ART FILM OF THE WEEK
In the pre-credit sequence of a film by Austrian director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Funny Games), the slaughter of a pig is in full view of the audience. After a butcher’s gun takes down the animal, the videotaped event rewinds and displays the terror again and again in nauseating slow-motion. Benny’s Video is a study of innate violence in a detached, isolated world.
14-year-old Benny (Funny Games’ Arno Frisch) is an action movie freak who compulsively rents tape after tape of what he knows to be graphic movies born of fake special effects…though he is nonetheless preternaturally drawn to the gruesome images—whether real or no. When his parents leave town for a few days, Benny decides it is time for a bit of the old ultraviolence himself, prompted, no doubt, by his childhood memory and obsessive viewing of the killing of the pig.
He invites an innocent girl from the video store over to his house and while taping her for posterity, uses the same butcher’s gun to fire shots into the young girl in a shocking display that will resensitize even the most jaded viewer of blood and guts. With no logical impetus behind it, his killing is akin to Camus’ The Stranger. Notice Haneke’s use of off-screen space is, in the murder scene, terrifyingly diabolical (Haneke is a master of this technique).
Benny’s nonchalant attitude to the murder is all the more gut-wrenching. He has no mind to keep the murder a secret, and displays the tape for his parents, after which they become afraid for themselves and for their son’s crime reflecting back on them. Benny shows no signs of remorse or guilt, just a fascination of how actual violence changes his world view. On tape, he rubs blood from his victim on his naked body, studying all of the footage of death with a critical eye. When Benny shaves his head later in the film, this is a sign of his transformation into an above-the-law, Nietzchean superman with no real familial connections and no guidelines for his actions that go unpunished.
His parents ultimately decide to clean up the mess so that nothing will come of the dismal situation of their son’s cold-blooded murder. The film continues with Benny’s videotaped interludes while he is in exile in Egypt, waiting for the body to be disposed of by his parents. Combined with a melancholy organ score, the video tapes may appear banal and mundane. Yet, the non-violent moments are just as scary as the violent for being so enigmatic and filled with the ambiance of Benny’s recent crimes.
Throughout the film, Haneke never allows the horror of actual murder to sit right with the audience. Benny has no motivation except for wanting to produce a killing of his own—not for thrills, but for mere documentation. This reasoning, too, is questionable, as Benny (or Haneke, for that matter) never answers the question as to why the grisly occurrence happened. Perhaps it was done out of curiosity or as an act of sheer power.
The realism is stark, the film is without morals, and technology is scrutinized as an objectifying apparatus, neutral to actual events of carnage—both in the film itself and for the viewer. Often considered a postmodern work with disconnected characters and a nucleus of experimental framing, Benny taped his masterpiece of real death and Haneke plays along, cycling extreme brutality with a beauty of poetics.