Michael Haneke made the movie “Funny Games” twice, once in Austria, and then again in America. The latter is a shot-for-shot remake of the former, and it still holds the same terrifying power. Two white, upper-middle-class young men who are dressed for the golf course (white polos, white gloves, and white shoes) subject a young family of three — father, mother, and son — to a gruesome home invasion at their lake house, brutally humiliating, maiming, and eventually killing all of them before moving on to another family. It is as upsetting a movie as there can be.
Anyway, re-watching it recently, I was struck by the appearance and the verbal parrying of the young men, Peter and Paul. The two of them are the absolute spitting image of modern neo-Nazis, who often identify themselves by their white polos. (Seriously, go compare pictures.) They have the same flashy, high-and-tight haircut with a blonde swoop favored by everyone from the Charlottesville Nazis to Richard Spencer. They are, essentially, bland.
But what connects Peter and Paul with neo-Nazis and, to a lesser but not insignificant way, modern conservatism, is the central ethos: There is no ethos.
There is, first of all, the language of persecution. As Peter and Paul enter the family’s home and make increasingly sick demands on them, they speak as if they are the victims; as the father curses them for their cruelty, they cluck their tongues and chide him for his rudeness and inability to have a civil conversation. It’s eerily similar to the daily Twitter escapades of neo-Nazis, where, say, @JewHunter1488 will cry that no one will engage him in civil discourse after he photoshops them into ovens. It’s not altogether different from the charming anecdote Ben Shapiro shared when he visited UR two years ago, when he gleefully recounted how a trans woman was deeply upset by Shapiro’s insistence on calling her “Bob” on live television.
Throughout “Funny Games,” the mother and father offer everything they have to Peter and Paul to stop the torture. Money? The car? The boat? The family’s silence on the matter, in exchange for their freedom? All of these requests are laughed off, if not ignored entirely. And when they’re pressed to explain their actions, they mockingly tick off the answers that would provide some sort of narrative structure to their sadism. They’re gay and repressed. Drug addicts. White trash. Their mothers left when they were young. They’re “jaded and disgusted by the emptiness of existence.” Finally, the father, bleeding out, begs them to stop.
“I get it,” he says.
What he “gets” is that the answer to why someone takes pleasure in the pain of others can’t be traced to a plot device. To even ask the question is to miss the point. To see someone else in pain because of you is the point, an end in itself.
This, to me, is hardly that different from the modern obsession with “triggering snowflakes.” What “triggering snowflakes” is code for is the desire to see someone else upset or in pain because of something you did. That is followed by an effort to convince you that you’re only feeling pain because you’re not strong enough to understand that you shouldn’t actually be upset at all. It’s a nasty cycle, and it is spiteful sadism, pure and simple. It’s what Peter, Paul, and Breitbart live for.
So what do we do with this? I’m not quite sure. It goes beyond the sickness of spirit represented in white resentment and boredom that Haneke anticipates so clearly. It’s much more vast and scary than that, because it is so tied to growing factions of modern conservative politics. Whether it’s in the campaigns of Ed Gillepsie, Roy Moore, or whatever other ghoul in your state, the desire to do you harm — whether by cutting your healthcare, fighting gun control, deporting you, letting you die in the aftermath of a hurricane, letting police beat or kill you, or forcing you to bear children against your will — is devastatingly strong.
Electorally, the only thing I think you can do is support candidates local and statewide that embrace a politics of meaning. No more focus-group’ed smoothboys like Jon Ossoff, no more sacrificial lambs like Doug Jones and Ralph Northam. Candidates who actually seek to inspire need to be the future.Means-testing, “free-market solutions,” and celebrity fundraising emails ain’t gonna cut it.
As far as the nihilism that claims a larger swath of us every day, I’m in the same boat as you — I haven’t got the slightest clue. All I can really think of is that you can never stop caring about the world around you, no matter your inability to affect things by yourself. It’s tantalizingly easy to see the sheer volume of the world’s barbarity and say, I’m just not going to think about it. That passive nihilism is what allows the violent nihilism to go unchecked.