the idea is the same. It's Haneke's reminder.
Michael Haneke wouldn't take on many more projects, with some notable Austrian releases, but none so ambitious as his work on Funny Games. While films like Code Unknown and the brilliant Cache exist in his filmography, these two films might be his legacy. Time will tell if we are going to get another big project from the director, but in 2017, there was no new Funny Games. And there probably won't be a Funny Games 2027, but who's to say. As far as Haneke's intentions, or thought process on remaking his own movie, I would not say he's stroking his own ego here. And whether you cant decide between watching one or the other, I'd say watch them both!
Just don't watch them in one sitting.