Michael Haneke’s second feature film is a natural follow-up to the disquieting portrait he depicted of the bourgeois family in The Seventh Continent. A young teenage boy, obsessed with horror videos and violent imagery, acts out a horrifying act of violence he has seen on the screen with a young girl he has just met.
For his second feature film Benny’s Video, Michael Haneke’s focus remained on his pet subject of alienated individuals who react against the moral laws and commonly accepted norms of social behaviour. But whereas the nature of the Schober’s societal malaise in The Seventh Continent is left largely undefined without apportioning blame, there is little ambiguity at all about the root of Benny’s problems.
Benny (Arno Frisch) is an only child, a bright and intelligent teenager – he makes a lot of money for a pyramid scheme he has started in school – given a great deal of freedom by his parents, but little real parental care or supervision. He has a room to himself, a television, video cameras and is generally left to his own devices, listening to heavy rock music and free to watch whatever he chooses from the video rental store. His choice of video is usually horror films filled with gore and graphic violence. One day he meets a young girl of his own age outside the video store and brings her back home and shows her some of the films he watches, including a video clip of the slaughter of a pig on a farm that he has filmed himself. He shows the girl the bolt-gun used to kill the animal, which he has taken from the farm and kept hidden in the room, but while playing around with the tool, something terrible happens.
With Benny’s Video, Michael Haneke again steps into dangerous and controversial subject matter, the very first scene of the film itself showing quite graphically the matter of fact slaughter of a farm animal. As ever, his approach to the rest of the film is similarly documentary-like, apparently distancing himself from making any overt commentary or statement, but the implication is nonetheless quite clear. Children are influenced and increasingly desensitised by the pervasive violence that they see on television. Haneke might disingenuously protest that it is the viewer of the film that makes this connection too simplistically, but the directorial choices of what is shown are full of intent, contrasting Benny’s listening to Heavy Metal music and his choice of horror videos with the young girl’s enjoyment of Roger Rabbit cartoons, effectively saying that this preponderance of violent imagery on our TV screen is killing youthful innocence. It is also significant that the film’s central and most disturbing scene of violence is seen entirely from the perspective of a video monitor.
Haneke attempts to blur the issue of screen violence by including violent television footage of the Bosnian war and news reports on football hooliganism, which he no doubt includes to counter the rather simplistic link between the video nasties Benny watches and the everyday violence in the world, but their inclusion is also problematic – is this where the lack of social responsibility leads? He also examines the part the parents have to play in their son’s actions and questions whether it is even possible to protect children from witnessing such scenes in our current society. This abdication of responsibility on the part of the parents and as a societal problem is mirrored in the pyramid scheme, a sad reflection of a society driven by greed, exploiting others without conscience. The single most significant image of violence however is the home video Benny has made himself – footage of the slaughter of a pig he made while staying at a farm with his parents. This video clip is watched repeatedly by the boy, rewound and replayed in slow motion. But the connection drawn between screen violence and real-life copy-cat behaviour is too obvious and simplistic, and it contains none of the menace of inexplicably disturbing scenes of the Schober family watching Jennifer Rush and Meat Loaf on television in The Seventh Continent and none of the more unsettling questions about our reaction to screen violence that Funny Games would later raise.
There are some interesting issues approached here however, principally the fascination of the filmed image and how it can take on a greater power than reality itself. Benny is shown clearly as being able to relate emotionally more to images on a screen than the real world – the blinds on the windows of his room are permanently pulled down, leaving a video image showing a ‘live’ view of the street outside on his video monitor. The film is also notable for the border of controversy that the director is obviously skirting himself in showing these images in his film, making the viewer complicit and – much as he would do with his careful depiction of violence in Funny Games – forcing the viewer themselves to examine their own reactions to what they are watching. It is perhaps to avoid such accusations of using exploitative and controversial imagery that Haneke’s tone here (much like his approach to Code Unknown) is rather didactic and hectoring, having little of the sublime power of decontextualised imagery in his more successful films like The Seventh Continent and The Piano Teacher. Regardless of how successful you regard Haneke’s treatment of his subject matter, there is no doubt that he is a master of formal technique. Meticulous and precise in its presentation, stripped down and rigorously economical, there isn’t a moment of Benny’s Video – at least in the first hour or so – that isn’t loaded with significance, oppressive tension and a deep sense of foreboding.
Benny’s Video is released in the UK by Artificial Eye, who have taken over the rights from Tartan, and used the same transfer as the earlier Tartan release. The film is available separately as well as part of the The Haneke Trilogy boxset which contains the directors early Austrian films The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance. The disc is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Unfortunately, like the other films in this set, Benny’s Video is presented anamorphically at 1.78:1, which crops the film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is a surprising choice, since the film otherwise looks reasonably good. There are lots of scenes filmed in low-lighting however, so there is some lack of definition and quite a bit of softness in some scenes, but colours are cool and accurate, appropriate for the tone of the film. The image is reasonably clear and sharp, with only a few minor white dustspots seen occasionally, with not as much grain and flicker as was evident in The Seventh Continent. The film is well transferred and free from any macro-blocking artefacts.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is slightly dull, but relatively clear, As there are a lot of ominous silent passages, there is a noticeable underlying level of hiss on the track.
English subtitles are included in a clear white font, and are optional.
In the Interview with Michael Haneke (20:43), the director talks about how the idea of the film came from a single line “I just wanted to see what it was like”, which sparks off the relationship between reality and TV imagery. Haneke remarks that the coolness of tone in his first three films is quite deliberate and how he tries to find neutral imagery that can be interpreted in any number of ways, (Haneke is a master of this, but not so successful here, I feel). The most interesting anecdote here comes from the premiere of the film in Vienna, where the Austrian press could find no other questions to ask about the film than the kind of cameras the director used – an indication, Haneke feels, of the Austrian tendency to sweep difficult subjects under the carpet. The Deleted Scenes that were included on the 3 Films de Michael Haneke French release of the film are not included here.
Benny’s Video broaches some interesting topics regarding the presentation of violent imagery on television screens and presents as disquieting a portrait of the Austrian bourgeois family unit as his previous film The Seventh Continent. While formally it presents the central issues of the film flawlessly and effectively – if a little too “textbook” – there are rather too many long and apparently irrelevant sequences and the questionable points the film makes are presented a little too simplistically, with little of the precision or ambiguity of the later Funny Games. The DVD transfer on this Artificial Eye release is the same as all previous releases of the film in France and the UK, with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and bring the absence of the not really worthwhile deleted scenes on the French release, the same extra features.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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