Benny’s Video (1993)
Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
Reality in our current period has become a grotesquely malleable element. QAnon cultists talk about wild conspiracies with such confidence that it seems to come from an entirely different dimension. The State Department gins up war with Russia and China in parallels with the fabrication and lack of substantial evidence needed to justify such actions. Everywhere you go in America, you are bombarded by marketing attempting to warp your sensibilities to believe unnecessary consumption is the answer to your existential woes. The screen acts as a filter for your emotional response. You can pause, rewind, skip, and because of that, you never really have to reflect or engage. This is the world Michael Haneke saw in Austria all the way back in 1993, and it hasn’t gotten any better.
The film opens on a television screen being filmed. Someone, unseen, presses Play, and we watch as a large pig is led out into the courtyard of a farm. A bolt gun is used to kill the animal. The footage is then rewound & slowed down. A dog barking somewhere in the distance sounds like a demon crying out from Hell with this distortion. The seizure of the pig as its body shuts down is made all the more excruciating when seen in slow motion. Whoever is watching gives no audible reaction. Benny (Arno Frisch) is watching, and this is a video he made while visiting the farm of an extended family member during a school holiday.
Benny is a relatively average middle-class teenager in Austria at this time. He goes to school and hangs out at McDonald’s with friends after. There’s a choir Benny participates in, but his favorite pastime is watching movies which he rents every few days. One weekend, his parents are out of town, and Benny initiates a conversation with a teenage girl he’s seen at the video store before. Benny invites her over to his place, unsure what this is, and their awkwardness shows. He tries to impress her by smoking a cigarette, and she’s mildly amused enough to hang out for a while. She’s impressed by the video equipment he has in his bedroom, a nice monitor, a camera pointed at the street outside. Benny shares his pig video with her, and she’s quite put off by it. Then he shows her the fetish he’s saved, the bolt gun he swiped after making this video. A dark type of play begins between the two and ends in a moment that will reshape every fiber of Benny’s being.
Haneke finds it so perverse that people record their vacations. In interviews, he’s expressed how bizarre it is to snap away with a camera or video record what should be moments spent in the present. Instead, people appear to believe that capturing these “precious moments” gives them some sort of control over it. They can revisit it, they can skip to their favorite parts, they can edit out what makes them feel bad, they no longer have to accept reality as it is. Now experiences have become yet another fatality in the ongoing march of capitalism, a commodification of memory.
This becomes even more dangerous when applied to how events in our communities, nations and the world are filtered to us through mass media. Benny’s father (Ulrich Mühe) comes home from work as Benny watches the news. The report talks about football hooligans assaulting asylum seekers. Father asks if anything has happened. Mother (Angela Winkler) responds, “No.” Throughout the film, the television repeatedly informs us of crises unfolding either in Austria or other nations (the Bosnian War is brought up a couple of times). But no one in the picture seems to engage or react to these things. They are just background noise on a television screen. In the latter half of the film, Benny and his mother go to Egypt, and their entire experience is shown either through tours done by a guide speaking German or seen through the camera brought to record the experience.
Due to the “death of history” under neoliberal ideology, we have a pesky habit in the Western world of never reflecting on the roots of current ills. Haneke details in Benny’s Video the disconnect caused in the human psyche and the prevalence of video is that we are conditioned not to see violence in these venues as real. We can change the channel, pause the video, and close the window on our computer. Haneke’s framing of his most violent scenes is long and drawn out to counter this. The audience is made to sit in those moments. Yet, the director is not a sadist, so he creates conceits to hide the full brunt of these acts from our eyes. The camera pans over to a television screen where a camcorder films Benny’s panicked actions. We cannot see what he is doing, but there are sounds. Human guttural pain, the last synapses firing as a person tries to scramble for the door. Haneke has stated that we often forget that violence is not simply an act performed by one person on another, but it’s a sensory experience. He numbs us on the one hand by hiding the images through multiple filters, but then he allows the sound to grab us by the collar and pull the audience back into the moment.
Haneke has said this film is also about the Austrian inclination to sweep unpleasant things under the rug. I have come to see this is not just a trait he finds in his homeland but also in mine. A faction of white supremacists in America is currently attempting to shield their children from the truth of indigenous and Black genocide. American culture is fully absorbed in the comforting filter of the screen, consuming real-life violence through the screen’s filter. This isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t generational; it is cultural and embedded in most Western culture.
I can remember going home from college during a break shortly after 9/11. Like many others at the time, my father had downloaded publicly available aerial footage of people in Afghanistan being bombed. He was so giddy about the video because, in his mind, this was “good guys killing bad guys.” At the time, I was 20, and I really didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate why I was so uncomfortable seeing this. I’ve never been a person that felt drawn to the gory & violent videos that peppers venues like 4chan or Worldstar. Even when watching pornography, I detest videos where extreme abuse is the featured kink. I find nothing pleasant about watching another person be harmed or killed, and I am deeply confused by those who do.
Benny’s Video is shot in tones of blue or green. It’s an icy, distant picture, which Haneke wanted. Benny and his parents are rarely shown in shots together. More often, the camera cuts between their individually framed faces. When the family must tackle the problem caused by Benny, that becomes even more prevalent. These people are not together; they exist in the same space but could not be more emotionally distant. Near the end of the film, Father has remedied things, and he assures Benny everything will be fine. However, he can’t help but ask his son why he did what he did. Benny’s response came from a real-life murder case in Austria, the very thing that inspired Haneke to make this movie.
“I don’t know. …I wanted to see what it’s like, possibly.” When asked by his father what it was like then, Benny silently shrugs and goes to sleep. Benny does feel guilt, some pretty extreme guilt, actually. His behavior is strange, but it does communicate he’s a person who doesn’t know what to do with these emotions. He shaves his head, drawing ire from his Father, who sees it as a childish act of rebellion. By the end of the movie, Benny undoes much of what his Father did in trying to protect the family, and even still, the young man is a blank slate, with heavy eyes but not much else that reveals what is happening in his mind.
Benny’s Video is certainly not an easy watch, and that is because it forces us to confront our own disengagement with violence, both actual & simulated. It implores us to think about how we deal with notions of guilt both over personal acts and historical atrocity. Media has worked to shape, prune, and cultivate curated realities for us, and while they feel comforting at the moment, they are the stuff of extreme bourgeois privilege. The working poor doesn’t get such luxuries, but the middle class, from whom the powerful need to manufacture consent, is provided such glorious filters through which to view the world. The middle class will always be made to feel comfortably distant from wholesale slaughter, and as long as they nestle in this bubble of reality, the further we move from being human.