I saw a bunch of movies today; The Strangers, Kung Fu Panda, and the Austrian original of Funny Games… Have a quick game of “Which one of these doesn’t belong” why don’t you?

I want to talk a bit about Funny Games,
specifically the relationship between the original and it’s decade
later, shot-by-shot, Americanized remake. If you aren’t aware, Funny Games
is a movie(s) by Austrian director Michael Haneke, originally released
in 1998. The director’s stated purpose was to analyze the psychology,
motivation, and trappings of the torture film (and this is before Hostel!)

Cut
to: 10 years later and Haneke remakes his own film, but in English this
time. Not only is he remaking it shot for shot, he is rebuilding
identical sets and replicating every detail of his original film down
to props, costumes, and even gestures from the actors. “Why the fuck?”
you ask. Apparently, because he didn’t feel he made his point the first
time. This seems self-indulgent or creatively bankrupt on paper, but
sitting the two films side-by-side with the intent of their creator in
mind… it’s an interesting relationship to explore to say the least.

For
the most part the films are staggeringly identical – framing, editing,
location, sets, props, and costumes are all as alike as they could
possibly be. There are a few minor differences in blocking, but nothing
that changes the plot or purpose. It is this purpose that makes these
films so unique and the Funny Games are not movies interested in hiding their agenda. Their intent is to
(often literally) take a good long look at the horror audience and ask
some tough questions. The films are notorious for breaking the fourth
wall, whether by characters actually acknowledging the audience,
self-aware music choices, or blatant manipulation of the timeline. It
is in these major moments that step over the fiction/reality line (and
present the message of the films) that the two movies are most closely
cloned.

Where then, do the differences lie? Why the fuck did
Haneke make a carbon copy of his own movie? (It obviously wasn’t to
cash in).

If nothing else, the two films are a perfect example
of how increasingly high-quality technology can give a filmmaker far
more control of his product. The films look the same, but the increase
in image quality it noticeable. The cinematography for the 2008
version, while replicating the original, has several moments where a
noticeable jump in quality and professionalism make the film look…
well, nicer. The movie opens with a bird’s eye-view of the family SUV traveling down the mountainous roads (a strong The Shining
homage), and between the two films this opening offers an interesting
opportunity for comparison. In the original, the opening is the usual
overhead helicopter shot, with the camera following the car, often
lagging just behind or just ahead – a very natural and usual look. The
newer film opens the same way, but the views of the SUV are virtually
perfect motion-controlled and precisely framed shots, in which the car
stays exactly in the center of the frame. This is one of the very few
moments that I prefer from the original, as the more natural feel of
the ’98 versions ‘copter shots provide sharper contrast with the abrupt
and shrieking title credits (our first breach of the fourth wall!).
Another technological difference makes itself evident the first time
one of the “villains” acknowledges the audience- he turns and winks at
us in a rack-focus shot. The ’98 version’s focus shift is slower,
clunkier, and more obvious as opposed to the remake’s smoother (likely
servo-controlled) shift. This seems absolutely trivial except when you
consider that this moment is so startling (in both) as to make one
question whether it actually happened. The smoother and more fleeting
the gesture, the more it toys with the audience. This small difference
means that in the remake the meta-quality of the movie reveals itself
more slowly and gradually than in the original – a good thing, in my
opinion.

It is not what you see though, but what you hear that makes the true difference. Funny Games
does not wear it’s violence on it’s sleeve and in the tradition of
Shakespeare has most of the brutality, and thus major turns of the
plot, occurring off-screen where we can only hear them. The marked
increase in sound quality does nothing but up the impact. This is a
difference that must be experienced to be appreciated.

Moving beyond tech, what artistic improvement (or at least changes) manage to emerge from such a strict replication?

The
cast of the movie follows suit with everything in the original- with
nearly every actor in the remake looking and acting exactly as their
predecessor. I have no doubt that Naomi Watts studied Susanne Lothar’s
Anna, as she manages to impressively replicate the performance (to the
point of cleaning up smashed eggs in a nearly identical fashion)
without seeming like a clone. Tim Roth seems to be the one actor of the
remake to (be allowed to?) reinterpret his role. Ulrich Muhe’s George
is a strong, noble father/husband figure put in a situation of
terrifying impotence and reacting to it with calm fury. This is rather
different from Tim Roth’s George, who cries… a fucking lot
(no shortage of “I’m fucking dying, man” -type whimpering). This isn’t
a bad thing, just a different thing. Tim Roth is still very convincing
and heartbreaking to watch, and I really don’t know whether there is a
clear “winner” between the two interpretations. Our psychotic killers
are nearly the same, though the dominant Pauls are physically
different. In the newer version, the tormenters look creepily similar
to each other, while the original’s pairing are more Ren &
Stimpy-ish. Again, I can’t really call which decision I like better.

Going
deeper than the cosmetic comparisons, you find the one true change and
the point of the whole remaking endeavor – culture shift.

Until the proverbial shit hits the fan, Funny Games
relies on atmosphere to carry the audience through. The tension that
carries the first act is established very quickly when our villains
start interacting with our victims and things turn uncomfortable very
fast. Haneke has stated that this film was intended (even the original)
for American movie-goers, and by shifting the language to English it’s
intended audience can more fully appreciate the product. Expectedly,
the awkward exchanges between characters early in the movie are far
more impacting in the language of the intended viewers. The small
dialogue tweaks – mostly to culturally appropriate idioms – make a
world of difference.

So his intended American audience can
understand the movie better, and it looks and sounds prettier – so
what? Is that really worth a remake that will never be seen any more
than the original was? Oh yes. Yes, because all of these minor and
not-so-minor changes allow Haneke to drive his point home and create a
more elegant work of art that fully accomplishes what he set out to do.
As he creates a detailed translation of his film from one culture to
another, he uses the opportunity to refine his film. For evidence of
this, simply compare the timing of the films’ very long one-shot
sequence to see the small but powerful ways he improves it.

At the end of the day, neither of the Funny Games
really like horror movies. They both wonder why the fuck people could
enjoy these spectacles of torture because really, even as fiction –
aren’t they creating a reality? Isn’t that sick and immoral and
indefensible? While they ask this question, they also systematically
rip to shreds every expectation of the genre we as an audience could
have. Think you are getting a pay-off to that insert-shot of the knife
from earlier? Nope! Just a casual dismissal as soon as you’ve put your
hopes into it returning and saving the day. Entertained by the
psychological horror, shock, and spectacle of this mind-rape you’ve
been watching for half an hour? Oh yeah? How about we turn off the
villains, the directing, the editing, and everything else that makes
this “a movie” for a while – and let you sit and wallow in the filth of
what this situation would actually feel like for real people,
as opposed to characters in a horror flick. Haneke whispers and screams
all of this to us very effectively in the original. However for we
American viewers, it’s even more powerful a message when he’s speaking
our language.

I’ll be comparing Funny Games to The Strangers next blog.

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