Benny's Video

Benny's Video


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Looking through the contents of a girl's bag, young teen Benny (Arno Frisch) finds a wooden ball which opens like a Russian doll to reveal another ball, and another, until eventually there is nothing there at all. Benny has just videotaped himself murdering the bag's owner (Ingrid Stassner), and as we half-see the act itself and its 'live' feed to Benny's television screen, and then again as he and his horrified parents (Angela Winkler, Ulrich Mühe) later watch the replayed recording, it becomes clear that, like the balls, Benny is constructed of several superficial layers (hardworking schoolboy, rock fanatic, rich kid, video enthusiast) that ultimately cloak a resounding emptiness within.

All this, however, is to jump ahead to the 'money shot', so let's rewind a bit. Benny's Video begins with footage of a farm pig being led out to slaughter. The farmer sends a bolt into its head, the pig falls with a squeal – and then the image suddenly winds back and is replayed in slow motion, its images and soundtrack distorted into aestheticised abstractions.

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Maverick Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke loves rewinds. His recent Hidden (2005) begins in a similar way, while his Funny Games (1997), itself recently rewound in its entirety for an identikit English-language remake, features a sequence rewound in such a way as to break every convention of cinematic narrative.

These scenes of rewinding serve to take the viewer out of the moment, to remind us that we are viewers, to detach us from our involvement in the unfolding story, to position us as consumers of video – and in this respect, we are brought into uncomfortable proximity to Benny himself who, much like the titular 'hero' of John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), likes to document and review his experiences – experiences that seem somehow more real to him when framed, captured and controlled through the distance offered by a screen.

Benny even has a camera set up to broadcast live to his bedroom's television screen what is happening just outside the bedroom window. Of course just opening the curtains would produce a similar and no doubt more immediate effect, but that would be a reality that cannot simply be rewound, replayed, sped through, or skipped over. To Benny, and to us, too (at least for the duration of the film) the mediated image – blinkered, manipulable, vicarious - is the 'reality' of choice.

But have no fear, for if you find Benny's Video even remotely disturbing in all its chilling blankness, then you are really nothing like Benny, who seems as affectless as a sociopath. Coming after The Seventh Continent (1989) but before 71 Fragments In A Chronology Of Chance (1994), Benny's Video is the second film in Haneke's 'emotional glaciation' trilogy, and sure enough, the film views its characters with an icy indifference that lacks (or at least conceals) judgment.

And while it would be all too easy, given Benny's obsession with television and video, to dismiss Haneke's film as yet another oversimplistic attack on the media as the root of all evils in modern society, there are plenty of hints that other factors may also be at work here, from the recurrent motif of disinterested monetary exchange to the corrupt pyramid scheme in which all Benny's family members take an interest, and from Austria's wilful suppression of her own Nazified history (evoked by Benny's shaven head that makes him look "like a concentration-camp inmate") to the world's disengagement from the horrors of Bosnia-Herzegovina (news of which regularly punctuates the film). Last but not least there are Benny's bourgeois parents, absent or, at best, aloof, whose reaction upon discovering their son's crime proves, in its way, to be just as creepily dissociative and morally irresponsible as the crime itself.

All this, however, is perhaps to miss the point. For Benny's Video is less concerned with explaining Benny's actions - which remain after all as enigmatic as the Sphinx or as cryptic as the hieroglyphs that he sees and records during a last-minute trip to Egypt with his mother - than with unsettling us by exposing our own voyeuristic tendencies and sadomasochistic urges. Asked by his father why he did it, Benny replies: "I don't know – I wanted to see what it's like, I guess." It is a chilling answer, in fact lifted from a real-life case that first inspired Haneke to make the film – but it is also, of course, one of the prime motivations of any filmgoer.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2008
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A boy obssessed with violent films begins to lose his grip on reality.
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Director: Michael Haneke

Writer: Michael Haneke

Starring: Arno Frisch, Angela Winkler, Ulrich Mühe, Ingrid Stassner, Stephanie Brehme, Stefan Polasek, Christian Pundy, Max Berner, Hanspeter Müller, Shelley Kästner

Year: 1992

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Austria, Switzerland


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