Three Reasons to Watch: Benny's Video
Every week, Curzon or a guest editor recommends a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection. This week, we look at a chilling examination of the impact of screen violence by Funny Games director Michael Haneke.
From its startling opening, featuring video footage of a pig being slaughtered with a bolt gun, it’s clear that Michael Haneke’s second feature is unlikely to pull its punches. After all, in his previous film, The Seventh Continent (1989), Haneke featured a family locking themselves in their own house, destroying it out of sight of the prying eyes of the world and, when there is nothing left, finally despatching themselves. If that film satirised aspects of Western middle-class life, Benny’s Video had its sights aimed at the way we consume media and what we regard as entertainment.
Knowing too much about the film will spoil the shock factor. But to give a sense of where it’s heading, the first scene reveals that the pig killing footage is being watched by Benny, a teenager who lives in a stable, middle-class, nuclear family environment. There is little to suggest anything is wrong with him or in his world. But is the violence he experiences vicariously having some effect on him and could any kind of de-sensitivity to violent imagery inspire violet acts?
The debate over the relationship between violence in popular culture and the behaviour of those consuming it has long provoked moral panics. In Victorian times, the ‘moral majority’ expressed concern over Penny Dreadfuls, the cheap fiction whose stories of crime and bad behaviour were accused of destroying the moral fabric of society. But cinema – and now the internet – increased the number of panics over unsuitable content and people’s access to it. In film, rarely a decade has gone by when one film or another isn’t being accused of influencing malleable minds. In the UK alone, films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971) attracted outrage in the 1970s, while the early 1980s saw the controversy surrounding the so-called ‘video nasties’, and in the 1990s the debate shifted to Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant (both 1992), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Crash (1996). Across this period, the divide seemed to be split between the filmmakers on one side and their critics on the other. But Benny’s Video was different. This time it was a filmmaker who questioned the representation of violence on the screen.
Benny’s Video shares a similar theme with Haneke’s later Funny Games (1997/2007) and Hidden (2005), in the way that they explore our relationship with the media. His German and US versions of Funny Games in particular explore a more expansive terrain that Benny’s Video film steps into. Some have found these films too preachy in the way Haneke moralises about our relationship with screen violence. But there’s no denying the power of Benny’s Video. Haneke intended it to shock. And it does. Perhaps we’re not so desensitised after all.
Three reasons to watch Benny’s Video
Haneke’s grip as a filmmaker is at its tightest here. If there are moments of sly, mocking humour in Funny Games, here Haneke’s approach is steadfastly serious. But he’s also never less than compelling in drawing us into Benny’s world.
The film’s most shocking moment highlights Haneke’s brilliance as a filmmaker. It finds the Austrian director alternating between film and video footage. The sequence is all-the more unsettling and disturbing for the way that Haneke presents it.
The father is brilliantly played by Ulrich Mühe, who became best known to audiences as another father in Haneke’s subsequent Funny Games (1997) and as the surveillance officer in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006). He sadly died after appearing in that film. But taken together, these three performances highlight a gifted actor who excelled at portraying complex, compromised characters.
Benny’s Video is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema