Michael Haneke and Eurovision go together like… well, like two North poles of a magnet really. Where Eurovision is camp, kitschy and garish, Haneke is contemplative, sullen and often hectoring. When Haneke makes a film he shows no desire to be universal; rather, he exerts a stubborn refusal to pander to the needs and values of his audience, as anyone who has seen any of his more recent films will no doubt testify.
This “anti-audience” approach has been a staple of Haneke’s work since the start of his career, which is perhaps what makes him so simultaneously fascinating and off-putting. Outside of the Palme D’Or, BAFTA and Academy Award winning drama Amour, Haneke’s most well-known film is Funny Games (not least because it was remade in English by Haneke himself in 2007), which is little more than an aggressive rant against violence in the movies, not to mention one that puts most of the blame on the audience’s shoulders.
Nevertheless, the film I wish to discuss is Benny’s Video, Haneke’s second film and the middle chapter in what is often referred to as his “glaciation trilogy” (sandwiched between The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance). For me, Benny’s Video is Haneke at his most poignant but scathing. Starring Arno Frisch and Ulrich Mühe, both of whom would go on to star in the original Funny Games, it tells the harrowing and uncompromising story of a teenage boy with an unhealthy obsession with violence who, as his perception of the breach between fantasy and reality becomes blurred, murders a young girl on camera in his bedroom.
Benny’s Video’s great success is that it forces you to think about how people, not least teenagers, can be influenced by the violence they see at the cinema, on TV and in the everyday World without hammering you over the head with an aggressive lecture. The film is slow, subtle and suggestive, and it treats the subject matter with immense seriousness. It explores notions of unconditional parental love and, perhaps more importantly, how cinema can be used to manipulate an audience. Haneke makes no bones about the fact that Benny has done something awful but he then spends the rest of the film asking you to sympathise with him. He turns the tables and forces us to think about the causes of Benny’s crime, rather than the consequences, even though said consequences are both brutal and devastating.
What makes Benny’s Video such an important entry in Haneke’s canon, however, is its use of the “lingering shot”. Haneke is the master of this technique, which involves forcing the audience to look at something for just a second or two longer than is comfortable or necessary, and Benny’s Video contains what I consider the single greatest use of that technique in Haneke’s entire filmography. When Benny kills his victim, Haneke leaves the camera on her battered corpse for about three seconds longer than is bearable. It’s a small, subtle technique, but one that forces the audience to really contemplate what they’re seeing, rather than just processing it. The technique is put to similar use throughout Haneke’s work (see, for example, the body of the child in Funny Games, the Metro scene in Code Unknown and the smothering in Amour) but I think it’s at its most effective and distressing here.
I don’t think Benny’s Video is a masterpiece but I do think that it’s essential viewing. It has the feel of a morality play but the tone and structure of a slow, character-driven thriller. Is it Haneke’s best? No, but it is one of his most thought-provoking and one that I can’t recommend enough, even though it left me a broken husk for about a week after watching it…