A genre such as the horror film is virtually non-existent in Austrian cinema. Well-known especially for their avant-garde and experimental productions, everyday topics and problematic dramas, Austrian films are comparable to the art films of New German Cinema or to the kind of German TV movies that share a similar “anti-cinematic” take on the medium. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Gerald Kargl’s serial-killer film Angst (Fear, 1983) has never been distributed commercially, not even on videotape or DVD. Even today this disturbing horror-thriller—which follows the bloody course of a twice convicted serial-killer through the Austrian countryside—can hardly be seen because of its disgusting crime scenes, scenes which are not suitable for television either. In contrast to Kargl’s only film to date, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) was shown at film festivals all over the world (from Cannes and Munich in 1997, to Rotterdam and Miami in 1998), and could be considered something of a box-office hit. But even if writer-director Haneke—born in Munich, Germany in 1942—had already received several prizes for Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), Nachruf für einen Mörder (1991), Benny’s Video (1992), Die Rebellion (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994), his films have been heavily criticized, even by young Austrian film critics, for their didactic approach to the mass media and mainstream cinema. Nonetheless Haneke’s “Kammerspiel”-like Funny Games is a rare and important example of the Austrian horror-thriller, as is Kargl’s semi-documentary psychodrama Angst.
Deadly passions of a home invader
Angst is based on an actual case of triple-murder, the “Kniesek case”, which is as famous in Austria as the Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten trials in Germany, or the Ed Gein case in America. Like these and other serial killers, Werner Kniesek from Salzburg—who killed three people out of pure lust in 1980—stands as a threatening symbol of senseless death and destruction for its own sake. “I just love it when women shiver in deadly fear because of me. It is like an addiction, which will never stop”, said Kniesek in front of the judge. His psychiatrist classified him as “extremely abnormal but not mentally ill”— an explosive mixture of lust for destruction and addiction to physical violence. He probably should never have been set free.
Kniesek was born in 1946, the spoiled son of an Austrian widow and an African-American soldier. His mother used to call him a “cute little black baby”, and as a child he really was what his mother expected: a nice young boy. In his adolescent years, he developed a criminal instinct which lead him to commit a number of burglaries in his hours off school. In 1962, Kniesek planned to leave the country. First he took a great amount of money from his mother, then he stabbed her several times with a breadknife. Kniesek was then sixteen years old. He left behind his critically-wounded mother and took the train to Hamburg. Two days later he was caught by police, convicted, and sent to prison. Only two years later he managed to obtain his release. He married a prostitute, committed several house break-ins, and again tried to kill a woman, but his 73-year-old victim survived. For the second time in his short life, Kniesek was locked up in jail.
In 1980, a few weeks before his sentence was up, Kniesek got the chance to go free to search for some work. Immediately he drove to Upper Austria, the town of St. Poelten, where he broke into the villa of a middle-aged widow named Gertrud Altreiter. There he found the son of the family, who was dependent on a wheelchair. In his confession, Kniesek explained that he knew he would kill the boy, but not at that moment. Later that day the mother and her daughter returned home from a shopping trip. Kniesek threatened the two women with a gas-pistol, bound and gagged them, and carried his helpless victims into two different rooms. In self-defence the daughter tried to seduce Kniesek, but the cold-blooded killer just stated that soon they would all be dead. His first victim was the disabled son whom Kniesek strangled to death, subsequently showing the corpse to the panicking mother before killing her as well. The horrifying chain of events climaxed in the violation and torturing of the 25-year-old daughter for several hours. Finally, Kniesek murdered her, along with the family cat, whose crying had bothered him. Afterwards, the killer spent the night side-by-side with his dead victims.
“I killed them simply out of the lust for murder”, Kniesek later stated. “I even gave the elder woman some medicine so that she would live longer.” His attempt to commit suicide in his single cell failed. During the trial, the killer expressed the wish to be jailed in a special institution for pathological criminals, because from childhood on he had felt the desire to kill people, and given the opportunity he would commit murder again and again. The case escalated again when Kniesek nearly managed to escape from prison three years later. During this period of public outrage, the possibility of reintroducing the death penalty in Austria was discussed more seriously than ever.
