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.