Michael Haneke Gets the Last Laugh: The "Funny Games" Interview
Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke (pronounced ‘hanakkuh’) has remade his own controversial 1997 film, in which he effectively mocked American cinema’s love for violence by pushing the limits of cinematic sado-masochism with an excruciating thriller that sticks to a standard formula, albeit with a different kind of ending. Because the original movie was in German, it was not widely seen by its target audience--namely the callused American audiences that Haneke believed could benefit from having their blood-thirsty asses handed to them like never before. I loathed the original film when I saw it at the 1997 San Francisco Film Festival, but have reconsidered it over the years and come around to appreciating its brutal satire, unrelenting misery and, surprisingly, its restraint. The new version is every bit as painful to watch, even if executive producer/actress Naomi Watts doesn’t approach the soul-shattered performance of Susanne Lothar in the original. I think both versions of "Funny Games" equally represent the most indigestible and unsettling fictional film I’ve ever seen. To put it in the words of the director, "It’s a film you come to if you need to see it. If you don’t need this movie, you will walk out before it’s over."
I sat down with Michael Haneke and a translator at the Lowes Regency Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to talk about "Funny Games."
MH: If anything masochistic. To decide to film a movie again shot by shot, you must be masochistic to a certain degree because it is a much greater challenge. If you do an original film and you want to cut a scene out you do it. But when you do a shot by shot remake you don't have that option and every scene has to work again.
CS: Why did you make the decision to remake "Funny Games" shot by shot?
MH: I didn't have to add anything and if I was going to change anything I thought it would have been dishonorable. It became a gamble to myself whether I was able to do the exact same film under very different circumstances.
CS: I understand one of the main conditions you gave to English producers for the remake was to have Naomi Watts. Why her?
MH: I did the same with "The Piano Teacher." I would only do it if Isabelle Huppert takes the lead role. Naomi has the necessary vulnerability to do this role ideally. I had seen her movies and she was fantastic.
CS: What was your biggest casting challenge?
MH: I just wanted them to be good for the role. I was looking for someone that looked similar--one blond hair, one black hair--to the actors in the same movie, but then I realized it wasn't important. I think they are really good in their roles.
CS: Your age, your experience is different now than ten years ago. What has changed for you in those ten years as far as approaching this subject?
MH: If I had done the movie for the first time now, I would have cut it differently. But since I made the conscious decision of doing it shot by shot, that wasn't even an option. It is true that my experience is different, and I would like to have done some things in a different way now, but I couldn't. If you go with the principle, you should go with the principle. If I really saw the subject very differently than ten years ago, I would have done a different movie.
CS: Did you have to work differently with English actors?
MH: The main difference was the language, and that made it more difficult. In German. I'm more sensitized to the details, to the emotions. In English, I wouldn't detect as much nuance. So we had a dialect coach. But the process is slower.
CS: There is a kind of formalism in your compositions that connects to Polanski and to Kubrick. Who are the filmmakers that inspired you aesthetically?
MH: Of course I am a child of European culture. There are a number of great directors from which I learned, but there is nobody in particular I got inspired from.
CS: Do you consider yourself a confrontational filmmaker?
MH: Of course this film is a provocation. It is meant as a provocation, and of course all the rules that make the viewer go home happy are broken in my film. You cannot hurt animals, so what do I do? I kill the dog first. Then I do it with the boy. You’re not supposed to break the illusion of this being a film, so I make the actor talk to the audience. Provocation is the principle of the whole film. It is very ironic.
CS: Is there any true story that inspired you to make this movie?
MH: In my film "Benny’s Video," I depicted violence but I failed to say all that I had to say, so I wanted to continue the dialog and that's why I did "Funny Games." The irony is that after I shot "Funny Games," but it hadn't been released at all anywhere, there was a newspaper story about two boys in Spain who kidnapped a man in the street and tortured him to death. Both of them wore white gloves, and when they were asked in prison if they felt any remorse, one of the two wrote an essay saying "no." He quoted Nietzsche all the time, and said that the guy they killed was a third class individual who didn't deserve to live.
CS: This film is an experiment, are you planning to do another one?
MH: I consider all my films an experiment, at least in my mind. Caché is as much an experiment as "Funny Games."
CS: What is your next film about?
MH: It is going to be a very simple film--a historical film that happens before the first World War. It is about education in Germany that gave rise to the Nazis.
CS: Could you talk about the use of clashing music in "Funny Games"?
MH: This film is a parody of classical thrillers, just as the John Zorn piece is a parody of heavy metal [music]. In my movies I never use soundtrack; it is always part of the story. The John Zorn piece comes under the credits, but it is like saying, "Okay, now we are going to the thriller."