Part two of the “Glaciation Trilogy”, Benny’s Video is a technologically-dated but thematically-relevant assessment of violence in the media and how it might trickle down into the impressionable minds of youngsters.
14-year-old Benny is obsessed with videotape, not only hiring and watching as much as he can, but also filtering his own world through the lens of a camera. He keeps the blinds in his room drawn to block out the outside world, but has a camera pointed out his window so he can watch it on a monitor; his perception of the world is skewed.
He becomes obsessed with a small piece of tape showing a pig being killed in an abattoir, and specifically the gun being used to kill the pig. He rewinds the tape and watches it in slow motion with fetishistic attention.
One day he invites a young girl he’s seen at the video store back to his house. He shows her the tape of the pig slaughter and she’s unsettled but intrigued. He then reveals that he’s got a gun like the one used in the video. She holds it against her chest and he dares her to pull the trigger. She doesn’t and he calls her a coward. Then the situation is reversed, and she calls him a coward, but he follows through and shoots her.
The film then switches to Benny’s video camera which he’s set up and hidden in his room as it captures the girl crawling away and crying, while Benny races to reload the gun and finish her off. He kills her, and then sets about dealing with the situation. He cleans up the blood and moves her body to a closet, and then not a lot happens.
His parents are out of town, his sister is out of the house, so he luxuriates in the protected freedom of a house he’s in control of. He smokes, he goes for walks, he sits on the phone completely naked. All of this plays against what an audience expects from a film dealing with an event like this. There’s no panic about him, not urgency or dedication, no police knocking on the doors. About the most significant moment of Benny’s emotional reaction to the crime is that he gets his hair shaved.
When he returns to his home, he reveals his crime to his parents (Anna and Georg), who consider their only options – alert the authorities and have Benny placed in a psychiatric institution, as well as bear the brunt of societal judgement and accusations of parental neglect), or they can hide the crime by getting rid of the body.
They choose the latter plan, and Anna takes Benny to Egypt while Georg stays at home to get rid of the evidence. Benny of course sees Egypt through the lens of his video camera. He also doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation – he seems more concerned with the sunburn he’s got rather than the cause of the impromptu vacation. He also doesn’t understand why his mother breaks down in tears at times.
When they return, the house is clean and completely corpse-free. They go about their lives as much as possible, with the murder not holding too much of Benny’s attention, and the parents awkwardly avoiding the elephant in the room.
Eventually, Georg confronts Benny about the murder, asking him why he did it. Benny responds that he wanted to see what it was like, but has no way of defining the experience.
The film closes on an ambiguous note, with Benny going to the police and confessing his crime, as well as playing the tape of his parents discussing what to do about it. On his way out of the interrogation room, he sees his parents and merely says, “Excuse me” as though they’re people unknown to him.
Benny’s Video is a strange film, and one that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot behind it, yet it somehow manages to work. Arno Frisch, 5 years before Funny Games, makes a bewitching and unsettling Benny, and if Haneke’s films were prone to fanfiction, it would be entirely imaginable that Benny grew up to be the character in the later film.
The style of the film is 100% Haneke, with quiet and contemplative static shots being course for most of the film, and the pervasive sense of discomfort and tension throughout. The film is part of the verry-difficult-to-pull-off subgenre of horror films called “horror of personality”, wherein seemingly ordinary and often mundane circumstances give rise to a horrific circumstance because of a very real person. There are no ghosts or goblins in these movies, just a human being and what they’re capable of doing within the confines of reality.
Although its use of video tape and clunky cameras has dated the film, the central concern is one that still hangs around today – what effect does violent media have on impressionable minds who witness it, and what damage is being done by the continual push to fictionalise or make narratives out of real life?
Had Haneke not gone on to make the moralistic Funny Games, I’d be comfortable stating that Benny’s Video criticises the concept that violent media creates violent people, although it’s possible that in the five years between the two films, his stance might have changed. But, in as much as Haneke is able to connect with the characters he creates while maintaining his clinical distance, the film portrays Benny as the cause of the problem, not his obsession. It’d be inaccurate to call him a disturbed kid, because he doesn’t seem to have any lingering problems beneath the surface, except for a complete detachment from the usual way society works.
If The Seventh Continent was largely about characters who were driven to destruction because of the unrelenting grind of society, Benny is the antithesis of their problems. He doesn’t choose the girl he kills out of spite or malice, it’s just that she’s there at a time he was curious about the effects of the gun. It’s Benny’s absorption into the world of the camera lens that means he identifies more with the recreation of the slaughter of a pig than he does with the opportunity to connect with a girl who shares his interest in film, not a cold and calculated psychopath looking to slake his thirst for blood.
The film is unsettling, but bravely performed by Frisch. As his parents, Angela Winkler and Ulrich Mühe convey a very convincing alternate side of the situation, with a lot of good work coming from Winkler’s devastated Anna. Mühe gives just enough hints as to how Georg’s mind works to suggest that maybe Benny’s disconnect from society stems from heredity – the way Georg coldly rationalises the need to remove the girls body from the apartment is certainly very telling, and it’s in scenes like this that Mühe can show off his acting chops more than as the passive father in Funny Games.
Benny’s Video also succeeds from being the most conventional film Haneke’s made, in terms of plot structure and narrative cause-and-effect. It’s still unmistakably a film crafted at every step by his choices, but of the films he’s made, it’s probably the most accessible for an audience unfamiliar with his work.
*This trailer is particularly bad, but I’ve included it for the sake of consistency with other reviews.