Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 1 
8 Mar
2004

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Michael Haneke's Benny's Video (1993)AUSTRIA
Effects of the real
Michael Haneke's
Benny's Video (1993)

Benny's Video shows the emotional detachment and unwillingness to psychologize seen in the films of Robert Bresson. Brigitte Peucker looks at how this postmodern bourgeois melodrama plays with representations of reality to bring us closer to what is real.[1]


Distinguished by Câhiers du Cinéma critics as one of the 13 most noteworthy films of 1993, yet nearly subjected to censorship in Switzerland, Benny's Video opens with the videotaped slaughter of a pig, a sequence notable for the relentlessness with which the video camera pursues its object. Rendering these images nearly unendurable are the pig's squeals of pain, sounds that provoke a moral response inseparable from the affective one the spectator experiences: the spectator's auditory suffering is relieved only when the scene of the animal's suffering has come to an end.

Even after its conclusion, though, our senses remain negatively involved with the film: the end of the video sequence is signaled by "snow"—the visual and audio white noise of an untuned television—that baffles our sense of sight and grates upon the ear. A palpable sign of the termination—the death—of the image chain, the video snow underscores the death of the pig.

In Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), the first film of the bourgeois trilogy of which Benny's Video is the second part, snow on the TV screen has an even more horrifying message to convey, as it is "watched" by spectators who are dead. Signalling the materiality of the video image and of the screen itself, the absent images for which the snow stands are reflected in their spectators' unseeing eyes, while the noise that substitutes for sound falls on deaf ears. As I will argue in this essay, Haneke's concern with spectator affect is conveyed by means of modernist strategies that privilege the materialities of his medium. This is one of the many features that Haneke's films share in common with those of Robert Bresson, Haneke's self-proclaimed precursor.

In place of absent parents

Benny's Video—the film—revolves around a postmodern consciousness for which representation and reality are nearly indistinguishable, in which "experiental time" is constantly recorded.[2] Benny's video footage documenting the pig's slaughter is coded as amateurish documentary: it is unedited, steadily marked by hand-held effects, ends abruptly, and hence marked as "real."[3] More importantly, as in other films featuring slaughterhouse violence, it records a real death, not one enacted for the camera, and its impact on Benny and on the spectator derives from this knowledge. If the definitive scene of graphic realism is, as Michael Fried has said of painting, one that the viewer can't bear to look at—or listen to—then this is realism par excellence.[4]

Michael Haneke's Benny's Video (1993)But this footage is not simply marked as real, but is variously manipulated—subjected to slow motion, re-wound, briefly frozen. This is a sequence in the process of being viewed, not only by the spectator of the film, but by a diegetic spectator, as well. It is being scrutinized by the fourteen-year-old Benny, who is using video technology to examine the process of of dying.

Soon he will shoot a young girl with the same weapon that was used to slaughter the pig, the event will be recorded by the video camera that seems always to be running in his room, and he will subject this footage to similar scrutiny.[5] Benny will perform all of these actions seemingly without any response, affective or moral.

Obvious allusions are made here to Baudrillard's insights concerning a postmodern subject who cannot "produce himself as a mirror," only as screen,[6] but, additionally, Haneke's film provides us with a wealth of sociological detail designed to suggest why this adolescent's life might be devoid of feeling, and how, for him, perception comes to be mediated by the technology with which he is surrounded.

The teenager finds replacements for his absent parents, Haneke suggests, in the eyes of the video camera and the movement of video images. For Benny, videotaping is an act of perception, with images on a monitor substituting even for the obscured view of the outside world through his bedroom window. Benny seems incapable of relating to anyone—even, one scene suggests tellingly, to himself—except through its mediation, while the sounds of TV and Rock form an aural space that envelops him. Since Haneke refuses psychological realism, Benny, like many other Haneke characters, projects an opacity that renders individual motivation inaccessible.[7] Yet social commentary lies within Haneke's purview and, when the film points an accusing finger at Benny's parents, one wonders to what extent psychology has been invalidated, after all.

The media also come in for a share of the blame. Television reportage, Haneke's films suggest, has anesthetized our capacity to respond to scenes of suffering. Benny spends his time watching the aestheticized violence of action movies and the restrained, "normalizing" television reporting of scenes of death in Bosnia. Providing violence in another register—but real violence as well—these news programs present images of carnage accompanied by voices of commentators carefully trained to exclude all emotion, thus rendering a sanitized version of the real precisely where the spectator has come to feel that she has access to immediacy.