Inside the mind of serial killer
In Angst, Gerald Kargl’s cinematic adaptation of the Kniesek case, some of the authentic facts are changed, the names of the people and cities altered, and certain of the events modified. The most obvious and significant change is the director’s decision to add the killer’s voice-over, as he quotes passages from other serial-killers’ confessions, especially those of Peter Kürten, the so-called “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” This strictly subjective one-person drama is shot with a strong use of high-angle shots and handheld camerawork, and the minimal narration shows similarities to Aristide Massaccesi’s Italian stalk’n’slash-epic Rosso Sangue (Absurd, 1982). But in fact, Kargl manages to direct a European counterpart to John McNaughton’s Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer (USA, 1986/1990): irritating, gory, and absolutely hopeless.
Angst is exceptional in Austrian cinema for at least two reasons: it is both a “true crime” semi-documentary, and a horror-slasher film resembling those from the Italian tradition. Yet it is different as well. The film confronts the viewer with the most horrible details of the authentic case, and stands as the collaborative effort of first-time-director Kargl and his writer-cameraman Zbigniew Rybczynski; the third “author” is composer Klaus Schulze (from the “Krautrock”-group Tangerine Dream), whose cold yet haunting electronic rhythms add a great deal to the alienating atmosphere. The soundtrack mainly consists of pre-existing pieces, most notably the charming melody of “Freeze”— a track also used to great effect in the moonlight love scene of Michael Mann’s serial killer drama Manhunter (USA, 1987).
Angst uses real-time narration nearly all way through; only a few ellipses appear in the second part, but most of the film is staged in detailed on-screen action, filmed with long handheld shots, sometimes even in planned sequences. Dialogue scenes are extremely rare, due to the concentration on a subjective, one-person drama. The film starts in a prison cell, establishing the killer (Erwin Leder) through an off-screen monologue in which he reflects about his past, his deeds, his needs, his sexual desires, and his supposedly lost childhood. The film’s irritating atmosphere is established via clear, often high-key, but always greyish visuals— only broken by some stylish chiaroscuro in the cell. When released from prison ten years later, the off-screen narration leaves the viewer with no illusions: the killer will be stalking his next victim soon. When he enters a small diner we are forced to “scan” the guests through the killer’s eyes. Every human being is a potential victim. First he enters a taxi, directs the female driver into a forest, and tries to strangle her. But he fails, as she has sensed something weird the whole time. His potential victim manages to kick him out of the car and escapes. The killer flees through the forest until he reaches a huge villa. He breaks into this supposedly empty house and meets—here the semi-documentary begins—a disabled and mentally retarded young man in a wheelchair (Rudolf Goetz). Soon the other occupants of the house arrive: a middle-aged woman (Silvia Rabenreither), and her adolescent daughter (Edith Rosset).
Accompanied by his own quietly spoken voice-over, the killer starts his bloody “work”: the son is drowned in the bathtub, and the mother gets strangled in her bedroom. The daughter tries to escape, but the killer hunts her down in the basement garage and viciously stabs her with a bread-knife. Here the most disturbing sequence of Angst runs its course: after massacring the young woman in a total frenzy, the killer rapes the corpse post-mortem. All of this is shot in real-time. After this disturbing climax, the film returns to its low-key narrative, and shows us the killer’s actions after the murders: having slept at the crime scene, he washes himself, stuffs the corpses in the trunk of the family’s car, and—once again—visits the diner from earlier in the picture. While there, he behaves so suspiciously that immediately the police are on to him. Finally they force him to open the trunk, a sequence filmed in the long, circling tracking shots Hollywood-cameraman Michael Ballhaus would later become popular for, symbolizing the circle of crime and punishment in which the killer is so consciously trapped.
What is so frightening about Angst, what makes the film a horror film in the true sense of the word, is that the killer is characterized as a threat to every human being crossing his path. To be seen by him is to be his potential victim. He easily invades the residence of a bourgeois household— a place that is normally synonymous with warmth and safety. And he brings murder to a dispassionate middle-class society in which “death” would appear to be the only and last taboo. Interestingly, the disabled son seems to be “hidden” by his own family in this villa by the edge of the forest.
