Episode 63. Play Dead: Funny Games (1997)

What constitutes a film? What constitutes a podcast episode description? Andrea and Alex ask these questions (okay, maybe not that last one) and more in this month’s episode. By plundering the depths of filmic conventions, audience expectations and interpersonal contracts, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games asks the hard questions for which there are many answers.


Funny Games. Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997.


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Salem Horror Fest. We’ll be back October 12-14! Get your tickets now.

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The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical analysis.

Bertolt Brecht. Avant-garde theatre practioner who believed in distancing an audience to encourage rational thought over emotional engagement.

Anne Dufourmantelle. The Philosophy of Hospitality. An exploration of the people involved in the dynamics of hospitality.

Jacques Derrida on Hospitality. The French philosopher’s take on the conditional and unconditional concepts of hospitality.

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle. Alex’s new book is available now through McFarland Books!


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10 thoughts on “Episode 63. Play Dead: Funny Games (1997)

  1. LaMort says:

    The biggest problem i have with Haneke’s American remake was the casting of Watts and Roth. Both appear a lot younger and smaller then their Austrian counterparts. The American victims didn’t seem as wise and as strong. It changed the dynamic of the remake even if it was shot-for-shot.

    • Missy says:

      I felt this was intentional. The two films being nearly exactly the same makes the differences stand out even more and beg interpretation. I felt this was a reference to the weak/tender victims in slasher and home invasion films that we constantly see in American cinema.

  2. Gonzo says:

    Hi, I am glad that you are discussing a movie by one of my favorite directors. I waited a long time for this, but since you are the “faculty of horror” and want to educate people a few annotations: Haneke is Austrian not German. He was born in Munich though.
    Peter an Paul were the most important apostles of Jesus. But they did not write gospels. Peter was to be the rock on which the new religion was built on. He was also the one who started the first christian community in Rome. His original name was Simon but was apparently named Peter by Jesus if I am not wrong. Oh, and he was a fisherman – maybe a connection to the lake. Paul was also a very successful missionary of the new religion. So maybe both characters in the movie represent the missionaries of a new violence driven religion – American movies. I don’t know, just spitballing. But maybe one of them should be called Jesus since he got resurrected :).

    • L. Hazelton says:

      Peter and Paul were sometimes perceived as being at odds, although it could be argued that was not the case. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know if that has any relevance. (And there was the 60’s music group Peter, Paul and Mary – was there a Mary in the movie?) Also, it’s John the Baptist. I sense our hosts take pride in not knowing biblical references, but this would not have been difficult to fact check.

  3. Mary says:

    Oh I’m so glad Brecht was mentioned!!

  4. Filth says:

    I hadn’t much considered the difference in what the mother is wearing between the two versions until now–but once you brought it up, my instinctive thought was Naomi Watts showing more skin and Peter & Paul pointing it out with their discussion is pointing the lens at Hollywood’s persistence of the male gaze. If the remake is thought of as presenting Haneke’s ideas with the facade of appealing to a broader Hollywood audience, I took that moment to be playing off the audience assumption that “oh, of course the Hollywood version has her almost naked”. Similar to the “we’re not yet at feature length” moment (fun fact, that line comes precisely as the film hits the technical definition of feature length) in pointing out that this is a movie and not reality and using those conventions to their advantage in ratcheting up their cruelty.

  5. Lutz says:

    As usual I enjoyed your podcast immensely. I will certainly look up the dialogue on hospitality.

    I would like to give you a German perspective on a few cultural aspects of the movie that might have slipped over your head.

    In Germany, the names “Peter” and “Paul” are pretty much the most non-descript names which you could give to a character (with the possible exception of “Hans” and “Franz”). They were so much in common use until the middle of the 20th century, that you would probably find a Peter or a Paul in every other family. However, they became almost extinct in the second half of the 20th century. With the movie supposed to be set in the present time of 1997 and the characters clearly being born in the 70s, it rings a bit false to German ears that these two characters who are most probably not related by blood (for reasons stated below) should actually find themselves as friends with an almost proverbial name-pairing that was not in usage for people of their age. This is one of the reasons why they appear suspicious right from the get-go.

