Benny’s Video

BENNY’S VIDEO (1992) is a disturbing psychological drama about a teenager whose fascination with violent videos blooms into actual sadistic violence. And you know how it always seems like parents have no idea what their little brats are up to? Well, when this kid’s parents find out about it they don’t have what most would consider a healthy or ethical response. The movie is very dry and unnerving, well made, and easy to read as a judgmental statement by someone who’s completely full of hot air – all trademarks of writer/director Michael Haneke’s early work. I don’t mean to diminish his filmography as a whole, which mostly does not deal with this theme of violent media’s connection to real violence. But this is his sophomore film, coming three years after his acclaimed debut THE SEVENTH CONTINENT and five years before the similarly themed FUNNY GAMES.

It opens with real video footage of a pig being killed with a bolt gun. After it dies, the video rewinds and replays in slow motion. As with FUNNY GAMES, I got the feeling Haneke was saying, “Isn’t it disgusting that you sick fucks watch this shit that I put into a film and advertised and encouraged you to watch?” But in the case of FUNNY GAMES, I gotta concede that I would indeed watch violent movies like that on my own accord. I would not have purposely sat down to watch a video of a pig dying. So you definitely don’t have the high ground on this one, professor.

The titular Benny (Arno Frisch, FALCO – VERDAMMT, WIR LEBEN NOCH!) is an upper class teenager in Vienna whose parents aren’t around much, and when they are their relationship mostly involves sitting silently at the dinner table. Benny spends most of his time alone in his room watching videos or his camera feed of the street outside his building. The world around him is in turmoil – we hear parts of news broadcasts about Serbian military atrocities and local right wing football hooligans attacking asylum seekers. He’s definitely kind of distant, but I think there’s a little bit of an Antoine Doinel feel to him. He seems like a smart kid with some unique skills, including knowledge of electronics. Being alienated from his parents has allowed him to develop his own life and find his own interests.

Unfortunately one of those interests is death. He obsessively watches that pig video from the opening (which it turns out he filmed himself) as well as various violent action movies that he rents from a small local video store. This is not a thing I ever saw in the U.S., but they have a row of monitors with head phones to sample the videos before bringing them home and watching them more.

He just stares blankly, emotionally unaffected, just wanting to vicariously soak in and savor fantasies of brutality and sadism. Above he’s seen watching some dark, cruddy looking movie, some disgusting filth from the ’80s about a car driving around recklessly in an ugly city. A gross, monstrous looking man savagely attacks two men inside their car, causing it to swerve all over the place and—

Hold on. Wait a minute.

IS BENNY WATCHING THE FUCKING TOXIC AVENGER!? Yes, I’m afraid he is. There’s another video we’ll get to which I believe has to be the titular “Benny’s Video,” and if it wasn’t that one it would obviously be the pig video. Still, it could be said that one of Benny’s Videos is THE TOXIC AVENGER!

What the inclusion of this particular scene in this particular movie meant to Haneke is anyone’s guess. Mine is probly less charitable than some. I suspect that Haneke didn’t understand that THE TOXIC AVENGER was an intentionally over-the-top, silly comedy. It’s also possible that he did understand that and that’s what he thought was so fucked up about it. But I doubt that, since he edited it to seem like it came from a serious movie.

The bigger question is whether he understood what was going on in the scene and used it as irony, or whether he just didn’t know. In the context of BENNY’S VIDEO it seems like a maniac forcing people to crash their car for thrills. But in the actual movie The Toxic Avenger is shaming Bozo and Slug for getting off on murder. “How does it feel to hit a kid on a bike? Feels good, doesn’t it?” he says. So it’s interesting that Haneke chose that scene for this movie about a kid who wants to know what it feels like to kill someone (but will not be toxically avenged for it).