As noted earlier, Angst’s dramatic structure is reduced to only a very small amount of narration: we are simply shown the killer’s murder spree on his one and only day of freedom. What might cause some empathy with this dangerous character—his own first-person-narration—in fact functions to alienate the viewer even more. This because the voice-overs simply double on the verbal level the monstrous incidents shown to us in all their graphic horror. Through the use of this technique, the film creates a distance between audience and protagonist that never really subsides. The murder sequences may be visually shocking, but they are also deeply reflective. Kargl avoids providing any type of entertainment, conventional thrill, or suspense. In fact, both Kargl and Haneke seem to believe that entertainment through stalk’n’slash splatter films is a sign of cynicism and should be avoided. As a result, both have tried to develop directing methods marked by intellectual distance. Austria is a true middle-class society, and the greatest fear of the middle class is the invasion of the bourgeois home by unpredictable elements, be they of foreign origin—this is where racism comes into play—or be they mentally ill. To make his fable even more extreme, Kargl avoided the African-American origins of the real Werner Kniesek; in his film, the killer looks more like a “normal” guy no one would recognize or pay much attention to in the streets. Angst’s killer belongs to virtually the same bourgeois background as his choice of victims. This would seem to be the real Austrian nightmare, one which Michael Haneke has used as inspiration for several of his films.
Trapped in fear
The situation is quite simple, clearly structured, and well-known from numerous thrillers and horror films: an upper-class family (father, mother, son) is trapped in an isolated house (their own luxurious holiday home nearby some Austrian lake), captured by two dangerous criminals who turn out to be serial killers. But unlike other home invaders—for example the psychopathic criminal in Cape Fear, played by Robert Mitchum in 1961 and by Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake—Funny Games confronts the viewer with a pair of seemingly harmless, almost innocent looking young men. They aren’t much older than eighteen, and they look just like regular boys from a bourgeois neighbourhood. They are both wearing white sweaters and short trousers; only their white gloves, which may remind viewers of the “horror-shows” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1968), don’t fit in with the fresh boyish look. Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)—who refer to themselves with nicknames such as “Tom and Jerry” or “Beavis and Butthead”—seem well-educated, talk eloquently, and act politely. At least at the start. They are not the “usual” criminals who will break into a house to steal money, or to commit rape. They are just boys who want to play games. Only their kind of game is a very disgusting and ultimately deadly one.
First of all, Peter and Paul (two Christian names, as we know) have to choose their “teammates”, and the newest member of the cast is the Schober family, who has just arrived at their holiday residence. Anna Schober (Susanne Lothar) is preparing supper in the kitchen, while husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and son Schorschi (pronounced “Georgi”, Stefan Olapczynski) are busy fixing the sailboat for tomorrow’s voyage. Meanwhile, Peter waits at the entrance, and when Anna finally notices the shy-looking, embarrassed boy at the front door, he introduces himself as a guest of the Berlingers, a neighboring family, and kindly asks if he might borrow some eggs. Unlike the family dog, a German shepherd named Rolfi who instinctively attacked him in the garden earlier, Anna doesn’t recognize the danger posed by Peter. So she believes it is an accident, mere clumsiness—not bad will or a calculated act—when he drops the eggs in the hallway and a little later on the mobile phone in the sink.
Soon the awkward- looking boy is joined by a pert and insolent friend. First, Paul asks Anna if he may use one of her husband’s golf clubs (with which he will kill the dog a little later), then he begins to patronize her harshly. At first the woman is irritated, and then she is frightened, but she is not willing to be in a “game” she does not know and the rules of which she cannot understand. In a first act of resistance, Anna bravely orders the home invaders to leave. But Peter and Paul won’t go, leaving Anna feeling upset, insulted, and humiliated. She attacks Paul. Just at that moment, father and son return from the lakeside. Georg doesn’t understand what is going on, and is willing to believe in a kind of “unfortunate misunderstanding”, as Paul puts it. Although Peter and Paul are back to behaving very politely, the situation is already strange, explosive, and threatening— getting out of control. So it comes as little surprise to the viewer when Paul threatens Georg with physical violence after being ordered to leave, and that Georg reacts by slapping Paul’s face, like a father might do to punish his naughty child. But it comes as a total shock when Peter responds by striking Georg with the golf club, shattering his kneecap and sending the entire family into a state of utter panic. From that moment, right up to the end of the film, we are all involved in a “game” that we cannot accept or explain, one which isn’t “funny” at all— not for the terrorized family, and not for the viewer who is terrorized as well because he or she can’t help but identify with the victims.
