Released in 1997, Funny Games, written and directed by Michael Haneke, tells the story of a family on vacation being invaded, tortured, brutalized, and eventually murdered by two young men. Aside from the fact that the film is incredibly violent without any reason, what’s notable is that Paul, one of the two young murderers, consistently breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges that the audience is viewing the film, and and questions whether him knowing he’s in a film makes it as real as ‘reality’.
Aside from a knowing smirk to us early on, the first major instance of the fourth wall breaking is when Paul and his friend Peter make a bet with the mother, father, son, and us. He says that come 9AM the next day, he and Peter will still be alive, and bets the family will not. Then, Paul turns to the camera and asks us what side we’re on. Haneke uses this moment to immediately put the audience in difficult spot. Usually in film, we’re conditioned to immerse ourselves in the story and characters, and enjoy them, but with the full knowledge that it’s only a fantasy in the end. Whether the people die or not doesn’t matter, because it’s only a story. It’s fiction. Funny Games however, argues there’s little distance between our reality and theirs.
Released eight years later, Haneke’s film Cache has a similar motif of using the camera as a sort of tunnel between an objective reality and the film’s subjective reality. Both have good uses of extremely long single takes on wide shots to make us last in the moment and often feel vaguely voyeuristic, as if the only thing stopping us from helping these people is a thin glass wall in between.
So, what’s the point of all this? Haneke himself said that Funny Games was a film about the senseless violence in the media, but it’s also about how we as people see films as compact pre-built legos that can be happily stored away when we’re done with them, and how strange that really is. Paul’s constant gestures to the camera and acknowledgements of us the viewer feels like he’s trying to manifest a reality in his world and create a life past his feature length runtime. I believe that with this, intentionally or not, Haneke poses that if real people are doing real movements with real props, is it not reality? As our special effects, acting talent, and writing grow more complex with time, it becomes both a useless and yet important question to ask. Useless because, taking a step back, this is very obviously a film and no one was actually injured in it; these events did not occur. Still, it’s important as well because in that moment where we see all of this happening, we feel as though it is reality, and that’s a bit scary.
At the end of the film, when the entire family is dead, leaving Paul and Peter on a boat together, Peter talks about the end of another film he was watching about a young boy hero and his family. The boy Kevin is left trapped in cyberspace while his family is in reality at the end. The way Paul discusses this makes it feel like he’s asking us, in the film, if he’s in some form of reality, which is a question more people will have to ask themselves as the years roll on.
So Paul asks, “where is your hero now? In reality or fiction?”
Peter responds, “his family is in reality and he’s in fiction.”
“But the fiction is real, isn’t it?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, you see it in the film, right?”
Paul smiles and says, “so, it’s just as real as the reality which you see likewise, right?”