(28/02/08) – For those filmviewers who first came in contact with Michael Haneke’s award-winning Caché (Hidden, 2005), Benny’s Video, made 13 years before in 1992, should be of interest as a companion piece. In both films Haneke explores the role of the media on modern life and the way people deal with guilt. In some ways, Benny’s Video looks slightly late in terms of subject matter. The vision it creates of a minimalist, futuristic present in an affluent society goes back to 1980s fiction in more blatant, genre works such as a David Cronerberg’s Videodrome (1983) or in many video art works in the decade that dealt with the effects of commercial television on people, especially children. But still, the media as a topic is an endless source of fascination.
Haneke alludes to theories of hypereality formulated by the late philosopher Jean Baudrillard who said that media imagery has replaced reality. This is the theory that explains the gruesome main action in this film, a murder by a teenage boy who’s been desentitised to real life by overexposure to electronic images. Benny is the child of an affluent couple living in a loft decorated with Pop art somewhere in the German part of Western affluence. It is a clinical vision of the post-industrial world in the information age, which Haneke captures well with a controlled, polished and bleak mise-en-scene. The characters in the film look as if they are not quite alive, no longer sentient beings.
Benny (Arno Frisch) is obsessed with violent imagery and his bedroom is a shrine of screens and video equipment, his instruments of contact with the world. We see enjoying playing back the scene of a pig being shot dead on the farm where the family spends holidays. Using the stolen weapon to kill the pig Benny (accidentally?) emulates the scene with a school girl he brings back home, creating the tragedy that is the moral crux of the film.
In the wake of this terrible event, the film switches focus to Benny’s parents who, unexplicably, decide to cover up for their son. The mother (Angela Winkler) goes off on a package holiday in Egypt with Benny (who spends his time videoing the place) while the father (Ulrich Mühe) stays back home doing the dirty job of getting rid of a body – Haneke very eloquently takes the audience way from the gory site of the job, making us almost literally hide our heads in the sand with Benny and his mum. In Haneke’s interview that comes as a DVD extra, he alludes to the fact that the parents’ attitude of denial mirrors Austria’s relationship with its Nazi past. It’s an interesting point but as a viewer you can’t make that link solely on the basis of what the film shows.
One of the most revealing, strong moments in the film is not the murder itself, which is presented in almost banal fashion, but the sequence when the boy confesses his crime to his parents by showing them, deadpan, the video footage of the murder. Seeing the film go back on itself to a diegetic audience makes the crime scene almost unbearable when it is replayed. Sharing images gives them more power, it seems. In fact, some of the sequences shot on video, which work as ‘films within the film’, especially the elegiac Egyptian scenes, are very haunting and gloomy. They are like watching humanity at the end of its journey. Haneke plays well with the contrast between celluloid and electronic imagery and uses the latter to great effect.
Benny’s Video brings up some pertinent questions to our media-saturated world even though it belongs to the pre-Internet age. But one thing remains the same: the need to experience reality. Haneke has Benny say that he did what he did ‘to see what it was like’. In a world where reality is experienced more often than not through representation, the instinct to ‘experience the real’ may come out very distorted in the process, with no moral bearings to guide it. Benny, with his cold, mask-like face, is a frightening visualisation of techno-numbness and irresponsibility. Is this what the future holds?
Benny’s Video is out now. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.