By Stephanie Zacharek
By Simon Abrams
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By Nick Schager
By Amy Nicholson
By The Invisible Woman
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But in our globalized entertainment marketplace, I ask Haneke, isn't the entire world a consumer of violence? "Yes, yes, of course," he replies, "but it's the English language that is the language of the world. If you want to reach as large an audience as possible, you have to make an English-language film. It's sad, but it's the truth."
So when the British producers Chris Coen and Hamish McAlpine approached Haneke about another round of Funny Games, he agreed, on one condition: that Watts take on the role of the imperiled wife and mother originated by Haneke regular Susanne Lothar. With the Australian actress on board as both star and executive producer, and with a reported $15 million budget, Funny Games U.S. (as the film was titled during production and at its first press screenings) began shooting in the fall of 2006 on sound stages in Brooklyn and locations on Long Island. But even with a literal blueprint in place, and a contract that guaranteed him final cut, Haneke discovered that retracing his own celluloid footsteps was easier said than done. In addition to the language barrier, Haneke, like many international directors getting their first taste of American film production, found himself at loggerheads with the ironclad union rules and crew hierarchies that sometimes seemed to slow progress to a glacial crawl.
"The work with the actors was good, and the camera team was very good, but the rest was difficult," he sighs. "You need five people for every job. If I want to move a pencil from here to there, then I have to tell this to my assistant, and he tells his assistant; I can't just carry it myself. We were filming for eight and a half weeks, which wasn't even enough time. But in Austria, we filmed the whole thing in six weeks." Much of that time, Haneke says, he felt like he was towing a huge steamship across the ocean with a rope slung over his shoulder. "To work within this huge apparatus, you need a lot of money and a lot of time. If you're doing a huge studio production with a $100 million budget, it's great — you get thirty seconds of footage a day, and that's fine. But if you want to get three minutes a day, it's very paralyzing."
Once he was in the editing room, Haneke's confidence grew, and with good reason. Much more than a mere translation of Funny Games for the subtitle-impaired or a mass-market lithograph of a hand-painted original, the new film stands on its own as a bold, consciousness-altering work that neither requires nor is diluted by foreknowledge of its predecessor. The play, you might say, is the thing: Like a theatrical production that changes its cast midway through the run or gets revived years later in another city (the way Haneke's controversial staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni, first mounted in Paris in 2006, will travel to New York in 2012), the American Funny Games is at once every inch the film Haneke first made a decade ago and a vibrant, living object that seems to be evolving right before our eyes.
Credit for this goes largely to the actors, especially Watts, who navigates the film's Olympiad of physical and psychological punishments with mesmerizing intensity. Funny Games offers a genuine revelation, though, in the form of the 26-year-old American actor Michael Pitt (Last Days, The Dreamers), whose performance as the film's alpha intruder, Paul (played in the original version by Benny's Video star Arno Frisch), rivals Malcolm McDowell's iconic turn in A Clockwork Orange in its balletic, gleeful amorality. It's a performance so commanding, in fact, that it shifts the focus of the film from the homeowners to their uninvited guests. "In the Austrian version, you had the impression that the main parts are the parents, and now it's different," Haneke concurs. "Now you know that [Paul] is the main part."
But the greatest strength of Haneke's film remains its unceasing conceptual rigor. Seen a decade ago, the movie's hard-line critique of media violence and its transformation of human torture into a spectator sport might have seemed a tad reactionary. In 2008, it feels like a high-IQ smart bomb launched into the culture of commemorative Abu Ghraib snapshots, the endless slo-mo looping of the 9/11 attacks, and the use of odds-making vernacular to turn everything from the Iraq war to the presidential election into their own brand of funny games.
The son of an actress, Beatrix von Degenschild, and an actor and theater director, Fritz Haneke, Michael Haneke grew up in a high-culture world not unlike the one he would go on to depict in The Piano Teacher. As a boy, he toyed with the idea of becoming an actor and, later, a classical pianist, though a few bad auditions and the tough love of his talented family members set him on another course.
"My stepfather was a composer, and he said to me, 'You are not going to become a great musician,' " Haneke recalls. "I always tell my students that directing is the profession of cheats. A complete idiot can make a good film if he's saved by his collaborators, but if a musician plays badly, all the world knows he's a bad musician."
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