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Interview: Michael Haneke (Funny Games U.S.)

I think if you have already seen the original it is a special case. You will see the movie because you are curious to compare. It is more an intellectual exercise than anything else for whoever knows it.

is the poet of disaffection and as such, he’s always looking to make feel his audience uneasy. This Austrian filmmaker doesn’t like to follow the rules of entertainment. He works far away from Hollywood therefore he doesn’t have to be conventional in his film narratives. He can let you walk out of the theater confused with an open ending, like he did in Cache, (the movie for which he won the best director award in Cannes in 2006 and that Ron Howard wants to do a remake of) and he can also immerse you in a psychological drama with sadomasochistic tints and kick you out of the screening without any answers as he did in The Piano Teacher. He considers each of his eleven movies an experiment because he allows himself to dare, even if for some harsh critics, his undaunted assessments are nothing else than pretentious statements of egotism.

Equally loved and hated, Haneke is back and this time he is looking straight into the eye of American audiences. His new movie, Funny Games U.S., will probably be an odd experiment choice for his fans, but for those who don’t know him well, the film might be a surprising introductory course. The title is the same as the movie he shot in Germany eleven years ago, in a moment in which shameless violence was taking over American screenings. The film was meant to shock audiences: the odyssey of a family that gets tortured to death by a couple of youngsters for whom violence is just a funny game came without a shiny end either and left spectators feeling paralyzed, disgusted or amazed. The movie almost didn’t visually show violence, but by avoiding it and letting audiences imagine what was really happening, Haneke built one of the most disturbing movies to watch ever. It got really good reviews but the filmmaker was disappointed because it didn’t reach American audiences who rarely watch movies with subtitles and he wanted the picture to be seen by Americans because its main goal was to make a tough critique to the irresponsible use of violence in movies.

That’s why last year he accepted to do a remake of Funny Games using American actors but without any changes – making one of those rare in the history of cinema, shot for shot remakes. The result is exactly the same movie with equally good performances. It couldn’t be otherwise with a casting that bears the names of Michael Pitt, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Brady Corbett.


I recently chatted with Haneke in New York, first as part of a roundtable and then a one on one. This interview is the result of both conversations…:

Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke Funny Games

Barbara Celis: What are you hoping audiences who saw the original are going to get from this remake?
Michael Haneke: I think if you have already seen the original it is a special case. You will see the movie because you are curious to compare. It is more an intellectual exercise than anything else for whoever knows it. This film is not done for those audiences, it is done to reach audiences who didn’t see the original movie in the USA.

Was it an exercise of style for you?
It was a very difficult exercise of style. To decide to film a movie again shot by shot you must be a bit of a masochistic to a certain degree because it is a much greater challenge. It is more complicated to remake a movie shot by shot than shoot it for the first time. The first time you can cut scenes out if they don’t work but if you decide to shoot shot by shot you cannot take anything out. It is much harder.

Why did you take that decision?
I didn’t have to add anything and if I was gonna 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. If you go with the principle you should stick with the principle. If I really saw the subject very differently than ten years ago I would have done a different movie.

Funny Games Pitt

At the time that you did the first Funny Games there were some American filmmakers making comments on ultraviolent movies, like Oliver Stone and his Natural Born Killers…
That one was a very stupid reflection on violence. You cannot do an anti-fascist film with a fascist aesthetic. It happened the same to Bertolucci with Novecento, it was wrong. It doesn’t work, it is political manipulation. In the case of Oliver Stone’s movie is not even political, it is just plainly stupid because he believed he could educate people but he used the wrong means to do it.

Now there’s still a trend of violent movies, like the whole Asian wave but you can also find films like ‘No country for Old Men’, that makes different kind of statements…
That one is a very clever and well made movie. But it is not a horror movie, it is a movie about America today. I was very impressed. The violence is not consumable. It is a film about violence but in a responsible way. For me the best way to show violence in movies is Salo, or the 120
Days of Sodom
, from Pasolini. It is an unbearable film but that’s why  it is a very good film about violence.

