To the uninitiated viewer, Austrian director Michael Haneke might best be described as the modern cinema's master of the unkind rewind. In the opening scene of his second theatrical feature, Benny's Video (1992), we see crude camcorder footage of a farm pig being shot with a cattle gun during a family's bucolic holiday. Then the images begin to play in reverse before our eyes, then forward again, this time in slow motion, until the titular teenage videographer gets it in his head to restage this grisly scene in his own bedroom, with a female classmate in place of the swine. Thirteen years later, the opening scene of Haneke's Caché similarly doubled back on itself, revealing that the establishing exterior shot of a Parisian book critic's home was, in actuality, an excerpt from a surveillance video left on the critic's doorstep by an anonymous voyeur.
The most unnerving instant replay in the Haneke canon, however, is the one that occurs late in his 1997 film Funny Games, when the distraught matriarch of a family held hostage in their lakeside vacation home by two sadistic intruders momentarily turns the tables on her captors and leaves one of them with a gaping shotgun wound in his stomach. Already, by this point in the film, the woman has watched helplessly as her husband is savagely beaten with a golf club and her 10-year-old son finds himself on the losing end of a life-or-death round of eeny-meeny-miny-moe. But mere seconds after our heroine appears to gain the upper hand, the surviving tormentor picks up a remote control and, in a moment that might be dubbed Night of the Living TiVo, resurrects his fallen partner in crime with a single touch of the backward arrow.
It is the most discussed and debated single moment in Haneke's most discussed and debated movie — an abrupt breaking of whatever rules we thought Funny Games had established for itself, and a blunt-force denial of our desire for closure and catharsis. When the film premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Haneke recalls, the shooting earned the enthusiastic applause of the audience. "Later, when the scene gets rewound, there was embarrassed silence, because they realized that they had applauded a murder. That's what I have to play with as a filmmaker, so that people become aware of their roles as accomplices to the violence that they are viewing."
As Haneke speaks, the sunlight of a crisp fall afternoon streams through the windows of his suite at New York City's Regency Hotel and glints off his white, professorial beard. Tall and slender, with a wolfish jowl and a penchant for dressing head to toe in various shades of black, the 65-year-old filmmaker cuts an undeniably imposing figure, which, coupled with the bleak tone of his films, has led to his reputation as a chilly prince of cinematic darkness. In person, though, Haneke's formidable demeanor is offset by kind, fatherly eyes and a convulsive, deep-throated laugh that rises up at unexpected intervals. He is quick to offer praise for his filmmaking contemporaries. (Of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, he says, "He is, in my opinion, the most important, the most advanced film director in the world today.") Perhaps most disarming is his habit of peppering his conversation with German proverbs, some of which survive the translation into English better than others. "There is a saying in German, 'Wash my pelt, but don't get me wet,'" Haneke tells me when I raise the fact that many audiences prefer movies to be a little less aggressive than his. A few days later, during a workshop at Boston University, he has these words for a student who asks him why he's never made a children's film or a comedy: "There is a saying in German, 'Don't ask a shoemaker for a hat.' "
The purpose of Haneke's visit to the U.S. is twofold. One reason is a complete retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Film Archive. The other is the promotion of Funny Games — not the decade-old Austrian film mentioned above, but rather an American remake starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth that marks Haneke's first foray into English-language cinema. It has already entered the film-history textbooks as the first time a director has remade his own film shot by shot, with only the subtlest of variations in dialogue, costumes, and production design. For its creator, it is an unexpected career move that has raised its share of eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic ever since it was first announced two years ago. Why would Haneke, on the heels of Caché — his greatest international success to date (including nearly $4 million at the U.S. box office) — opt to revisit one of his own films, in a language in which he is less than fluent, in a place (Hollywood) famous for sending many a world-cinema maverick running home with his tail between his legs?
To hear Haneke tell it, his rationale was quite simple. From its English-language title to the architectural details of its setting, even the original Funny Games was intended, he says coyly, "for the consumers of violence — in other words, Americans. The house in the first film — such a house doesn't even exist in Austria. It's a typical American suburban house." Just as the NASCAR racing that plays on a television in the background of one of the grisliest scenes in both versions of the film is a uniquely American pastime. (Asked why he chose the sport, Haneke says it was the loudest thing he could think of.)
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 onboard 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.