Michael Haneke and Benny’s Video 20 years on. (film review)

“My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”

— From “Film as catharsis”.

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It’s twenty years since Benny’s Video first came to screen and in preparation for watching a new(ish) documentary about the remarkable film maker Michael Haneke I watched it again recently. It is a film that polarizes analytical audiences, and is one of several other famous titles made in the 1990’s around the problems of our modern relationship with film and video and the resultant alienation from those on the other side of the lens and the desensitization a constant exposure to violent images imposes. Other films that dealt with this issue are Slacker, Videodrome, Poltergeist, The Tommyknockers and some television of the decade.The polarization extends, interestingly, from an ongoing debate about the complex nature of Haneke’s symbols. Some analysts feel he was too “obvious” in his symbolism, and others see deeper subtexts and more layers of revelation than exist in almost any other Haneke film.

“Pornography, it seems to me, is no different from war films or propaganda films in that it tries to make the visceral, horrific, or transgressive elements of life consumable. Propaganda is far more pornographic than a home video of two people fucking.”

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Before I get to that divide, however, I’d like to look at this idea if desensitization in context of where we are today. The excellent review by Stephen Kelly on Bibliophic ends with a call for the films that speak of the complicated internal responses of the visual internet age, seeing as there were so many examining our first face-off when we were recognizing the distance between face and screen and all the murkiness that lies in the space between. It is an excellent question and it gave me some food for thought. People took to the streets to end the Vietnam war largely because they had seen it on their televisions.

“Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.”

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And yet by the time we were watching the bombing of Baghdad in real-time (the first time round) we couldn’t really give a shit. The year after that war ended, Haneke made Benny’s Video. Like so many anti-war thinkers of the time it was difficult to understand how the war had happened, unless it was cloaked in a cynical financial explanation.  But when has war not been about money and power? What made that war so shocking, besides the images we saw on our television of green bombs in the black of night wiping out one of the oldest and most precious cities in the world, was the daily yawn from each westernized individual as we turned off our televisions to get to work. Of course Governments had learned a thing or two from the Vietnam experience and didn’t show us images of burning Iraqi soldiers being pulled from jeeps or other such footage that did get shown in Europe.

However, they can’t stop that now.

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Twenty years – and another couple of wars – later we have added social media and the internet to the possible ways of interaction with war zones. Haneke made Amour last year, a love letter to his wife, but just three years earlier he made The White Ribbon, another film about children carrying on a violent legacy. Haneke is still talking about violence and the way we use it against each other and the way we barely even notice it in our lives and we are ignoring it more than we ever were before, because it is in front of us now more than it ever has been before. If there was a glimmer of excitement around Twitter and the Arab Spring, surely that is nothing when compared with the marches against the Vietnam war.  Just as we thought television would deepen our understanding of the humanity of our “enemy” in that naive day, so it is equally naive to think internet interaction brings us closer to the prevention of violence our own country might perpetuate against another.

If anything, it contributes to our disinterestedness.

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Haneke is very concerned with issues of our constant exposure to violence, and when Benny’s Video is seen in the context of his oeuvre, it takes on a deeper symbolism than it did with the first viewing. Not the least because of Benny’s harsh criticism of his parents and their refusal to burden Benny with the consequences of his action. This is a startling condemnation on the role parents play in their relationship with their children in the internet age. Like a modern youth, Benny is given access to everything with little parental support outside of reprimands regarding his choice of viewing material. And yet these parents love their son. What they don’t want is responsibility and courage to stand up for a moral code. Their relationship with their son is about getting him through life, something for contemporary parents to consider, particularly when we know morality has to be fought for.

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