All the way through the film—and increasingly as Georg, Anna, and their young son Schorschi are degraded, tortured, and eventually “dehumanized” by the cold-blooded home invaders—one thinks about how this innocent family might escape from their horrible, inhuman, and apparently fatal situation. Although there appear to be several chances for a happy ending (e.g., some friends come along with their boat, Schorschi escapes from the house, Peter is shot by Anna), in the end we come to realize that there is no way out, just as there is no real reason for the brutal and cynical actions of the assailants. For Schorschi, Georg, and Anna—and for the viewer as well—the “game” goes on and on, until the family finally loses the “bet” made on their behalf by the young men: that, as Paul says, “in twelve hours, you three will be kaput.” It is a bet the family is forced to accept, and one it never had a chance to win.
First the family has to guess why Paul still has a golf ball in his pocket, even though he has already used the club (to kill the dog). Afterwards, Anna must search for Rolfi’s corpse with Paul—who leads her around by saying “hot” or “cold”—acting as her guide. Later she has to take off her clothes in order to stop the torturing of her son. Her husband too must participate in this “game”: “Take off your clothes, my sweetheart”, he is forced to say. Up to and including the final “Good Wife” game, in which Anna is presented with two options—one, she must choose whether her husband dies by knife or by gunshot; or two, she can take his place and die first—all of the “games” are based upon physical torture and psychological humiliation, beginning with Paul’s killing of the family dog with a golf club (off-screen), and reaching a dramatic climax in Peter’s murder of Schorschi with a hunting rifle. We do not see the shooting of the little boy, because the camera stays with Paul calmly making some sandwiches in the kitchen. But we can hear the shot, despite the fact that the television set is roaring the whole time. And we can hardly ignore the screams of Georg and Anna, filled as they are with grief and despair.
Haneke and his cinematographer Jürgen Jürges—who worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder several times in the 1970s, and with Helma Sanders-Brahms on Deutschland Bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother, 1980)—withholds from the viewer all the familiar images of blood and gore. As opposed to Kargl or (to mention just one example of a prominent and ambitious Hollywood auteur) Oliver Stone, Haneke seems to have no confidence in the cathartic effect of violent images. Haneke’s films instead force the viewer to listen to, and imagine, violent action, it’s effects discovered afterwards, reflected on the victims’ faces. In Funny Games, it is Anna’s ravaged face especially that we must stare at again and again: a face that gradually loses—torture by torture—all traces of human dignity, destroyed by escalating acts of humiliation forced upon her by her tormentors.
When Paul returns to the living room after Peter’s killing of Schorschi, all we see at first is the blood-splattered screen of the blaring TV set. We can’t see the perpetrators or the hostages; we just hear the broadcasting of an auto race, and Paul talking with Peter about the latter’s “bad timing.” With a simple cut, the entire perspective changes. From a distance, the camera now shows us the whole room, revealing the immediate aftermath of a horrible act of senseless brutality. The boy’s dead body lies on the floor; Anna, legs bound and hands tied behind her back, squats in a corner, staring motionless at the floor; and Georg lies between two sofas, tied up and semi-conscious. For almost ten minutes—what seems like an eternity—we are forced to stare at this scene, without any cuts to alleviate our discomfort. We watch Anna hop about helplessly, first to the television set in order to turn it off, then out of the room, into the kitchen. The killers have left (but only for a while); their victims are all alone. When Anna returns to her bound and injured husband, she puts her arms around his tortured body. Georg starts crying, filled with a despair so intense that he quickly reaches a point of near-total exhaustion. It is during the moment of silence that follows that we as viewers might begin to understand what Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) could have meant by the phrase, “the horror”, at the end of his journey through darkness in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). In a situation that is both terrible and absurd, one that exists beyond the pale of all reasonable behavior, psychological motivation, or logical explanation, monsters rule the imagination— monsters of a deranged mind which can be evoked but not exorcised by violent pictures. Imagination is thus the true home of horror.
