Thursday, November 1, 2012

BENNY'S VIDEO (Michael Haneke, 1992, Austria)

Benny sees the world darkly through the clouded lens of adolescence and technology: equally one part removed and one part cruel participant in his narcissistic narrative. His bedroom is a cave, black curtains shroud the windows but a camera shoots live footage of the street outside: somehow, peering at the video monitor is more real to Benny than just looking through the shades. It’s as if the camera has distanced him, on every humane level, from becoming a human being, his empathy lost amid the white noise and static. 

Benny films a pig being slaughtered, a rather mundane event on any pig farm, and becomes entranced with the image. He watches the footage repeatedly, sometimes in slow motion, looking for the moment of death when the metal bolt destroys the animal’s consciousness: when it ceases to live and becomes inert. He’s looking at death but not feeling death. Director Michael Haneke is not concerned with the footage itself: thousands of animals are killed this way for food every day. What he is concerned with is Benny’s obsessive reaction to the video. 

When Benny meets a teenage girl at a video store, he brings her back to his parent’s apartment (they’re away for the weekend) and through small talk eventually shows her the video. Her apathy is apparent too; her response concerns the weather. Benny then shows her the killing instrument and shoots her three times, her screams and violent thrashing echoing the pigs quivering death. He cleans up the mess and pours himself a glass of milk: Haneke shows us a terrific shot of him casually cleaning up the spilled milk in the exact same manner he wiped up the thick congealing blood. Benny then goes about the remainder of the weekend partying, hanging-out as if nothing important happened. When his parents are shown the video, they are devastated for Benny, realizing his future will be forever tarnished. Soon, they each become an accomplice after-the-fact because Benny’s bright future is more important than the fate of some runaway (Read: lower-class) girl. Benny and his mother take a short vacation so the father can dispose of the evidence. 

In this early Haneke film, the auteur is imploding the very ideal of the nuclear family unit where patriarchal power corrupts absolutely. Humanity is viewed at a distance through a cold lens, where actions are never explained or understood through typical narrative tropes. The film fails to judge Benny, it does not portray this young man as a monster which denies the audience a clear emotional response towards him. The act itself can be judged on its own terms: a violently senseless murder of an innocent girl. The conflict between hating the act and not the perpetrator creates an emotional maelstrom, a vortex of reactions from the viewer. The first reaction may be dissociation, for the audience to turn away and turn off, to feel angry at being subjected to this mean spirited vision. But Haneke is presenting not just a film to an audience but a case to the jury, requiring our full attention to detail and authority because we (the viewer) ultimately pass judgement without ever understanding Benny's motive. 

Benny shows no affect, no emotion, and only seems to have an identity when he looks through his video recorder. This affluent family has finally come together as a unit, working towards a common goal…but Benny even subverts this scheme. Can Benny be rehabilitated? That question denotes some beneficent foundation, a base of human morality, whether learned socially or through his family, which has become corrupt. But that’s not really the important issue: Has Benny ever been "habilitated" in the first place? 

Final Grade: (B+)