Benny has DARKMAN and ANOTHER 48 HRS. posters on the wall in his bedroom, and a tape of CYBORG. In the video store, advertisements for TANGO & CASH and STEPHEN KING’S GRAVEYARD SHIFT (“No. 1 Hit U.S.A.”) are prominent. It’s possible that Haneke avoided self-consciously fucked up exploitation like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or FACES OF DEATH in favor of these random, innocuous titles because he wanted to indict all Hollywood and Hollywood-ish product, not just the outliers. It’s also possible he did it because he’s totally out of touch and has no idea what the specific movies are that fit the sort of thing he’s trying to attack. I could go either way.

Anyway, my fellow DARKMAN fan Benny invites a girl (Ingrid Stassner – thank you CrustaceanLove for telling me the credit “Mädchen” means “Girl” and is not her name) who he’s seen outside of the video store, over to his place. She seems very unenthusiastic, but a little curious about his whole deal. She doesn’t like the same kind of movies as him, just “ROGER RABBIT. That sort of thing.” She definitely should leave when he does his “joke” about pinning her to the ground to imitate “a cop on the underground,” and again when he makes her the nastiest, drippiest looking faux-pizza ever put on film. I don’t know if this is a regional thing or not but it is the most vivid insight into the desolate wasteland of Benny’s soul.

He says violent movies don’t bother him because “it’s all ketchup and plastic,” but he also makes her watch his video of the real pig really dying. She wonders what it was like to watch it happen. He reveals that he took the bolt gun that’s in the video. He holds it to his chest and dares her to press it, but she doesn’t. Then he holds it to her chest and does press it, and it’s not a trick – she drops to the ground and tries to crawl away. He’s videotaping the whole thing. In a very hard to watch scene, we see him on the monitor running and reloading and he keeps shooting her until the cries stop.

Then he just stuffs her in the closet and goes on with his life. He goes to choir practice (how do we know if that’s an ironic juxtaposition or an attack on the influence of choral music in young men’s lives?), goes to a small heavy metal show, sleeps over in bunk beds with his friend. They talk about tickets to an upcoming AC/DC concert, which I very much wish was Haneke’s idea of a scary heavy metal band, but the guy had John Zorn on the FUNNY GAMES soundtrack so surely he knows better. My own cultural ignorance made this part more amusing because when they smoke cigarettes in bed I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be an example of shocking teenage behavior (like the kids dropping acid and playing Mortal Kombat in BULLY) or if smoking in bed was normal in that place and time. I have no idea.

He keeps making videos, including a gross one that he/Haneke rewinds and makes us rewatch of him naked talking on the phone, with a close up of his bellybutton panning down to his pubes. He also goes to a barber and has his head shaved (a real hair cut that we see a surprising percentage of in real time), which really angers his father (Ulrich Mühe, THE LIVES OF OTHERS). I believe it’s a skinhead thing, making dad worry his son is turning into one of those immigrant hating football assholes, but he frames it in more of a “what will people think?” type way than an “I’m worried about you.”

As far as cries for help, though, Benny can do better than a hooligan hair cut. He interrupts their news broadcast by playing them the video of that murder he did.

This is actually where the movie gets a little more interesting. The whole thing is pretty effective, but “Can you believe what the teens are up to?” paranoia is old hat and easy to laugh off. I found it a much more shocking twist when Benny’s father gave Benny’s crying mother (Angela Winkler, THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM, THE TIN DRUM, SUSPIRIA 2018) a nonchalant monologue about how they might be charged with neglect if they turned in Benny and it would ruin their lives so maybe instead they should help him cover it up.

So the last act of the movie is about mother and son taking a vacation to Egypt together while dad, off screen, chops the body into small enough pieces to flush down the toilet! Benny takes a bunch of video at the beach and tourist destinations and also records Mom on the toilet. But other than that last one they start seeming more like a loving mother and son… until mom occasionally remembers what’s going on, breaks down crying, and Benny doesn’t understand what the big deal is. Still, it makes you wonder how different things might have turned out if they’d spent quality time together like this from the beginning.

