'Where is the line between those who carry out violence, and those who take pleasure in its consumption?'Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

The plot of Funny Games is deceptively simple. A bourgeois family go to their holiday home, where they are taken hostage and tortured with sadistic games by two young men. What is not so simple is the film’s implicit reproof of the very people for whom it is intended. Funny Games questions why we, the audience, get such a thrill from twisted thrillers.

We never get an explanation for why the film’s two antagonists commit such acts of violence. Horror arises from the lack of motive, with the audience being left to demand that this unjustified violence be met with justified retribution.

Haneke refuses to satisfy our demands. Just when Anna—the mother of the family—seems to have gained the upper hand, grabbing a gun and shooting one of the villains, the surviving villain uses a remote to rewind the film and stop her from grabbing the gun in the first place. Our hopes, and those of Anna, are dashed. Even after she becomes the ‘final girl’, the lone survivor of the games, the film subverts our expectations and plays with Chekhov’s gun, introducing a knife early on that could be used towards the end of the film to help her survive.  But there will be no last-minute twist, and the knife is carelessly discarded into the sea, along with Anna herself.

“There is no arc, no catharsis: just suffering.”

Those who came to see a standard home invasion film are left dissatisfied at the conclusion, with the villains starting their sick games again upon another family. The suffering endured is without purpose; it is not some challenge to overcome and survive, as no one makes it out the other side. There is no arc, no catharsis: just suffering.

Despite Funny Games’ reputation as a disturbing film, it performs a critique of violent cinema precisely through its violence; all of its bloody murders occur off screen. In this way, Haneke teases the brutality that the audience has come to see. By depriving us of it, whilst still having violence form part of the narrative, he is critiquing (however knowingly) the way that narratives are often constructed in order to show us scenes of horrific violence. The acts Haneke depicts may still shock us, especially the bloody shooting of a child, but the subversion of the genre’s narrative tropes questions the audience for even having sat down to watch such scenes in the first place.

So where is the line between those who carry out violence, and those who take pleasure in its consumption? Of course, the standard response is that we do not revel in the actual violence committed by the villains, but we watch the film to see their comeuppance. We are horrified by the thought of something like Funny Games happening to us in the safety of our own homes, and demand the punishment of those who would seek to violate our own safety. But when this doesn’t come, though we might feel slightly disappointed, there dawns the sick realisation that through their slick, well-crafted presentation, we found some form of satisfaction in the games themselves.

“By taking pleasure in pain and suffering, we may be closer to the villains of the story than the heroes.”

Since Funny Games was first released in 1997, it is has become even easier to see extraordinarily violent scenes on our screens through graphic, torture-porn films, realistic ultra-violent computer games and clips of real life cruelty all at our fingertips. At this point, violence isn’t presented as some means to a retributive end. It’s presented in its most frank and senseless form, and in overwhelming quantities, leading us to become desensitised to it. By taking pleasure in pain and suffering, we may be closer to the villains of the story than the heroes.


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Student filmmaker Frankie Browne on his short horror film ‘Midnight Feast’

Funny Games appears to ask us, then, whether our art reflects us, or if we reflect our art. Is on-screen violence a way of sating our natural blood lust? Or does exposure to violent media, in fact, cause us to be violent?

Within the world of the film, there is explicit discussion of the line between fiction and reality, with the leading antagonist explaining how a fiction that is observed is just as real as the reality we see. Funny Games is a film at the end of the day, but if we accept the impact that film can have on us in the real world, its concerns over violence in media should be taken seriously but not sensationally. After all, moral panic over violent cinema would likely lead to the banning of Funny Games itself, and the film doesn’t seem to be trying to justify censorship, but rather asks that we consider what we represent in media and, more importantly, why we choose to represent it. 

As the film ends, the main antagonist breaks the fourth wall for the last time to look the audience in the eye. We realise that the joke was on us: the unwitting participants in this game. Haneke knows that when certain audiences come to see the ‘arthouse slasher’, they come for thrilling escapism from their safe bourgeois lives. They come to see those ‘funny games’, but maybe they’re not so funny after all.