Michael Haneke Trilogy: Benny's Video (15)
Dir: Michael Haneke, 1992, Austria/Switzerland, 105 mins, German with subtitles
Cast: Arno Frisch, Angela Winkler, Ulrich Muhe, Ingrid Stassner
Benny’s Video opens with a squealing pig being pulled across a farm before being stunned by a bolt-gun to the head and prepared for slaughter. This grisly footage was shot by Benny (Frisch), and he subsequently sits in his bedroom watching it with an eerie sense of fascination in his eyes, repeatedly rewinding the film to absorb the moment of impact again and again. Not only does this opening sequence grab the viewers’ attention in uncompromising fashion, it also prefigures the sickening murder which will later result from Benny‘s choice of home viewing.
The idea that violence in the media has an adverse effect on the young minds exposed to it is not a new one, but Michael Haneke’s handling of the subject here makes the point in typically potent and persuasive fashion. Benny is an intelligent and resourceful teenager, who comes from a wealthy Austrian family, but his obsession with videos has consumed his life; his bedroom contains numerous TV screens and VCR machines, his shelves are lined with tapes, and even his ‘view’ comes from a camera positioned at the window, behind blinds which are permanently drawn. Benny regularly rents violent movies and seems completely unperturbed by the bloodshed he witnesses: “it’s all ketchup and plastic”, he scoffs.
Haneke’s direction is rigorously controlled, allowing events to unfold in front of his static camera in unhurried and natural fashion. This approach proves very effective, particularly when Benny murders the local girl (Stassner) whom he invites home on a whim while his parents are away. The girl’s off-screen screams of agony make the scene almost unbearable, but we don’t see much of the act itself; we only glimpse whatever occurs in front of Benny’s camera, and once again, an act of violence is being filtered through the medium of television.
Benny’s Video isn’t as fully-rounded as Haneke’s exceptional recent work; it often seems quite blunt in comparison with films like Code Unknown (2000) or HIDDEN (CACHÉ) (2005), and it doesn’t really get inside the head of its central character either. Frisch - later one of the psychopaths in Funny Games (1997) - is impressive in the role, but his character is never satisfyingly fleshed out, and he remains something of an enigma throughout. The film’s emotional coldness will also be off-putting for many, although one of its most striking touches is the odd nervous giggle Benny’s mother lets out when she and her husband are discussing their son’s crime. It feels like a moment of real unforced emotion in a film which rarely offers respite from its austere atmosphere.
Haneke has made better films since this 1992 effort, but there are individual moments here which are as shocking and memorable as anything he has produced; and even if it the second half of Benny’s Video isn’t quite as strong as the first, it remains a compelling and thought-provoking picture from one of contemporary cinema’s most intriguing filmmakers.
An interesting 20-minute interview with Haneke.
Also in the collection:
THE SEVENTH CONTINENT
71 FRAGMENTS OF A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE