In mid-March I began writing my master’s dissertation on American home invasion films — at that time, I was, even more than usual, preoccupied with the idea of “home.” I was isolated in the United Kingdom, an entire ocean away from my family, and living alone in an empty dorm since most students returned to their homes after the announcement that the University of Cambridge’s spring term courses would move online. As I remained in the hauntingly vacant building, turning my attention to the topic of home invasion films — an idea that I had proposed months prior — felt incredibly strange. I watched and studied works from Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986) and its remake, Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002), to episodes of American Horror Story: Murder House (2011) and Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), all while thinking about home. Home is safe and comforting, a refuge from public life, synonymous with our very self. It is often one of the few places that we reliably see as “safe,” so the last thing we’d want to do during a pandemic is watch anything that would disturb that sense of security… right? But this paradoxical nature of watching home invasion stories is the very thing that drew me to writing about them in the first place. While people have been turning to entertainment more and more as a means of escapism and comfort, ironically, tales of terror can give us the ability to confront our fears head-on.
Perhaps this desire is what led me to obsessively rewatch Funny Games. Despite not knowing anyone nearby to help offer protection if things got too terrifying, I invited this haunting home invasion story into my isolated abode time and again. Michael Haneke’s film, made originally in German in 1997, and then given an English-language remake by Haneke himself in 2007, is by no stretch of the imagination an easy watch — it is frequently bleak and brutal, unhappy and uncompromising — but somehow, it felt only fitting to invite it to keep me company during extended stretches of solitude. In Funny Games, the family of characters are condemned to becoming victims of a series of killings by letting visitors inside their home. Letting terror into the household is an integral feature of the home invasion genre; the intruders are often guests or benign-seeming individuals who are initially welcomed in — only to later reveal their nefarious intentions.
In the German-language version of Funny Games, we have the Schobers — parents Georg and Anna, son Georgie, and dog Rolfi; in the English-language version, we have the Farbers — parents George and Ann, son Georgie, and dog Lucky. As the family settle into vacation life, Anna is soon interrupted by a surprise guest, Peter. He fits in as an upper-middle-class vacationer, clad in a pristine white outfit, and Anna acts as the model of neighborly politeness, asking how she can help him. Anna continues to host this strange guest despite his incessant testing of her hospitality: breaking eggs, pressing her for more, and knocking her phone into the sink. Finally, the frustration becomes too much and she asks him to go. He does, for a time… but soon enough he returns with Paul, another clean-cut young man, to enact his terror.
As Jacques Derrida wrote in On Hospitality, the guest asserts control over the host as soon as he is welcomed in. By extending hospitality, the host becomes the hostage, while the guest becomes the master of both the host and the house. Peter and Paul are allowed to enter, and then they don’t leave. They might appear like polite guests, but quickly enough they reveal themselves to be sadistic killers, and the once-safe vacation house transforms from a relaxing getaway for hosting company, to a place where they can’t get away from their guests. Instead, they become victims of their own hospitality and material abundance.
As the Schobers become trapped within their home, they also become trapped within a genre that imposes an expectation of violence, and the psychological and physical torture that Peter and Paul inflict certainly fulfills that expectation. We watch for entertainment at the Schobers’ expense — Anna remarks “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing,” but the “game” the killers play is one in which the only defined rule is that their fun will end in the family’s pain. However, Haneke leaves much of the brutality against bodies offscreen, and in doing so draws our attention to the borders of the image and the limits of our visibility. The frame’s refusal to reveal the most disturbing images or voyeuristic gazes into its borders mirrors the house’s own attempts to wall out that which would cause us harm. However, it is the very absence of visible violence that makes us imagine the horrors we cannot see. When the men force Anna to undress, they cover Georgie’s eyes with a pillowcase, and the spectators are also blocked from seeing her naked body as the camera frames her only from the shoulders up. Shortly afterward, when a gun goes off and one of the family members is shot, rather than cutting to show the carnage directly, the camera lingers on the blood-splattered television screen.
