[14 March 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
When directors decide to remake one of their own films, it is usually because there was something about the first version that they felt could be improved.
Alfred Hitchcock gave his 1934 black-and-white British thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” a Technicolor makeover in 1956, emphasizing the allure of Hollywood stars James Stewart and Doris Day. Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer retooled his 1988 arthouse hit “The Vanishing” in 1993 with a bigger budget, big-name stars (Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock) and - gasp! - a happy ending.
But when Michael Haneke set out to remake his 1997 Austrian thriller “Funny Games,” he wasn’t interested in changing a thing, other than using English-speaking actors. The new “Funny Games,” which stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Devon Gearhart as the family held hostage in their vacation home by a pair of young psychopaths (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet), is so similar to the first film it is practically a shot-for-shot remake, employing near-identical angles, sets and dialogue to the original.
“There really was nothing more to add,” Haneke said via telephone about his decision not to tinker with what had worked the first time around. “I wanted to remake it in English to attract a larger American audience, and because I have always felt this story is of the most relevance to the U.S. But the script felt just as relevant and timely today than it did 10 years ago, maybe even more so. I couldn’t think of anything else I needed to say.”
Some preview audiences have had plenty to say about “Funny Games”: One Internet report claims a viewer stood up after an advance screening and yelled “F—- you!” at the screen. But Haneke takes that as a compliment, since the fiendish “Funny Games” accomplishes exactly what the original did: It seduces the thrill-seeking audience with a suspenseful tale about an innocent family subjected to psychological and physical torture, then throws the viewer’s interest in this sort of material back at them, forcing you to contemplate why, exactly, we derive entertainment out of watching such sadistic pictures.
Watts, who also served as executive producer on “Funny Games,” said the film’s violent nature initially gave her pause when Haneke contacted her about the project and told her he would make it only if she agreed to play the role of the distraught wife and mother.
“I was concerned how it would land in America,” the actress said via telephone. “So I had to talk to him to make sure that the reactions I had when I saw the original film were the same reactions he was going for. I think Michael uses `Funny Games’ to have us question our role as an audience member and make us think about the things we crave. And I think he definitely succeeded. That’s what makes him such a provocative filmmaker: His movies really get under your skin.”
Watts said it was a challenge to make “Funny Games,” because Haneke wanted to recreate the original so scrupulously that even her performance had to be a near-mirror reflection of Sussane Lothar’s work in the first film.
“I’m used to walking onto a set and discovering a scene with the director and the other actors in an organic way,” Watts said. “But that wasn’t the case with this film, because since it was a shot-for-shot remake, the blocking was automatically dictated by the first film. Michael said this was the way he was making the movie, so I just had to go with him. But I don’t think I could have done it with any other director. He is so consumed with every tiny detail and every piece of minutiae that you just trust him.”
The German-born Haneke has enjoyed increasingly larger audiences in the United States through his last few films, including “The Piano Teacher” and “Cache.” But although both of those pictures were unsettling experiences, they don’t begin to compare with “Funny Games,” a film of such intensity and harrowing power that it takes some people a while before they’re able to formulate an opinion about it.
“The first time I saw `Funny Games,’ it angered me and got me very upset,” said Pitt, who plays one of the two charming, boyish, demonic psychopaths terrorizing the family. “It took me a day or two to realize that I thought it was really good. At first, the movie affects you so strongly that it feels brutal, almost like an assault. But once I started thinking about it, I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Brutal is one of the words most commonly used to describe the original “Funny Games,” and the same will be true for the new version. But a close viewing of the film reveals that despite the plentiful violence that transpires, there is barely any actual violence onscreen. Whenever blood is shed, Haneke always cuts away from the act, depicting only the emotional suffering and agony felt by the other characters in the film as one of their loved ones is harmed.
“Violent films have almost become chic among critics and audiences, even more so in the 10 years since I made the original,” Haneke said. “When you sell or depict violence as a consumer article, then you are showing the thrill of the perpetrator. But if you turn that around and show the suffering of the victims instead, it’s not a lot of fun to watch.”
There is, however, one explosive act of violence in “Funny Games” that is shown onscreen and is usually greeted by a roar of approval from audiences. But the roar is short-lived. The most controversial moment in the original film, that scene is also duplicated in the new version, which works even better the second time around, because you can see how skillfully Haneke is toying with the viewer.
“You have to know what you’re doing in order for the audience not to check out of the movie after that point,” Haneke said. “You’re basically making the viewer aware of his role as a viewer and the artificiality of the film they’re watching, but then you have to get them to immediately forget that and get lost in the film again. Basically, you’re enticing the viewer to mistrust the verity of cinema as an art form, then asking them to trust it again. It’s a neat trick.”