    Now, I have to add that I am from the Protestant North of Germany and not from the Catholic and more conservative South. Things might have been different down there. But at least in my area (Schleswig-Holstein), I did not know anybody around my age who was named either Peter or Paul. Both names, expecially Paul, have had a small revival in recent years, so the stigma of being old-fashioned is no longer attatched as strongly to them as it used to be, but for these two characters it seems to be really unlikely to me that these are there actual and real names.

    The other thing I want to talk about is the use of the Austrian accent. Since the movie is Austrian and was filmed in Austria, I might be wrong here as well, and all this just happened by chance, but even if this was the case, I am sure that a man like Haneke, who knows both cultures well, realized and welcomed the implications.

    All of the actors in the movie speak in their normal voice. But this results in Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar and Frank Giering speaking in relative High-German with slight local implications and Arno Frisch, who plays Paul, speaking in a very strong Austrian (actually Viennese) accent. This weird pairing leads to certain more or less clear implications to German speaking audience members.

    Firstly, Peter and Paul are most likely not related by blood, if anything, they might be cousins. As mentioned above, combined with the weird naming, this raises suspicion whether they are actually speaking the truth about themselves and make the reaction of Susanne Lothar’s character more understandable. She does not trust them from the very beginning, but to deny their request would be rude.

    More important, though, are the cultural impliations of the Austrian, specifically Viennese, accent. Most German dialects have slight negative connotations. Of cause, whoever speaks it, speaks it with pride (or they just don’t notice it), but from the outside, they are often connected with a simpler mindset and with simpler people in general. The Austrian dialect is the only exception to this rule. I believe this is because of the combination of glorious Austrian history and the way the sounds are created.
    The Austrian dialect has connotation of being high-cultured and well-mannered, charming, maybe even persuasive. You can say the most despicable things in this accent and still come across as charming and intelligent. The specific kind of Viennese humor even has a name: It is called “Wiener Schmäh”. In the German Wikipedia-Article the “Wiener Schmäh” is characterized as form of humor that is based on an attitude that holds distance and has an ironic and cynical outlook, utterances are often enigmatig, subtle and full of references.

    As you might have heard by listening closely to Paul, elongated vowels /a:/ and /i:/ are predominant. First syllables are often pronounced stronger, last syllables often drop considerably more in pitch compared to other German dialects or High German. This all leads to the increase in charme especially compared with languages which predominantly use darker vowels, but especially the dropping of pitch and the tendency to truncate final syllables alltogether also create an air of arrogance and a subtle threat. Therefore, while it is the only accent that is connotated positively, it is also often sssociated with a snobbish attitude and carelessness.

    This is a lot of very theoretical talk, but I think it is important to be kept in mind. Paul is clearly the leader of the two, Peter, while speaking in High German, sounds a lot more unnaturally polite in the beginning and also tends to mumble. Paul appears naturally more charming and sophistcated simply because of his accent, at the same time it is the very accent that even accentuates his coldness and cruelty.

    Finally, I have noticed another connection between the Austrian dialect and the theme of games and violence that may be entirely circumstantial, but stands out to me. Both in Germany and Austria television used to be entirely funded by the state (the state was only to provider, it could and still can only directly control its content in a limited way). Only in the beginning of the 1980s was it allowed in Germany to create privately owned TV stations which were entirely financed by advertisements. In Austria, this situation did not even change before 2001. The manager of RTL Plus, the largest privately owned TV-channel in Germany used to be for a long time an Austrian by the name of Helmut Thoma, who basically revolutionized TV in Germany. Of cause, in 1997 reality TV was not even invented yet, but the discuassion about the danger of privately owned tv stations was still in full swing and was also already going on in Austria. TV programs had become a lot more violent and based on sex and hedonism. Games had become more reckless and Helmut Thoma was present everywhere praising the blessings of privately owned TV stations while simultaneously being viewed as the devil by conservatives or adversaries to his plans and ideas.