Of blood and ketchup

If the realism of film is conceptualized in spatial terms, Mary Ann Doane has argued, the realism of television lies in its relation to temporality, to its sense of "liveness."[8] 71 Fragments, the third film in Haneke's trilogy, undermines precisely that sense when we see the same news broadcast more than once, suggesting our entrapment in a loop that only the end of the film cuts through. Television coverage works hard to keep the shock of catastrophe at bay, and in Benny's Video, Benny's vacant expression reflects the TV commentators' calm detachment.

For Benny there is no difference between a death marked by "ketchup and plastic," as he says of death in the movies, and one that produces real blood. But he knows the difference between his video and feature films. Benny returns compulsively and with evident fascination to the documentary images, holding the images of the pig's death agony in freeze frame. Necrophilic fascination may be one explanation for his behavior, but another aim is the control of narrative flow and time: he manipulates this footage in order—half-seriously—to interfere with the inevitability of its narrative and to reverse "reality." (Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games briefly succeeds in doing just that, only to suspend all plausibility by "rewinding" the action.)

Benny's scrutiny of these scenes seems scientific and epistemological, an attempt by technological means to discover the secret of life and death: later, he will repeatedly view the images of the murder he commits. But the video camera is stationary in the murder scene, only accidentally trained upon its players who move in and out of the frame. Emulating the restraint of Bresson, Haneke's images deny their spectator the spectacle of violence that they critique in other media. For the spectator, as for Benny, his act is elusive, incomprehensible.

Michael Haneke's Benny's Video (1993)Haneke's bitter indictment of the upper-middle class Austrian family continues as the businessman father and art dealer mother attempt to cover up Benny's act of murder as much for the sake of their careers as to protect their son. Yet when Benny attempts a "flight into Egypt" with his mother—while his father remains behind to dispose of the corpse—their trip, despite its macabre motivation, takes on some of the qualities of a utopian space and time.[9] As is evident from videotaped images of Benny shooting video, his mother herself films with a second camera.

Although the relation of mother and child is mediated by the video camera—indeed, their meeting ground is the collaborative work of the videotape itself—the very fact of their relation seems to confer a redemptive effect on this medium. Later, while channel-surfing in the hotel room, Benny stops at a broadcast of a Bach concert featuring "Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier." This diegetic music continues as he moves to the window and, in one of the rare point-of-view shots in this film, with Benny we see the image of the nighttime harbor while the organ continues to play.

Superimposed upon the organ music, with the image of the harbor still in view, we then hear the voice of Benny's mother as she enters the room: "Greetings from Papa." As Benny answers "How is he?" their conversation becomes the fragile rendering of a family reconstituted. While their "reunion" takes place within a formulaic exchange and in voiceover, it is solemnized within the auratic aural space of the Bach prelude, of religious high art.[10] Although the warm colors of Egypt suggest that even these gestures can only take place in "warm" Third World locales, not in the cold urban spaces of Vienna, this space nevertheless remains the private space of familial love, sanctified by religious feeling—the "flight into Egypt" —as well as high culture. Haneke's film gestures towards a redemptive space, but can go no further.

The eye of God looking down?

As the title of Haneke's film suggests, the boundary between Benny's Video and Benny's video is repeatedly revealed to be permeable, as though to suggest that visual restraint cannot spare even Haneke's images the charge of being tainted. At various moments, the spectator is only retrospectively aware that the sequence we're watching belongs to Benny's ongoing video rather than to the film's diegesis. Blurring the boundaries among a variety of images once again points to their different, though temporarily indistinguishable materialities, while space and time are blurred in a gesture that includes both postmodern and modern valeities.

One of the most effective confusions of this kind occurs at the end of the film when we see a scene shot from within Benny's dark room, looking through the partly open door into a more brightly lit space—one of Haneke's signature shots. Here, too, the materiality of film is at issue, for the light that permits the image enters the "dark chamber" from which it is shot through a partly-opened door suggests the work of the shutter that admits light into the camera itself. In this scene, we recognize both image and soundtrack, for we have seen and heard them separately before. It is Haneke's strategy initially to obscure the context of the image—does it belong to the film or to the videotape? —and consequently to allow sound to fix its meaning.

