Tag Archives: Benny’s Video

The Image-Sickness of ‘Benny’s Video’

There are no monsters in Benny’s Video; no creatures to feature save the suggestion of miasma lurking behind the TV static. Like David Cronenberg’s techno-paranoid cinema, Michael Haneke’s film is concerned with technology’s insidious slow drip into human consciousness. The Austrian auteur here constructs a turn-of-the-millennium vision whose prescience on screen addiction and social alienation aligns it with a few disconnected landscapes of the Information Age: Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts and Olivier Assayas’s demonlover, for instance. Benny’s Video is more than just parental paranoia around sex, lies, and videotape; it’s a cautionary prophecy for the image-sickness of a social media age.

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Our film begins banally enough — a family’s blank-faced stares at a screen “saying nothing,” news reduced to a scroll of consciousness, the mundanity of the day’s events for the family occurring in parallel with the world events that they consume with similar emotional distance. A world full of humdrum horrors coloring the background. What is it about the home movie of a small farm’s pig slaughter that catches Benny’s (Arno Frisch) attention through this media haze? The naked violence or the rupture in society’s polite veneer revealing bloodied underpinnings that grease the wheel? 

Haneke suggests the latter with his cold, brutalist world: tidy European interiors rife with sterile whites and functional grey surfaces, a world where love does not seem to factor into any interactions. 

No, everything is transactional. So many frames dedicated to close-ups of hands performing faceless exchanges — a fitting remark on media’s remove. The real exchanges that we’re meant to focus on are not McDonald’s purchases or choir boy drug deals but the insidious exchange between screen and mind and the violence behind and between those ever-refreshing horizontal lines. 

Whatever sick magic this piece of media works on Benny, the result is the same: a voyeur is pushed to action. To record requires performance, so Benny finds a young charge (Ingrid Stassner in an unnamed role) to play opposite his world-wizened mentor. As he brings the waifish girl into his parents’ empty home, he acts the elderly professor: smokes his cigarette, displays his wares, furrows his brow. He’s here to educate and be educated. His newfound subject tries to match his effortless cool with her own aloofness. “It’s snowing,” she notes coolly when shown the titular tape, as if to show she’s unfazed by what’s occurring in the foreground. It’s a game of teenage chicken that quickly spirals past playfulness into something sinister.

Violence always exists at a remove in Benny’s Video. The crucial moment of the film occurs just at the edges of the camera’s eye, delivered to us only through a camcorder’s video feed. Though this sequence occurs within the first half hour of the 100-minute film, the aftermath is no less unsettling. The evil is in banality; the proof is in the act of eating yogurt after committing murder. It’s disturbing how easily Benny’s floors are cleaned; how every surface in Haneke’s world is so impenetrable that even violence does not soak in. It’s no use crying over spilled blood — gore can be wiped clean with a will and a wet rag. Instead, it’s spilled milk you should worry about. It’s time for a vacation.

Carrying on after such an act only further demonstrates the dehumanization at the core of Haneke’s film. Whether our fears are focused on how we consume technology or how it consumes us, the result is the same: empathy is a bridge too far. Like Benny rifling through the contents of his victim’s backpack to find a Russian nesting doll, Haneke’s search for a human core comes up empty-handed.

Because Benny himself is a blank slate, an incomprehensible void of Anglo middle-class malaise. His answers to why always being “I don’t know” or “to see what it felt like.” No meaning, no motive, just an appetite for violence. So, it’s easy to see his stony, dispassionate facade as the inhuman blueprint for the school shooter archetype that would enter the popular imagination in earnest only seven years after Benny’s moment in the spotlight. It seems like more than a coincidence that Arno Frisch goes on to portray a homicidal home invader in 1997’s Funny Games

In Haneke’s reckoning, there’s some dehumanizing strain in media that populates the world with Eric Harrises and Dylan Kliebolds — it’s not found in violent video games, though. Instead, our director locates this germ in cinema’s need to make a spectacle of violence — his own films included. The spectacle of image-making plants the very seeds that germinate in the grey matter of our collective unconscious to breed the monstrosities we fear.

Though Benny’s Video encapsulates all the fears that the old hold against the young — trenchcoated metalheads abandoning studies and socializing for the sake of loud music and bloody media — the only parental handwringing here concerns image. For Benny’s parents, Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Angela Winkler), murder is an inconvenience in need of cover-up. “Just the thing we need for our reputation,” Georg claims with exasperation — a statement that has its finger on the pulse of the coming world of social media. They’d rather damn themselves to real, legal repercussions — “all the other consequences” — than face a damaged reputation. They want to get on with hosting games of Pilots and Passengers, imagining themselves on top of the pyramid scheme. At least Benny, in the end, confesses — though we can be assured it’s not so much for the sake of absolution as it is for boredom, exhaustion, or a new experience. 

Though he’s never turned to true horror, German filmmaker Wim Wenders has his own name for the phenomenon at the heart of Benny’s Video: the disease of images, encapsulated in his five-hour epic, Until the End of the World. A world so flurried with images that they all cease to hold any meaning, any potency – just abducting our consciousness like so many brainless body snatchers.

With such a fixation on recordings and re-enactments, on imperfect copies of real life to interface with instead of the real world, it’s easy to see this image-sickness at play in life as in Benny’s Video. Our own world is hellbent on removing all traces of bloodshed. This increases the distance between humanity and horror, paradoxically ripening the conditions to create a disaffected populace using ultraviolence to sate their boredom. A self-fulfilling prophecy, then: the remove of media closes the gap between mindless consumption and heartless reenactment.

Where Cronenberg transmutes his anxieties into bodily abominations, and Wenders explores his disease of images through a world-ending epic, Haneke remains grounded in the mundanity of everyday slaughter delivered via news bulletin and home movies. The children of the new flesh aren’t techno-human hybrids; the monstrosity here isn’t in the murder but in what surrounds it. This desensitized culture creates such a distance between life and death that society is cauterized into a bloodless bureaucracy. An existence that’s merely fodder for fetishizing; iconography to be blended up by our darling dramaturges and spilled out for their thirsty audiences. 

The trouble of life in video: everything is filtered through image. When everything can be reproduced on magnetic tape and celluloid screen, how do we retain the sanctity of The Real? Media reveals unseen horrors even as it conceals them, creates anonymity that allows horror to hide behind a keyboard. Will we ever press pause, or will we remain in rapture, doomscrolling servants to the nearest screen? The flurry of images continues beyond the frame — until the next horror, the next spectacle, claims its 15 minutes of social media fame.