Haneke Explains His Makeover
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
You might think little could faze the filmmaker Michael Haneke, who has shown the world Isabelle Huppert’s genital self-mutilation in “The Piano Teacher” and Maurice Bénichou’s self-decapitation in “Caché.” The 65-year-old Austrian auteur admits, however, that he fears illness more than anything. He isn’t kidding, either. Recently, as he twirled a black scarf twice around his neck, he instructed a publicist to remember to crank up the heat the following morning. “I don’t want to be sick when I am doing interviews,” he said.
Mr. Haneke has a lot of explaining to do here in America.
He is promoting his first English-language feature, “Funny Games” — a shot-for-shot remake of his controversial 1997 Austrian film of the same name that was a violent attack on our nation’s desensitized, complacent attitude toward the omnipresent violence in entertainment.
“I did the remake because the first film in the German language did not reach the larger English-speaking audience as I had intended,” he said through a translator. “The film certainly hasn’t lost its relevance. ‘Funny Games’ is a manifestation, a reaction against a genre of films. The whole idea of ‘torture porn’ has become more prevalent since I made the original.”
The remake, which reaches American theaters today, stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart as members of a bourgeois family who are taken hostage in their vacation home by two nihilistic invaders played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet. One could argue that Mr. Haneke’s own role as a filmmaker isn’t so different from the sadistic attackers in “Funny Games.” Systematically, he has picked a family at random for each of his films and subjected it to some funny games in his theater of cruelty.
“You can’t address violence without showing violence,” the director said. “The family unit is the nuclear cell of civilization. That is why I tend to use a small family from the upper-middle-class milieu, because many people can identify with this way of life.” Mr. Haneke sees himself as a provocateur who implicates his viewers as guilty accomplices. If you tell him you’ve enjoyed his films, he’ll furrow his brow and ask you to define what you mean by “enjoy.” If you tell him that you’re angry about the way his films manipulate you, he’ll laugh gleefully. Although “Funny Games” is every bit as gruesome as the genre films it critiques, Mr. Haneke has faith that the American audience won’t miss its point.
“You can’t really do a film on the subject of violence if you are afraid someone might view it as consumerist entertainment,” he said. “I have a hard time imagining people treating this film as such, but there isn’t a remedy for misunderstanding.”
Having already made “Funny Games” once doesn’t make things easier. Mr. Haneke said the remake was much more difficult to shoot because he wanted a near-exact replica. He had to ignore the critical reaction to the original, as well as his own better judgment.
“The pressure increased,” he said. “When you do an original film, if there’s something you don’t like you can just leave it out and the audience will never know the difference. With a shot-for-shot remake, you can’t leave anything out, even if you think it’s not done so well. Another pitfall you have to avoid is anything in the second film not measuring up to its counterpart in the first film, because people would then say the first one was so much better.” Mr. Haneke insists that the remake is exactly the same as the original, and primarily intended for those who haven’t seen the 1997 version. So for those Americans who endured the original, is there any reason to see the remake?
“Maybe,” he said with a big laugh. “If they are masochistic enough.”