ANSWER: Not much different! THE TOXIC AVENGER still would’ve ruined him!

Okay, the truth is I’m not sure Haneke blames THE TOXIC AVENGER, TANGO & CASH and DARKMAN for society’s problems. The war criminals and racist thugs on the news in the background haven’t necessarily seen Toxie. Benny’s father has the living room absolutely crammed full of framed art prints and stuff, and he didn’t turn out so hot either. The heart of the matter seems to be that Benny wanted to kill to see what it felt like, and then wasn’t sure what it felt like. When he confesses to the police and they ask why he decided to come to them now, he says “Because.” When it comes down to it, BENNY’S VIDEO may be more of a nihilistic shrug than a moral scolding. Which is not a huge improvement, but maybe an improvement? This isn’t a bad movie. It’s as creepy and upsetting as it intends to be. I liked THE TOXIC AVENGER better though.

A puppet Sylvester Stallone (from the violent action movie TANGO & CASH) guest stars on D.C. Follies.

p.s. I wrote in my notes “D.C. Follies!?” I can’t remember in which scene this short-lived show starring Fred Willard and foam puppet caricatures of various politicians and celebrities was playing on a TV, but it made me laugh to see it.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 24th, 2022 at 1:38 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Benny’s Video”

  1. This film is a good tie-in with some of our discussions on the TCM2022 thread.

    The man I can only inaccurately describe as “the UK’s Richard Roeper”, Jonathan Ross, said he gave up on FUNNY GAMES when dialogue made it clear to him that Haneke thought Beavis and Butthead were supposed to be aspirational figures for the youth, so Haneke has form with misunderstanding slightly subversive low brow entertainment with rather humourless interpretations you might expect in a tabloid or perhaps the National Review.

    But I’m the Richard Roeper of nowhere, and I liked both films, coincidently the two Haneke films I’ve seen, although I didn’t buy into his thesis, and I absolutely do think he thinks THE TOXIC AVENGER was corrupting our kids, even if it’s just a subset of his general nihilism. I say didn’t buy rather than don’t buy because, well, sometimes in the years since I have wondered on occasion if he may have a point, but maybe don’t quote me on that.

    Haneke seems to have fallen out of fashion a bit, does he not? Remember how several critics said in 2009 that HIDDEN\CACHE was the best film of that decade, and how about ten years ago he was regularly cited as the greatest living director? You don’t hear that much about him these days, and I don’t think that’s just because he makes fewer films.

  2. Pacman, as an American I know Jonathan Ross from his cheeky late-80s documentary series THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW, which played on cable TV in the US when I was young and which was my introduction to John Waters, Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark among others. Based on that credential, I’m more inclined to think of him as the UK’s Vern.

  3. Film criticism is a fairly small part of his career, or at least not really what he is known for, although he did host our most prominent film review show for about a decade. He rose to fame for a show “inspired by” David Letterman’s and did similar shows on TV and radio for years, probably even now. I think he was the highest paid person on British TV at one point. I don’t think many people here would consider him “our Vern”, but thinking about it I can see what you mean. He also said BATMAN FOREVER was “one of the greatest films ever made” as a dare to see how far it would go, which turned out to be the back of the UK VHS, which I guess is his equivalent of that fake TRANSFORMERS review on AICN.

  4. If Haneke’s fallen off the radar a bit, I’d say it’s mainly because he’s only made one film in the past decade, the not-terribly-impressive HAPPY END. (I’m not counting his opera work.) But AMOUR, the film before that, got lots of attention, a Palme d’Or, and — bafflingly; it’s very bleak — several Oscar nominations, including a win for Best Foreign Film. I still him talked about often.

    I’ve seen 12 of his movies, and I’m confident in saying that yeah, he absolutely despises Hollywood stuff like ANOTHER 48 HRS., probably even more so than grisly exploitation films. And he despises middle-class life in general. I’m not sure I buy into the cranky moralism of BENNY’S VIDEO, but it’s still unsettling — he’s got the instincts and technique to make great, sleek thrillers, if he didn’t hold thrillers in contempt.