Why do you have this obsession about violence?
I don’t have any obsession, I do all my films because something has made me mad or angry, because something has touched me. I am very sensitive to physical violence. Since I was a little boy if there was gonna be violence around me I would run away.

So, violence makes you uneasy?
Yes, very much, very uncomfortable. In the mainstream it is a cool thing, people look at it and enjoy it. To me it is unbearable.

Aren’t you afraid that somebody will find your movie ‘cool’?
We had that discussion with Michael Pitt before the shooting but I think it would be difficult to find the violence in this movie cool. There are too many obstacles in the film that you cannot fall into that misunderstanding.

Talking about Pitt and the other actors, what was the challenge of this casting?
I just wanted them to be good for the role. At first I was looking for someone that look alike to the actors of the first movie but then I realized it wasn’t important. The only condition I put was to have Naomi Watts as the leading actress. 

Funny Games Watts

Why her?
Naomi has the necessary vulnerability to do this role ideally. She is fantastic.

Could you talk about the use of the music in your movies? What is the symbolic idea behind the use of classical music and the John Zorn piece in Funny Games?
This film is a parody of classical thrillers just as the John Zorn piece (opening credits) is a parody of heavy metal. In my movies I never use soundtrack, music is always part of the action. The John Zorn piece comes under the credits and it is like saying ‘ok now we are going to the thriller’.

Could you label this movie? Is it a horror movie, a thriller, where do the line stands?
I leave that decision to critics. I just hope that the slap in the face I was trying to give with the first one it works in this one too.

Do you consider yourself a confrontational filmmaker?

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. You cannot hurt animals so, what do I do? I kill the dog first. Then I do it with the boy. You don’t suppose 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. I want to show the audiences how easily they can be manipulated. I do that again and again. In view of what television and Hollywood does I think it is a good idea to create some mistrust.

In all your movies there’s always a secondary presence, a TV set on, why?
It is a main theme in all my films because I find very dangerous that our whole image of the world comes through media. You can be a child and have never gone outside your own house but you have all those images about the world through your little TV box… This is very dangerous, specially concerning violence because the pictures are all equal, the real picture and the artificial one but if you are a child and don’t have any indication about that it is very difficult to understand the difference. You watch TV and it seems that violence is normal but the truth is that in our own life’s we don’t go through violence so often, we actually rarely go through violence so it gives a wrong impression of the whole world, it is very dangerous for everybody.

Are you hoping that because this movie is directed to American audiences and now American government is openly torturing people Americans would reexamine that?
It is not only the government, the government is the result of a society. It is not a bad guy doing wrong to a society. It is like in Germany in 30’s. It wasn’t only the bad guy, Hitler. He had been elected by millions of people, you cannot forget this.

So we cannot blame only the government?
Everybody is guilty and has to realize to which degree they contributed to what it happens. In every political system citizens have to examine that. It is too easy to say ‘it is the bad guy’s fault’. There is a reason for that guy to be in that position, and admitting that is not easy.

Would you do another remake of any of your own movies?
No, never again.

What about working in Hollywood?
I could do a movie wherever as far as they allow me to do it my way. With this movie they tried to convince me to make some changes, I said no. If someone offers me good conditions to do a movie in Hollywood, why not? Now I am preparing my first film in Germany in ten years (The White
is about the education of the generation that became adults under Hitler). I’ve spent the last decade doing movies in France so why not in America? Everything is gonna depend on the success of the film. I might receive many offers or none. We’ll see.

What about that project you have talked about before related to growing old?
I have a project about the humiliation of physical decay (see preview page here). In my family I have some cases that touched me very deeply and I don’t think there are any films about that very old age, nineties or so.

Warner Independent
released Funny Games U.S. in limited release on Friday the 14th. Look for a wider release in the weeks to come.

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