While Haneke’s debut The Seventh Continent was intended as a piece of stark criticism aimed at the consumerist attitudes pervading the wealthier echelons of the Austrian society, Benny’s Video, his sophomore effort, directs its unwavering hand holding a cold scalpel of deconstructive analysis at the upbringing of children.
The titular Benny is a teenager who views the world either through the viewfinder of a camera, or through a TV screen. He is a budding filmmaker himself and an avid genre fan. We meet him as he watches a low-fi recording of a pig being slaughtered with a bolt gun. By the way, the footage presented in the film is likely real, which may (and likely is intended to) upset the viewer. Mere seconds after the pig is killed the video is paused and rewound so that we could witness this unsettling event once more. This is not Haneke who insists we go through this horror again, but Benny who seems obsessed with the idea of death and has perhaps become desensitized to violence as his upbringing has been effectively outsourced to technology by parents consumed with their own careers. Or maybe he is simply playing God who wields an immense power over whether an animal lives or dies.
The story then proceeds to a pivotal encounter in which Benny invites a girl to his house and shows her the video. He then produces a captive bolt gun, exactly like the one in the video and ends up shooting the girl in the stomach. This is when he realizes the difference between real life and movies and asks the girl to stop screaming. She doesn’t comply. After all, she is in excruciating pain. Real pain. Benny clumsily reloads the gun and shoots the girl again. Screaming doesn’t stop and the procedure is repeated. Third time’s the charm – the girl’s life ends abruptly. And this entire process is shown to us indirectly, in a long take with the camera pointed at a TV screen wired directly to Benny’s own camcorder that kept recording everything. It is as though Haneke wanted us to try and ponder this paradoxical nature of death and murder and the sanitizing effect of it being shown on a screen.
But this is not the end of the filmmaker’s sermon of moral accusations as the attention is then turned to the aftermath of the murder. When Benny’s parents find out about their son’s heinous crime, they don’t fall apart as one would expect them to. They don’t wallow in despair at the fact their only child is a killer. And most importantly, they don’t acknowledge they may be to blame because they failed to raise Benny to know right from wrong. In fact, they are only interested in preserving the status quo and immediately implicate themselves in their son’s crime by planning for the disposal of the girl’s body and arranging an alibi. After all, they do not care one bit that a human life has been taken. All they care about are their lives, their careers, their social engagements and shielding their sociopath son from assuming any sort of responsibility for his deeds.
In effect, Benny’s Video is much more audacious and direct in its accusatory tone. Whatever subtlety Haneke may have exhibited in his previous effort has been thrown out the window and transforms the film from a harsh-yet-nuanced cautionary tale into a shameless dressing-down inflicted upon the Austrian society of the time; perhaps maybe even a bit too harsh, because it seems Haneke in a fit of righteous fury allowed the film’s accusatory tone to be deflected from their intended target, the morally bankrupt wealthy classes, towards film and television. As a result, it is all too easy to see this film as an indictment of the TV culture and allowing our children to grow up with unfettered access to various media, while I think Haneke wanted this film to be a stinging slap on the faces of people who would willingly disregard their responsibility as parents in favour of their own professional success and wealth generation, and cede this responsibility (indirectly) onto the TV.
All in all, Benny’s Video can be seen as a powerful sermon delivered by a caring preacher who also happens to be white with rage at the direction the world has taken. However, as the ending to this film can be interpreted rather ambiguously, it may be possible that while he was being serious about the societal nuance he was pointing at with this story, Haneke was already all too keen to cross the line and assume the role of a cynical jester who finds pleasure in unsettling the viewer and is ready to do so just because he finds some kind of satisfaction in making his audiences squirm in their seats or exit the cinema consumed by roiling anger.