Benny’s Video (1992)
Michael Haneke’s 1992 film, Benny’s Video, presents a cold, dehumanized depiction of modernity, in which the protagonist, Benny (Arno Frisch), experiences his entire life through the mediation of media and screens. Haneke sets the film in Vienna, an urban space rife with culture and history; however, the film is deliberately contained within a series of upscale, yet isolated apartments. The film’s cool color palette and its innate sense of confinement sucks out any allusion to warmth in the image. Thus, this unsympathetic, rigid world mirrors the film’s central theme of dehumanization as a direct product of the oversaturation of media. Benny’s bedroom is cluttered with numerous screens, all playing various television and video feeds, while his windows are blacked out. Haneke exaggerates Benny’s isolation further in that on one of Benny’s screens there is a live-feed of the outside sky—the boy’s entire interaction with the outside environment and more broadly, his full sense of reality is constructed through his screens. Haneke; however, firmly reveals that such an existence generates an inevitable disconnect from actual reality, and the film foreshadows potential negative side effects of modernity’s inherent push to isolate the individual. The reliance on media to present reality proves fatal, as the film’s alienated protagonist resorts to murder, “just to see what it would feel like.” Benny’s Video; however, goes far beyond presenting and exploring the antisocial, but instead attempts to analyze the unconscious effects of media on humanity’s perception of death, consequence, and more bluntly, the world.
The film opens on Benny repeatedly viewing a recording of a pig being slaughtered—a clear allusion to Andre Bazin’s famous essay, “Death Every Afternoon.” In an analysis of the film, The Bullfighter, Bazin highlights cinema’s unique ability to capture the temporal moment of death; however, the theorist maintains that the medium cannot truly capture this unique experience in that death in reality is permanent. Cinema sucks the consequence out of death and allows it to be played over and over, and thus, Bazin maintains that this ultimately changes humanity’s relationship to death—allowing one to witness death without truly experiencing it and its intrinsic eternalness. This altered relationship with reality due to the mediation of video is central to Haneke’s dark tone and theme. Benny repeatedly watches the pig die, fast-forwarding, rewinding, and playing the clip in slow motion—playing with the act, almost sadistically killing the pig limitlessly with his remote. Moreover, Benny goes on to kill a young girl with the same weapon in order to truly experience the feeling of death—ignoring its actual cost and his ultimate responsibility. Haneke further emphasizes this disconnect to the audience through his persistent use of screens within his compositions. All of the murder and death in the film is presented to the audience through a screen within a screen—exaggerating and highlighting the actual audience’s disconnect from the death and violence depicted in the film. The inherent lie of cinema and media is repeatedly reiterated. Benny mentions to his victim that all the blood in movies is just ketchup, and when Benny flees to Egypt to avoid responsibility for the murder he sends a tape to his father. The boy, who is riddled with guilt and an even deeper detachment, puts up a façade for his dad, cheerfully saying, “Hello, Daddy!” The video and filmic image is proven to be an illusion—a lie that has an undeniable influence on the way one interprets actual reality.
Benny is presented as unable to feel; however, labeling him as merely psychopathic is reductive in that Haneke clearly is attempting to bring overarching consequences of mass, constant media to the surface. The reaction of Benny’s parents to the video of the murder articulates that Benny is not simply a deranged individual. The two parents sit through the horrific video; however, they remain in denial over what their son has done and therefore, has become. Although Benny clearly deliberately pulls the trigger and subsequently shoots the girl multiple times, the parents force themselves to believe that this act of aggression is an isolated incident, and thus, decide to cover up the murder and attempt to rehabilitate Benny in Egypt. Witnessing Benny’s ruthless violence in person would leave no question, yet the murder occurs off screen in the video and the parents willingly deny the harsh truth. Benny’s ultimate betrayal confirms their miscalculation and the lack of truth within the image. This treason is partly depicted through the lens of a surveillance camera—a final reiteration of the contemporary world’s reliance on video, despite its inherent illusion and inability to fully capture truth. The film ends with the breaking of the family, foreshadowing an inevitable breakdown of tangible human relationships due to media’s innate ability to isolate and dehumanize.