In my review of No Country for Old Men the other day, I mentioned that I’d seen another movie last weekend that featured similarly dispassionate violence in it. And I think I also mentioned that I found that other movie — that is to say, THIS movie — so disturbing on so many levels that I needed a few more days to process it before I could formulate an opinion.
I have no idea if I’m actually ready. But here goes nothing.
This Austrian film opens with a happy family on their way to their summer house for a couple of weeks of vacation — it’s a husband (Georg, played by Ulrich Muhe from The Lives of Others), his wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son. As they are pulling into the neighborhood where their summer house is located, they see one of their friends off in the distance standing next to two young men dressed all in white. They wave and yell something about hooking up for golf the next day, and then continue the drive up to their house.
Excited to be on vacation, Anna heads into the kitchen to put the food away and start dinner while Georg and his son head down to the water to get their sailboat into the water. The neighbor and one of the young men in white come over to help Georg unload the boat, and meanwhile, the other young man in white goes up to the house and asks Anna if she can spare any eggs.
Having just seen the man with her neighbor, Anna lets him in the house and hands over four eggs as requested. But after about five or ten minutes of conversation with the young man, Anna’s intuition starts to buzz, and she soon begins to feel increasingly uneasy about him. The next thing she knows, he’s been joined by his friend — let’s call them “Peter” and “Paul,” since those are two of the names they use in the film (along with a variety of others — we never learn their real names) — and the two are just acting. . . strangely. They won’t leave, they keep demanding that she hand over her last four eggs — their social mannerisms are just off somehow.
Georg comes up to the house and finds Anna nearly in hysterics. At first, he’s completely confused — why is his wife so upset with these two young men who simply wanted to borrow some eggs? But when they refuse to leave when HE asks them to, he slaps one of them gently across the face, and the next thing he knows, the other has taken a golf club to his kneecap, shattering it.
From there, things spiral into . . . well, not chaos, actually. In fact, it’s the total opposite of chaos. Everything is calm, controlled, and practiced. And that’s the part that is so disconcerting. We slowly begin to deduce that these two young men are there to torment the family for no reason other than their own entertainment. They aren’t there to rob them, aren’t there for sexual gratification — they’re just there for something to do, really. But their torment is unlike anything we’re used to seeing in movies like this one. There’s no real violence at first — they don’t hurt them (aside from breaking Georg’s knee, but that was sort of self-defense at the time), they don’t yell at them, there aren’t any direct threats, really. It’s all very controlled and unemotional.
And it just totally freaked me the hell out, not the least because I would’ve opened the door for that kid who wanted to borrow some eggs myself without even thinking twice about it.
Anyway, without going into too much detail, bad things start to happen, and they are bad things of a nature we’re just really not used to seeing in American movies. But the fascinating thing is, we don’t actually SEE ANYTHING happen — we just know it has, and we know it’s utterly unbearably awful. The first person to die in this movie is the very last person who would ever die in a movie like this made in Hollywood, and while that person is killed, all we see on-screen is the OTHER killer hanging out in the kitchen making himself a sandwich. While he’s slicing cheese and spreading mustard, we’re frantically counting to 35 in our heads (long story) trying to figure out who is about to get shot in the other room, and we figure it out just as the gun goes off in the background. And even THEN we cannot believe it. CANNOT BELIEVE IT!
At one point, the wife manages to turn the tables on the killers (in the only scene in the entire film where we actually see someone get shot, I might add — no accident, that) and we let out a cheer, hurrah! Things are finally going the way we’re used to having them go! But before the film can progress any further, one of the killers grabs the remote control from the couch and hits rewind, and the scene we just watched goes back about five minutes and then starts over again. This time, no tables are turned. There’s no hurrah. There’s no sense of relief that finally this movie is going to settle into a more comfortable pattern. No promise left of an ending that will make any sense whatsoever to us as human beings.