Welcome to the circle
Haneke’s The Seventh Continent confronts us with the suicide of a family. Benny’s Video presents a young video freak, played by Arno Frisch (“Paul” in Funny Games), who first watches the killing of a pig several times, then murders a young girl just “to see what killing is like.” In 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, a confused boy runs amuck in a bank. In Funny Games, Georg asks his torturers at least two times, “Why are you doing this?”, but Paul’s replies can’t be taken seriously. He is just playing “answer the question”, and repeating the kind of psychological verbiage offered in numerous crime stories again and again: his parents got divorced, and therefore the boy became homosexual, or had an incestuous relationship with his mother, or became a drug addict because of the brutalizing milieu in which he lived, etc. But none of these more or less “politically correct” explanations fits the “game” being played here. The only aim and motivation of these killers is fun, pleasure, amusement, or—as Haneke himself believes—the satisfaction of that pure, sadistic lust typically evoked and fulfilled by mainstream sex-and-crime cinema, and especially by horror movies.
Paul is upset about the premature killing of the boy, but only because Peter’s rash action reduces the perverse possibilities of their sport. When Georg begs him to finish the deadly game because “it’s enough”, Paul replies that “We are still under feature length.” Directing himself to the viewer, he continues: “Is it already enough? You want a proper ending with a plausible development, don’t you?.” The rules of the game determine the action, and the supreme rule is to obtain pleasure from humiliating one’s captives. As soon as the victims can no longer stand the torture, and so submit to their predicted fate—as soon as they surrender unconditionally—the lustful possibilities of the game are exhausted, and these “teammates” aren’t of interest anymore. Only now can the dehumanizing play be finished. Georg, lying tied up and practically unconscious on the sofa, is shot with the hunting rifle, just like his son before him. Anna is thrown overboard off the boat in the morning, her legs bound together and her hands tied behind her back; “Ciao, bella”, is Paul’s cynical farewell. All dead, game over, time to start a new game, maybe a variation of the last game or perhaps just the same old game once again. It is 8 a.m. when Peter and Paul arrive at another luxurious holiday home on the same Austrian lake. This time it is Paul who gently asks for some eggs, and as the young man enters this next victim’s house the frame freezes, with the home invader’s diabolic look staring directly into the camera, right into the viewer’s eyes.
“I try to find ways of representing violence as that which it always is: as unconsumable”, Haneke says. “I give back to violence that which it is: pain, a violation of others.”[i] Most of his films, not only the well-known Benny’s Video and Funny Games, are reflections on violent life in a media saturated society, or, to be more precise: reflections on mediated life in a violent society. Haneke studied philosophy, psychology, and drama in Vienna, then became a playwright with the Südwestfunk Theatre Company from 1967-70 before writing scripts for German television. As a film-maker, he uses generic topics as experiments in which the protagonists—the good ones as well as the bad ones—are forced to behave like laboratory rabbits. There is no such thing as free will allowed, and no “emotional development” either.
The characters we watch in Funny Games are just figures (“experimental subjects”, one might say) playing roles, testing the limits of the human subject. When Anna shoots Peter in an act of desperate resistance, Paul panics. Having lost control over the “game”, he hysterically grabs the TV remote control and rewinds the scene— the same diegetic episode we have just witnessed. This sequence, criticized for its obvious didacticism, may remind us of Pirandello, or it may be understood as a kind of “class-action revenge” taken by the director against all those viewers who fastforward through the “boring” parts of movies watched on video (as David Bartholomew puts it). Nevertheless, the sequence does makes sense within Haneke’s vision du monde. The issue is not whether the viewer mixes up fact and fiction. For the fact of the matter, according to Haneke, is that fiction is real and reality a fiction. During their sailboat ride on the way to their next victims, Peter tells a science-fiction story which deals with two “parallel” universes, one real, the other fictional. The hero of the story lives in cyberspace, in the “anti-material world”, while his family remains in the “real” world. There is no communication between these two worlds, and if there is any difference between them, one has no way of telling what it is. The fiction you see in a movie is as “real as reality”, Paul says, a reality you can observe “as well as a movie.” In today’s mass mediated society, the “ecstasy of communication” just doesn’t make sense anymore.
