Austria / Switzerland, 1992
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 15 September 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews: Funny Games
Reviews: The Seventh Continent
Reviews: Time of the Wolf
Coming to Benny’s Video with Micheal Haneke’s most recent film Caché fresh in mind offers a sense of déjà vu in reverse, as it were, for both films open with a video shot manipulated (rewound or fast-forwarded respectively) by the unseen in-film viewer. But in the case of Benny’s Video there’s no doubt from the first second of viewing that we’re watching video: grainy, hand-held, this footage shot by the film’s protagonist, 14-year-old Benny, follows a squealing pig around a farmyard until it is shot in the forehead with a bolt-gun and falls to the ground in its death throes—which footage is then rewound to freeze-frame on the moment of killing.
Benny’s obsessive reviewing of this animal snuff movie is only one aspect of the way his experience of the world is a mediated one. He’s literally screened off from reality, hidden away from the world, surrounded by TVs and video monitors. His experience of the world through media has closed him off from that world. Tellingly — if rather obviously — the blinds of his room remain drawn over the windows while his video monitor offers a view of the street outside. There’s no such thing as simply opening the blinds and looking out the window.
To be honest, Haneke’s critique in Benny’s Video of a media-distorted world is a rather simple-minded and moralistic one, which hardly takes account of the complexities of the issue of the relationship between screen violence and real-life violence. Nor does his depiction of the uses Benny makes of video technology ever attain the depths, complexities, ambiguities, and emotional confusions that Atom Egoyan, for example, explores in his best, early work (up to Exotica).
Haneke is a major filmmaker, and the clarity and precision of the formal qualities of his work offer the viewer a particularly forceful and invigorating cinema experience. But these strengths coexist, particularly in his early work, with a po-faced and often simplistic obviousness—which is one of the problems with the film here.
It’s true that Haneke tries to build up a wider sociological basis for Benny’s emotional blankness and disconnection from the world and, more importantly, from the people around him. His parents are withdrawn and distant, leaving him alone much of the time. It’s not for nothing that the three films The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance form Haneke’s self-titled ‘Trilogy of Glaciation.’ In the case of Benny’s Video, the ‘glaciation’ is not only in the cool and icy look of the film and in the distance Haneke’s style forces on the viewer (most clearly in the scene of the girl’s murder), but in the cold affectless way the characters express themselves to one another. This makes the moments when emotionality breaks forth all the more striking: the off-camera screams of the dying girl; the mother’s sudden, nervous giggle as the father tries “objectively” to weigh up the pros and cons of turning Benny in as opposed to disposing of the girl’s body; and the mother’s breakdown into racking sobs in the hotel room she shares with Benny in Egypt.
Benny’s consumption and production of violent videos is also shown by Haneke to be part of a wider media culture through the repeated inclusion of TV news broadcasts, particularly of the Bosnian war. (It’s a rather obvious technique that Haneke frequently favours; but it’s also a little too simplistic—one misses the irony that someone like Fassbinder could bring to this kind of aural/visual counterpointing.) Haneke also indulges in a high-culture musical conservatism, where he makes the heavy metal music that Benny incessantly plays to himself in his room to be a parallel to the violent videos he rents. The implication is that the music has a similar effect of deadening Benny’s emotional and intellectual responses.
The scenes of the pyramid investment scheme run by Benny’s sister (and then copied by Benny himself among his schoolmates) make a far more effective and convincing sociological critique. Nothing is more telling of this society’s and this class’s crass materialism, its egotism, its exploitative acquisitiveness, and its complete and total disconnection from any commitment to one’s fellow citizens and a wider society. We view these scenes as shot by Benny himself, where the rushed, shaky, hand-held nature of the video emphasises the frantic and unthinking self-centredness of the people involved. And the fact that this is another of Benny’s videos, to be added to those of the killing of the pig and the murder of the girl, makes these scenes part and parcel of the wider societal problems that for Haneke Benny’s case brings out.
In contrast to the explicit and programmatic nature of the film’s central thesis, there’s a far richer and more subtle delineation of character motivation. There’s often an ambiguity to how we feel we should “read” a character, or at least the sense that more than one interpretation is simultaneously possible. So, when Benny’s father works through with his wife all the ramifications to what they might do with Benny and the girl’s body, it’s easy to follow some critics’ straightforward moralistic criticism of the father, of how this shows the extent to which he values his social position over his feelings for his son. But when he later tells his son to his face “I love you,” why shouldn’t we accept this at face value, as a genuine and heart-felt emotion? And why shouldn’t the motivation for disposing of the girl’s body and not turning Benny in to the police arise from more than one factor? At this moment of crisis, his love for his son can coexist with his own sense of guilt for his parental neglect and with a social fear of what other people will think of him.
In the interview on the Kino DVD Haneke himself addresses the way ambiguity of interpretation is built into the characterisations in Benny’s Video. (As I’m arguing here, this aspect is the real strength of the film, enabling one to be able to some extent to disregard the oppressive force of the one-track thesis.) For example, he points out that Benny’s head-shaving could be read either as a declaration of guilt or as an act of rebellion; and he asks whether, when Benny asks the policeman at the end of the film “Can I go now?”, this is a sign of naivety or of cynicism. “Fixing” who Benny is becomes far more difficult than following Haneke’s argument about the numbing effects of exposure to modern media.
It’s interesting that in this interview Haneke gives as the core to his film Benny’s own statement as to why he killed the girl: “I wanted to know what it was like.” It is the central scene of the film, although occurring very early in the story, but this scene is also in fact rather less straightforward. The killing actually occurs at the tail-end of a game of “dare”, where both taunt one another and the firing of the bolt-gun into the girl’s body has an almost casual, incidental quality.
In a sense, Benny’s motivation — or lack of it — is hardly an issue. What is critical is how Haneke shows the continuation of the scene, as the girl crawls around screaming in pain and Benny shoots her again, to shut up her cries as much as anything else. For we only see this scene through the fixed frame of Benny’s video monitor, with the actual scene extending, unseen by us, beyond the confines of that frame. For the audience it’s an alienating device, both intensifying the horror and providing a certain critical distance. But above all it positions this murder within the video world Benny has locked himself into, where reality is mediated by synthetic images and where not only understanding of cause and effect but the true import of an action are lost forever.