Michael Haneke's Benny's Video (1993)Towards the end of the film, the spectator hears once more the desperately calm conversation in which Benny's parents discuss how best to dispose of the body of the young girl whom Benny has killed. A few seconds later, with an even greater sense of shock, we realize that Benny's video is once again being viewed, this time with a voice-over conversation between Benny and the policemen with whom he is viewing it.

The parents' conversation will serve to indict them as accessories after the fact for the murder that their son has committed. As Benny turns himself in, the videotape becomes not only a document of violence, but its instrument as well. In keeping with the film's trenchant critique of contemporary mores, it remains unclear whether Benny's act is a moral one—a Bressonian assumption of guilt, with religious overtones—or merely an act of violence against his parents, the flipside of the utopian space suggested in Egypt.

The final frames of Benny's Video represent the scene in the police station as multiple images on the monitors of a surveillance system. Doubly mediated by technology, these cold, impersonal images are on view for the benefit of an anonymous spectator representing the Law, and for us. The film's final images—images shot from above, the "God shot"—are filmic images that frame and control the video images that they contain.

Haneke's film opens with Benny's video images presented directly to the spectatorial view, while in its middle section the nature of its images—film or video? —is often initially ambiguous. Finally, when at the end Haneke's film definitively subsumes Benny's video and the images produced by the surveillance cameras, the cold formalism of Haneke's cinema masters and contains video. If Haneke's camera encompasses and transcends even the eye of the Law, whose eye does it represent? If these images are meant to gesture towards a higher authority, its identity remains enigmatic.

In Benny's Video, then, the content of bourgeois melodrama is distanced by means of a modernist visual style, one that deliberately emulates the cool detachment of Bresson. Haneke's emphatic affirmation of modernism's refusal of psychology intersects parodically with the bourgeois family as a defining subject matter of his films. Exposed by modernist techniques, it is the bourgeois melodrama's self-containment within the personal that is the object of critique.

The mediatization of the public sphere that characterizes the postmodern period—Haneke's other topic—is likewise countered by formal means. In Haneke's films, it is the ability of sound to assault the sensorium and to promote perceptual and emotional realism in the spectator that wages war against the inauthenticity of the postmodern. In Benny's Video, as in Haneke's other films, modernist strategies remain a source of filmic vitality. Revising and making new the bourgeois melodrama of an earlier era, they charge postmodern simulation with the energy of the real.

Brigitte Peucker

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Also of interest
About the author

Brigitte M Peucker is the Leavenworth Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and Professor of Film Studies at Yale University. Her writing on film includes the book Incorporating Images: Film and the Rival Arts.


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Footnotes

1. An earlier and longer version of this essay appeared as "Fragmentation and the Real: Michael Haneke's Family Trilogy" in After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition, ed. Willy Riemer (Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2000), 176-88.return to text

2. For a reading of the temporality of video, see Timothy Corrigan "Immediate History: Videotape Interventions and Narrative Film," The Image in Dispute: Art and Cinema in the Age of Photography, ed. Dudley Andrew (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 309-27 .return to text

3. See Joel Black's discussion of the reception of The Blair Witch Project, in The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative (New York: Routledge, 2002), 13-14.return to text

4. Michael Fried, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stepehen Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 65.return to text

5. An important source for Benny's Video is undoubtedly the British film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (dir John McNaughton, 1986), which for the first time features video replays by the murderers of acts of extreme violence, which caused an uproar among critics and spectators.return to text

6. Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication" in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 127. .return to text

7. The refusal of psychology is also something that Haneke has derived from Bresson. See Paul Schrader on Bresson in The Transcendental Style.return to text

8. Mary Ann Doane, "Information, Crisis, Catastrophe," in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 225.return to text

9. See the earlier version of this essay for an elaboration of this sequence. "Fragmentation and the Real: Michael Haneke's Family Trilogy" in After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition, ed. Willy Riemer (Rivderside, CA: Ariadne Press), 176-88.return to text

10. Another such auratic aural space seems intended partially to recuperate the death of the child in Der siebente Kontinent—or at least to offer some solace to the spectator. The only instance of non-diegetic sound in this film is the fragment of Alban Berg's requiem, Dem Andenken eines Engels (To the Memory of an Angel) which is heard at this moment. It is, however, abruptly cut.return to text

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