    Thoma was so dominant in media culture that I know of at least two forms of satirical media where careless and only ratings-oriented characters were deliberately portrayed as Austrians. This is for example the case in Helmuth Dietl’s movie “Late Show” and also in the radio comedy “Stenkelfeld” where the side character Jean-Jaques Gelee is constantly coming up with new and cheap ideas of creating game-shows out of pointless activities, only caring about ratings and showing a deep disdain for participants and the audience alike.
    Considering the fact that Paul is simultaneously the director and the host of the games the family has to endure, I see a possibility that this might also be Michael Haneke’s form of commenting and satirizing the TV-Landscape in Germany at the time.

  6. Asa says:

    Would you ever do an episode about Scream/IKWYDLS/some other nineties film? Love your podcast but miss the days when it featured more movies I’ve seen.

  7. Missy says:

    Hi Ladies! I am very happy to see Haneke get some attention. And in general I agree with your analysis (and most of the comments here), but I have to say that I think a greater knowledge of Haneke’s films would have really deepened your analysis.

    While Funny Games is certainly out of the ordinary for him, it covers some of the same themes as his other films, and I continue to believe that all of his films are connected in some small way that makes knowledge of his films essential to analyzing them.

    Additionally, I have often thought of Haneke as following in a similar cinematic tradition as Bergman (and indeed have seen Haneke speak of Bergman in the past). The connection appears tenuous at first (Bergman’s obsession with spirituality v. Haneke’s obsession with communication), They have similar desires to ask questions with no answers and to ask more of the viewer than others do.

    Additionally, I feel very much that Haneke is approaching similar problems (human comfort, communication, etc) through a more contemporary lens and addressing directly the violence that Bergman more often implied and also openly embracing the role of new technology and youth in the changing of society (see Benny’s Video, Cache, etc).

    Anyway, just a few thoughts. Maybe you could do an episode covering Bergman’s only horror film next!

  8. Brit says:

    1) I’m a little surprised that the 2007 remake didn’t do better upon its release in the US. In the early Post-9/11 years, a movie about the fear of inviting someone into your home only to have them violently abuse that hospitality seems like it would speak to the xenophobia and anxiety around the other/”undesirables” that was especially prolific at that time (still prolific today but at more of a fever-pitch back then).

    2) The Whiteness of the Movie:
    This movie is so pervasively white. The people are white. The houses are wall-to-wall white inside and out. The boat sails are white. Hell, at the end, even the sky is clouded to the point where it appears white. And Peter and Paul with their white outfits blend right in. I read this as a subversion of the xenophobic fear that danger inherently comes from difference. The danger in this movie comes from people who fit in to the white, upper-middle class suburban environment. Like you ladies said, Peter and Paul absorb the coding of their surroundings.
    Coming from an American perspective, and particularly with regards to the American remake, this theme of the danger coming from within white suburbia is oh-so relevant in 2018 with the rise of the modern fascist/white supremacist movement. We have a large and growing movement of white guys attempting to legitimize their ethnocentric ideas by coding themselves as something readily recognizable as respectable the same way Peter and Paul do to infiltrate their victims’ homes. Members of the modern white nationalist movement, in order to appear more acceptable and sympathetic to the mainstream American public, are instructed to wear polo shirts, to dress well, speak well, do everything they can to blend in, to appear as nonthreatening and reputable as possible – especially to people who they see as potential converts to their worldview.
    To me, the white nationalists movement’s use of camouflage to gain traction mirrors Peter and Paul’s use of camouflage to gain entry into their victims’ homes. And it was precisely that use of camouflage, that thin facade of manners that was the creepiest element of the film to me.
    In short, I thought your choice of movies was impeccably apropos.

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