    My favourite of his movies, by far, is his first, THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. It’s divided into three parts, each showing a day in the life of an Austrian family. In part one, they eat breakfast, they buy groceries, they go to the car wash. All this is shown in long, tight detail shots. There’s more emphasis on hands than on faces. This might sound tedious, but it soon gets weirdly hypnotic. Part two is largely the same: another day, a year later. They eat breakfast, they buy groceries, they go to the car wash.

    Part three is … different.

    I haven’t had much luck convincing people to see THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. “Why would you watch that?” they ask. But it had a more immediate effect on me than any horror movie. I can still remember walking down to a pizza place after leaving the theatre, picking up a slice of pepperoni, and realising that my hands were shaking.

  5. I’m no big expert on any of them, but from what I’ve seen – and this is just how my mind works – I would put Haneke in the same box I put Bergman and Von Trier in and buried in the garden. They all work from a premise that only really exists in their own mind.

  6. It seems to me Haneke is sincere in what he believes, whereas I think Von Trier is sometimes just being provocative.

  7. I vaguely remember watching this in class in the mid-90s when we were like 14ish. The teacher used it for a wider violence in media thing.

    Me and my buddy who were already watching action and horror at the time came away from it mostly just wishing the guy who ran our local video store would rent us the good stuff.

  8. I don’t react well to attempts at provocation, particularly from old Euro farts. I tend to feel like the director is confronting an imaginary “square” who only exists in their mind. Like, when I heard Naked City (a group I’d been listening to since 1989) in FUNNY GAMES (released in 1998 in the US), I instantly thought, “I wonder whose buttons he thinks he’s pushing?” That said, I did like a couple of Haneke’s later movies, THE PIANO TEACHER and TIME OF THE WOLF.

    Does anybody know why the married couples in his movies are always named George and Anne (or variations thereof)?

  9. I think it’s because Haneke dislikes the idea of putting a hidden meaning/metaphor into character’s names, as it doesn’t fit his concept of cinema as the “realist medium”. Anne and George were chosen, because they’re short and simple names that people wouldn’t give any thought to.

  10. Surprising to me that he considers his work to be realist.

  11. I always find this kind of stuff to be a little trolling, like a comic book writer who hates superheroes, so all they write is ‘satires’ where superheroes are gay and have deviant sex with each other (which obviously proves the genre is crap and no one should read it). But like–dude–there’s nothing stopping you from writing what *you* want to write.

    You think slasher movies are bad? You don’t have to write a movie about how dumb slashers are you–you can just write a Western or a romantic comedy or whatever you’re into. If you’re a creator and the only creative statement you can make is about how someone else’s work sucks… isn’t that a pretty poor reflection on you? At least they’re trying to entertain the audience; you’re just lambasting the audience for being entertained. Or, rather, stroking the audience that isn’t entertained by those movies for being enlightened.

  12. I’ve only seen FUNNY GAMES (not an accident) but I very much got the same impression as Vern: This is a guy who deeply wants to criticize things he is laughably obtuse about. Like, in FUNNY GAMES, he scolds us for wanting to see the bad guys get killed. What a sadist you are, he tells us. Except the reason we want these assholes to get killed is so the nice lady can survive. This is a response built on empathy, not sadism. Can this smug, humorless fuck really not tell the difference? I feel like he’s the living embodiment of that “Yet you participate in society. Curious” meme.

  13. Is “Mädchen” ever named in the film, or is it just who the actor is credited as? Because Mädchen just means “girl” in German, and it would make sense thematically if she was an unnamed character.

  14. Yeah, I don’t think they give her a name, I just got that from IMDb or something and was too ignorant to know that.

  15. Vern, did you review this strictly (or primarily) as a tangent to a Toxic Avenger series? Because if you did: bravo! Belissimo!

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