Joshua Meyrowitz argues in his book, No Sense of Place, that installing a television creates an open invitation for media to continuously enter the domestic setting, where “guests” — or the broadcasted images — can no longer be prevented from entrance by the masters of the house. Therefore, the allowance of violence onscreen invites violence into the home. Once Peter and Paul are welcomed into the family home and install themselves within it, the Schobers cannot wall out the “entertainment” they bring inside. They cannot control what terrors may or may not intrude, so they, like all of us watching Funny Games, are held hostage by the medium and are left to endure whatever comes with it.
In its multiple breaks of the fourth-wall, Funny Games further pierces the division between onscreen and offscreen spaces. When Paul confronts the audience, he also invades the domestic space of the viewers — his direct address to us is our own home invasion. Whether we are watching the film on a cinema screen, a television screen at home, or on some other device in some other place, we experience our own violence through the sudden address as the killers invade the realm of the audience. It is a profoundly uncanny experience to suddenly have that creeping sensation, the feeling that you might not be alone, confirmed.
When Peter and Paul sit with the Schobers on the living room sofas, Paul asks them to bet whether they will still be alive by morning, and then solicits audience input: “You think they stand a chance? You’re on their side, aren’t you?” Later, he asks Anna whether their tortures have been “enough” and then again looks to the camera to inquire: “Do you think it’s enough? I mean, you want a real ending, right? With plausible plot development, don’t you?” We are called to move between the diegesis and the nondiegesis along with the killers, making us participants in the action. But, through this question of which “side” of the diegesis/onscreen space we occupy, we are also called to inquire the mobility and vulnerability of our own material existence. If we inhabit the same “side” of the screen as the Schobers, then we are also potentially subject to the same torture. Paul’s gazes and declarations intrude beyond the confines of the frame, infiltrating past the fourth wall — brutally proving there is no safety to be found on either side of the screen.
Paul’s queries to spectators also imbue a sense of viewer responsibility for the onscreen action. We expect, rewatch, and replay such scenes of violence constantly, and nowhere in the film is this more apparent than in its notorious rewind scene. After Paul asks Anna to choose how her husband will die, Anna suddenly snatches the gun in front of her and shoots Peter. Peter crumples to the floor, and Paul reacts by frantically searching for the television remote. Upon finding it, he uses it to control the plot, rewinding the action to just moments prior. When the scene begins to play out again, this time he stops her before she can pick up the gun, and this sequence is a marker of Haneke’s increasing acknowledgment of the context of home viewing. The remote control is an emblem of domestic comfort and personal agency. Yet while we can rewind and rewatch this film as much as we like, we cannot change the outcome of the narrative: Peter and Paul are in control, and despite our own efforts to save the family and feel that the screen safely divides us from the things we watch, we are all part of the game.
The timing of my writing and obsessive rewatching of Funny Games was almost uncanny — beginning my dissertation work when the UK first went into lockdown, and finally submitting my dissertation just as businesses began to reopen and I prepared for my return home to the United States. But for everyone who still feels trapped or alone, or if you just desire an adrenaline rush, home invasion stories may be an unexpected source of thrills to fill the quiet. On many days, I feel “stuck” and trapped inside, much like the characters onscreen that are held hostage in their own homes. But at least I am safe, and when the movie ends, I feel a renewed appreciation for the comfort and security of the space I inhabit.
When we watch home invasion movies in our own domestic settings, we become, simultaneously, hosts and hostages to the image, inviting and inciting violence for our own viewing pleasure. These stories of disturbed domestic realms take on additional resonance when home really does feel like the last refuge there is — and the screen may not be able to provide protective enclosure, but it allows us to try to invite, and then get rid of, cinematic visitors into our spaces. The killers may feel like they are creeping off the screen and straight into our lives, but even though it can be terrifying, at least I no longer feel entirely alone.