[Note: This review is for Michael Haneke's original film, not the remake starring Naomi Watts.]
Michael Haneke’s notorious thriller about a family taken hostage by two young sociopaths at their sprawling lake home. The captors play an increasingly disturbing game of mental torture–in the form of witty repartee, lies and humiliation–that leads to appalling physical brutality, all for their own amusement. I wish I could say more about the plot, but that’s all there is.
Haneke does a good job of ratcheting up the tension, which gives the film a sense of power, and the actors are convincing in demanding roles. But all the obvious allusions to the randomness of violence or disaffected youth, or attempts to make a statement about audience voyeurism, can’t disguise the fact that this is really just an exercise in nihilistic violence. Some believe the film to be satire, but I can’t imagine that anyone could find this subject matter even remotely amusing–and I don’t want to know anyone who does. This is a bleak film, dark and depressing in a way few films are, and that equates to utter hopelessness, which isn’t a fun, interesting, or engaging expression of cinema.
And to make matters worse, amidst the cacophony of violence, Haneke makes a mistake so fatal, the film never recovers: he presents his assailants without a shred of viable weaponry–defenseless, basically–and his victims with countless routes of escape that the screenplay doesn’t allow them to take. A few well-placed jabs of a knife, a gouge to the eyes, or a shout out to the friendly neighbors could have easily ended the whole violent mess. But that would have gotten in the way of there actually being a movie, right?
*A Warning & Spoiler Alert* 1) The violence in this film is gritty and disturbing, helped along by some very strong performances. You may find yourself appalled, as I was, though the movie’s power is, at times, inescapable. 2) Roger Ebert is fond of recalling how his colleague, the late Gene Siskel, hated any film where children are intentionally put in harm’s way. I’ll agree on certain films, but no more so than with Funny Games, which graphically shows a young boy being shotgunned to death. It was an abhorrent choice on Haneke’s part, meant purely for shock value, and I half suspect he might now regret it. If you’re disturbed by such images, I recommend you avoid this film like the plague.
1997; starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe; directed by Michael Haneke; 108 min; not rated; in German w/ English subtitles.