Benny's Video (1992)
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Cinematographer: Christian Berger
by Jon Cvack
Benny’s Video predates American Beauty by about seven years, yet the parallels are eerily apparent. Similar to Ricky Fitts, Benny (Arno Fritch) is a recluse, who spends the majority of his time filming random things - (ex., instead of a bird, it’s a pig) and assembles the edit in his high-tech room, always with the tv on playing soap operas, crappy movies, or news updates about regional warfare. Like many of Haneke’s films explore, he is obsessed with digital video. He believes that between the camera and the surrounding inundation of content we are increasingly desensitized. Our morals are slowly broken down as the line between fiction and reality falls apart. Benny watches a video of a pig getting plugged in the head by a butcher. We see the animal shake, pant, and die before our eyes. We’ll also see a horrible C-level action movie, involving a car chase, ending in a horrible crash. We’ll see terrifying broadcasts on the War in Kosovo (I believe) where thousands of civilians have been displaced or murdered. All while Benny continues to check out movies and learn the language of cinema.
We don’t know why he suddenly decides to kill, but it’s clear that the delineation between fiction and reality has blurred. The murder is filmed in one of the most terrifying ways imaginable. We watch the video feed as he tries to butcher the young woman, which takes far too long to accomplish, as they fall in and out of frame. He then cleans it up, stuffing her inside his closet with no clue how to get her out. Shortly after shaving his head his parents discover what happened. The dad wants to try and cover up the mess. The mom remains conflicted. They take a trip to Egypt in order to figure things out. Benny doesn’t get any better. He behaves like a teenager, continuing to film random, seemingly banal things, and we know where it’s all going because we just watched him watching stories about situations like this. He’ll get caught. The parents will bear some of the blame. The news will pick it up and it’ll be pushed through all networks until the next big story comes along and then it’ll be forgotten. What’s most terrifying is not the event; it’s how the characters respond. Benny has no regrets or concerns. Filming it allows him to remain detached, like all the other content he consumes.
So did American Beauty borrow from this film? Or was this issue something that was brewing within the times? Haneke’s not the only person to explore television’s ubiquity and power and video’s accessibility. I don’t think it matters all that much either. Whether influential or not, Benny’s Video is far more intense than American Beauty. While the latter provides some humor to break up the intensity and some beautiful photography throughout, Benny’s Video is entirely dark and incredibly bleak. There are no jokes. There is nothing pretty. We know it’s just a movie. We just don’t know if that pig was actually killed. It looked so real. Benny’s Video looked so real.
BELOW: The terrifying murder sequence. As a warning, it's extremely disturbing.
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