The following review is the second entry in Ronan Doyle’s Michael Haneke Director Spotlight.
It is difficult to decide which is more disquieting: the sharp sound of a bolt gun being fired, or the dying squeals of the pig struck by it as it collapses lifeless to the floor. The opening images and sounds of Benny’s Video demand instant attention from the viewer, doubly so when they are rewound and replayed in slow motion, lending an added sinister echo to the audible death throes of the animal. The grainy footage is being watched not just by us, but also by the titular character. When we actually see him as he re-watches the tape later in the film, we find his reaction to be considerably less horrified. He watches over the scene again and again, his face a picture of fascination, even admiration and pride.
The opening images and sounds of Benny’s Video demand instant attention from the viewer…
Media, often specifically film itself, is a recurring motif in Haneke’s work, his fascination first incarnated in the final moments of The Seventh Continent, reappearing in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, and perhaps most famously being a central preoccupation of Hidden. In Benny’s Video, his specific focus is the violence of media: its wide spread throughout all forms; its often uncensored brutality; crucially, its effect upon those exposed to it. Benny is a child fascinated by video; he keeps a camera trained on the street below his window and edits newsreels together in his spare time. His bedroom is dominated by an imposing workstation of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tapes and a large monitor linked to the various cameras scattered about his parents’ apartment
After school each day, Benny visits a video store where he has easy access to violent action films, which he rents and watches in bed each night. Noticing a girl outside the shop who seems as interested as he is in the moving image, he invites her back to his apartment one weekend when his parents have gone away. It is here that we see his adulation of the slaughter footage; he shows it to the girl with what seems almost like pride. She, like he, is unperturbed by the footage, her own exposure to glorified portrayals of death and pain in films corrupting her ability to understand the reality of these acts; she remarks only that it is snowing in the video. Benny then shows her the bolt gun which he stole from the farm after shooting the video and, holding it against his chest, dares her to pull the trigger. She refuses and dares him to do the same to her. He does.
What follows stands among the canon of the most difficult and harrowing scenes cinema has produced. Panicked by the screams of the badly wounded girl, Benny begs her to stop. He seems almost surprised to see that she is in pain; there is the suggestion that the reality of suffering is something he did not expect to arise as a consequence of his actions. Unable to silence her by reasoning, he next takes the bolt gun, reloads it, and shoots her again as she futilely attempts to crawl away. Haneke’s framing of the scene is vital to its devastating effect, showing us only the monitor displaying what Benny’s camera records. Most of the violence occurs off-screen, communicated only by the girl’s screams of pain. The shot lasts for several minutes, Haneke denying us the spectacle of this girl’s death and instead forcing us to perceive her anguish through sound alone, somehow enhancing the hideousness of her murder. He portrays the scene in strictly realist terms, eschewing the typical add-ons of music and camera trickery and leaving us nothing but the reality of Benny’s horrible actions. As well as denying us the comfort and relief of an edit to briefly assuage the horror unfolding before us, showing the scene through Benny’s own recorded footage hammers home the idea of film as voyeurism, and of its depiction of violence as eroticized and dangerous.
What follows stands among the canon of the most difficult and harrowing scenes cinema has produced.
After murdering the girl, Benny strips naked as he cleans her blood. Haneke definitively states that the character is not motivated by some perversion, having him respectfully cover the girl’s exposed underwear with her skirt. Instead, Benny’s nudity seems an expression of the crude sexualization violence has accrued in much of its portrayal. He seems aroused as he smears the blood on his torso, the crassness of violence’s presentation in fiction here clearly expressed and condemned. In depicting the murder in the film so literally and realistically, Haneke removes entirely the sexualization of typical cinematic portrayals of violence and urges us to recognize the reality of its horrors, and the bleak future which faces society if we continue to so glamourize violent acts in media.
The majority of Benny’s Video takes place after this event, most of its running time spent focusing upon the outward rippling which follows the murder. Though not so captivating as the first thirty minutes, even briefly losing its way when Benny and his mother take a vacation in Egypt, the way Haneke shows this horror unfold is fascinatingly chilling. Arno Frisch portrays Benny with an icy calm, the sadism of his actions carried out with a disconcertingly emotionless face. Interestingly, both Frisch and Benny’s Video would play large roles in Haneke’s later Funny Games, that film largely concerned with many of the same issues as this and starring Frisch as another sadistic youth given to shockingly straight-faced brutality.
Benny’s Video is a startling and harrowing look at voyeurism, a powerfully jarring indictment of the sexualization of cinematic violence and the effects it has upon its audience. Building upon the idea of disaffection in modern society explored in The Seventh Continent, this goes yet further again, showing the direction in which our world is headed. Brought vividly to life by the unobtrusive reality of Haneke’s direction and the utterly terrifying quality of Frisch’s performance, Benny’s Video is a startling crossbreed of horror and social realism that slowly manifests as a disturbing take on our own viewership. This was the film that brought Haneke to the attention of critics internationally, his unrelentingly bleak castigation of his own medium precisely the kind of bold statement that demands to be heard. This is the type of move that effectively destroyed Michael Powell’s career with Peeping Tom. Fortunately for Haneke—as well as for cinema itself—this was just the beginning of his.
[notification type=”star”]92/100 ~ AMAZING. Brought vividly to life by the unobtrusive reality of Haneke’s direction and the utterly terrifying quality of Frisch’s performance, Benny’s Video is a startling crossbreed of horror and social realism that slowly manifests as a disturbing take on our own viewership.[/notification]