Originally published on the old Cinewise blog on 8th December 2009.
Michael Haneke’s films have been quite ubiquitous in London the past couple of months: White Ribbon had its premiere at the London Film Festival and BFI ran a Haneke season at the South Bank. The man himself even showed up to introduce the film, which was a great welcome back to form after the what-in-the-name-of-Succubus-were-you-thinking Funny Games remake.
Benny’s Video is the follow-up to the bizarre and slightly pointless The Seventh Continent (1989) and it is no less disturbing … well, which of his films isn’t? Plot-wise unrelated it may be, Benny’s Video is a prequel-of-sorts to Funny Games (the vastly superior original): both films feature Ulrich Mühe and Arno Frisch and it is also not difficult to see Benny (Frisch) growing up to be the sadistic Paul.
Benny is a spoiled little brat – he is a teenager living in a swanky apartment with his rich parents. His room is adorned with state-of-the-art early 90s video equipment with black blinds covering his windows. To make up for the isolation, he has a live feed of the view from the window on a telly 24/7. His parents are aware of their son’s obsession, but don’t seem to care much. Benny is also obsessed with a video that he shot himself, in which a pig is killed by an air gun a la Anton Chigurh. Benny watches this video over and over again, rewinding (future reference for Funny Games) to watch the poor pig getting killed again in slow motion. One day, while his parents are away for the weekend, he brings a girl he meets at the video store back home. He shows her the air gun, which he stole from the farm, and things take a rather bloody turn. Meanwhile, Benny’s ever-running camera is recording the action, which is off-screen.
Benny’s initial lack of remorse really beggars belief, but then there appear subtle hints at his restlessness, such as an ad hoc decision to shave his head. Unable to live with what he’s done, he comes clean to his parents. And this is when the film really goes left-field. What will the parents do? And what effect will that have on Benny’s upbringing?
The sense of dread is ever present, even in the idyllic Red Sea scenes with Benny and his mother. It is a tired old cliché, but “what you don’t see is scarier than what you actually see” fits this film like a glove (more clichés … sorry). Haneke takes this one step further by showing an extended vacation sequence that masks a ghastly act that we know is taking place.
This ghastly act, as it’s pointed out multiple times throughout the film, is the Bosnian War. At one point, Benny’s father walks into his room and sees him watching the news. They are showing footage of a small Croatian town being attacked by the Serbian military. The father asks what’s on the news and Benny replies: “Nothing. They’re not saying anything”. This sums up the film, and the period that it is set, perfectly. Bosnian War was happening in the heart of Europe – not so far away from Vienna, where this is set. Yet, it was “behind closed doors”. It was always “off-screen”.
In essence, Benny’s Video is more than a criticism of an apathetic youth growing up with sensory overload or parental neglect in the name of keeping up status quo – it is one of the most subtle anti-war and anti-apathy films I have ever seen.