And it was right about then that I started to realize what the director, Michael Haneke, was doing, something I confirmed when I watched an interview with him in the special features in which he says the only people who are going to watch this film from start to finish are the people who actually NEED to watch this film from start to finish.
You see, those of us who “enjoy” watching movies in which innocent people are tormented and killed by bad guys — Haneke thinks there’s something wrong with us. In fact, he thinks we’re complicit in the deaths of the innocents we see in front of us on the screen. So, in this film, he decided to turn the tables on US — the viewers — to show us just how sick and twisted we truly are.
And I will confess that this kind of threw me for a few days. I’ve said many times before that I have no idea why I enjoy watching horror movies — why I find watching people get eaten by zombies or chopped up by serial killers so relaxing. It does disturb me sometimes. But it wasn’t until this movie that I realized WHY, and, unfortunately for Haneke, it means his plan here kind of backfired.
You see, in the horror movies we’re used to seeing, things progress in a predictable manner. Sometimes the wrong people die at first, but usually by the end, someone good is victorious and the bad guy gets his comeuppance, even if he comes back to life at the last minute to make yet another in a long line of worsening sequels. And that’s the part that is relaxing for me — in the world of the typical scary movie, I know what to expect, and I know that 9 times out of 10, things will end in a way that makes sense to me in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things. It’s not that I likewatching people get chopped up (well, if they’re blonde and stupid, sometimes I do, I will confess) — it’s that I like it when scary things are resolved satisfactorily. It helps me cope with my own, much more pedestrian fears. If the smart girl can make it to the sequel, surely that means there’s hope for me as well?
In this movie, on the other hand, things onlygo wrong. Haneke clearly knows the genre — watched a few horror movies yourself, eh, Mike? — because not only does this movie turn every “traditional” horror/thriller scene on its ear, it even throws in a few extra details, like a moment of foreshadowing in the beginning of the movie that we cling to for the rest of the film, fully expecting it to come back at the end and save the day for SOMEONE. But no — not even that goes the way we’ve come to expect it to. In fact, it goes the way we always heckle bad horror movies for NOT going, frankly. It goes the way it probably would in the real world, where killers like this aren’t stupid or careless. Where they don’t care about justice or logic or reason or humanity. Where they decide to kill someone. . . and so they do.
But here’s the thing — Haneke means to shame us for watching his movie all the way through, right? The movie HE THOUGHT UP, and, even worse, the movie he made not once but TWICE (there’s a Hollywood version in theaters now, starring Michael Pitt, Tim Roth, and Naomi Watts, that is essentially, I gather, a frame-for-frame remake also directed by Haneke)? Dude, not even at my most depraved and bloodthirsty (typically the weekend before Halloween, in case you’re wondering) could I have come up with the script for this film. And it’s not because I lack the self-awareness or intelligence needed to knuckleball a genre like this. It’s because I’m just not twisted enough to be able to put down on a piece of paper the things that happen in this film. This movie is brilliant (it really is, in my opinion), but it’s also incredibly horrible. I watched it to the end not because I was enjoying it, but because I couldn’t believe what was happening and kept waiting for it to play out the way it was SUPPOSED to play out: the predictable, “safe” way.
Which means I’m kind of all right in the head after all, if you ask me.
I have no intention of seeing the remake, before you ask. Not just because once was plenty with this puppy, but also because I don’t find Naomi Watts that interesting and I already find Michael Pitt plenty creepy enough, thankyouverymuch. Of all the people who need to get back to doing romantic comedies. . . Pitt, you were so cute on Dawson’s Creek! What happened?
Oh, and one last thing — in case I didn’t make this clear enough in my review of The Lives of Others, I’d like to state officially for the record now that Ulrich Muhe was an acting GOD. He has a scene in this film that I will never forget as long as I live, and all he does in that scene is sit on the floor and cry. It’s one of the most painful moments I’ve ever experienced on film. We lost a good one when we lost that guy — man, I hateit when that happens. Frak.
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Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering