Violence in media leading to violence in life has been disproven again and again. But what does a life filled with watching violent acts, whether on the news or in a game, do to a person? Surely it can’t leave a person unaffected – but if it doesn’t usually lead to violence, what does it lead to? Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video attempts to explore this idea, and it comes up with an answer. The film follows Benny (a character obsessed with overstimulating, violent videos) and his subsequent murder of a young girl.
A brief scene near the beginning of the film perfectly encapsulates Benny’s mindset. The television in front of his shut windows is hooked up to a camera which presents the same view that the windows would if they were open. But his preference is to see this view from the digital realm. It is not criticizing him for being obsessed with electronics, but depicting his inability to differentiate the real from the digital. This inability to distinguish fact from fiction seems to be Haneke’s first trek into postmodernism as he begins to break down the barrier between life and the various sensory experiences that bombard us constantly.
This fault of Benny’s may have turned out harmless if it were not for his family. When he is first introduced and his mother is talking to him in his room, the TV is turned to the news where it is being reported that refugees are experiencing violent attacks and that a city is being destroyed. His father asks, “What’s going on?” referencing the news on TV, and his mother responds, “Nothing”. The parents themselves have instilled a normalization towards violence and death in Benny, and his inability to distinguish between real and digital leads to the apathy of these in the real world as well.
When he murders the young girl, Madchen, it seems that the initial shot from the bolt pistol is almost accidental – or at least only to test the waters of curiosity. After she falls, he is more concerned with making sure she’s silent than with her pain, fear, or subsequent death. His parent’s reaction is almost similarly disturbing as, other than his mother’s occasional fright, they are unphased by death and the body, and instead, want to help Benny escape any authorities. This parental apathy is a perfect addition to the film. Without it, many viewers would place the blame on the youth, saying that Haneke is criticizing the new generation for their obsession with violent games and movies. Instead, he is showing all of society’s obsession and desensitization with violence (ranging from news stations only reporting violent/depressing stories to highly stimulating chaotic films) and how it affects every person.
Haneke’s answer to the initial question – if violent media does not lead to real violence, what does it lead to? – is simply an apathy towards death. Benny does not feel satisfaction or lust for the violence, he simply does not care. The parents are not worried about the loss of life, but only about their son’s safety from incarceration. And again, at the beginning of the movie, with the news reporting atrocity after atrocity, human life appears meaningless in the eyes of everyone watching. It has become the norm, and with each new body added to the death toll that these characters have seen, any future deaths become less and less important.
Haneke’s film Benny’s Video is a disturbing but accurate film about society’s increasing desensitization towards violence and death. It criticizes sensationalized news, pointlessly over-stimulating movies, and parental apathy, and shows how this constant exposure may eventually lead to the disregard for human life. The film mostly succeeds in this theme but does feel a touch on the nose at times. The last act of the film does also seem to go on too long and, to me at least, did not add to any of the movies previously important themes. Nonetheless, the first two-thirds of the film was a brilliant exploration of the themes which Haneke wanted to explore, and the entire movie is worth watching for this alone.
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