Kargl’s almost unknown psycho-thriller Angst and Haneke’s notorious “Kammerspiel”-like horror-drama Funny Games are separated by a gap of almost fifteen years. During this time, cinema itself underwent major changes. In the early 1980s, when postmodernism emerged as a dominant cultural form, the last lethal whimpers of the sexual revolution which took place in the late 60s-early 70s finally led to the success of the slasher genre. In Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and the like, juvenile bodies, once engaged in “free love”, were stalked and slashed by perverts who represented the restrictive morality of a “new conservatism.” In effect, the psycho-killers of these films act as moral executors to punish the lustful behavior of a sinful youth. At their hands, the “sexual body” experienced its total destruction. “Free love” was shown to be a risk—corresponding to the era’s new conservative politics, especially in the USA—in the age of an ever-growing HIV plague. Kargl’s Angst appeared shortly after the slasher genre reached its height with Lucio Fulci’s graphic and disturbing Lo Squartatore di New York (The New York Ripper, 1982). But the Austrian director was not willing to join the ranks of his exploitation horror peers. His work is contrary to the likes of Fulci’s misogynistic thriller or Ruggero Deodato’s home invader-class drama La Case Sperduta nel Parco (The House on the Edge of the Park, 1980). Angst avoids any moralistic subtext in its pursuit of depicting the ultimate in alienating, antisocial behavior. The killer embodies the precise opposite of the utopian sexual being the 60s so desperately attempted to invoke: his sexual pleasure is the termination of life.
Funny Games also employs the theme of bourgeois-home invasion, but in a very different way. Haneke’s film was made around the same time that Wes Craven began his comeback with the semi-ironic high school slasher Scream (1996), in which two boys terrorize and finally kill their classmates just for the fun of it, and corresponding to genre rules.[ii] Scream may be seen as the sensationalistic, mainstream companion to the Austrian film. When the “master narratives” of bourgeois morality have all but disappeared, the killing game becomes party event— nihilistic but entertaining. Like the Kniesek character in Angst, the killers in Funny Games enjoy the “angst” of their victims, so long as they show the will to resist. But unlike him, they are not driven by destructive instincts; in fact, they don’t seem to have emotions at all, save perhaps a desire for amusement. Here, all efforts at psychological explanations fail, all negative emotions expressed are simulated, just strategies in a game. Haneke doesn’t show the gruesome act of murder itself— the destruction of the body actually happens outside the frame. This makes a kind of sense, considering that the death of the victims marks the end of the “game.”
The pleasure of these (not at all funny) games lies precisely in breaking the victim’s will to resist. When that will is broken, the killers loose interest, get bored. Killing becomes a mere triviality. Thus, the end of the film marks the beginning of a new circle. Playing with the last taboo of western civilization, the taking of life, the killers manage to rise up against the unwritten laws of materialistic society. Their “game” produces nothing but morbid entertainment. What makes no sense, what lacks any productive value, may not be, and probably never has been. The fatal system of the boys’ game reflects the Sadean orgies of destruction: every living body is just another toy in the hands of the “master.” What is truly shocking about this cold and cynical film is the fact that two well-educated, sometimes seductive young killers are shown to embody the apocalyptic, self-destructive side of a society that has already lost its ethical values: if “anything goes”, nothing will preserve the utopian dreams of the reasonable, moral human being.
[i] Haneke, M. “Director’s Statement”: http://www.attitude.hostrack.net/AttitudeFilms/.
[ii] For more on the slasher/stalker subgenre and its revival in the wake of Scream’s phenomenal success, see Dika, V. (1987) “The Stalker Cycle, 1978-81”, in Waller, G. (ed.), American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), and Schneider, S.J. (2000) “Kevin Williamson and the Rise of the Neo-Stalker”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 19.2, 73-87.