A lumbering, full-grown pig, muzzled through a leash that has been tied around its snout, is led outside the barnyard doors of an unidentified farm and into a clearing where a group of apparent bystanders cavalierly await its slaughter. The skittish, herky-jerky video image taken from the handheld camera moves in relatively tight side view close-up to frame the head of the animal as the farmer places the barrel of a revolver onto its forehead between the eyes and, amidst its persistent (and disturbingly unnerving) suffocated grunts and squeals, pulls the trigger – the pig’s body immediately collapsing to the ground, its limbs still involuntary twitching from the residual neurological response impulse to the bullet’s fatal impact. The video image is then curiously paused and rewound in slow motion, the soundtrack audibly slowed to a cadent, monotonic bass to the point where the origin of the sound becomes strangely alien, disembodied, and haunted. The viewer of the amateur footage is revealed to be its unseen videographer, an adolescent named Benny (Arno Frisch), who shutters himself for hours in his dark, cluttered room perpetually immersed in the self-induced, often compounded stimuli of loud music, rented videos, and broadcast television, his view of the outside world paradoxically reduced to a live video feed onto a monitor from a camera that has been positioned to point out of his shade-drawn window and onto the street. His distracted, emotionally distant father (Ulrich Mühe) and equally disaffected, obliging mother (Angela Winkler) seem tolerant of Benny’s hermeticism, even exploiting his estranged, sentinel-like omnipresence in the household and penchant for video surveillance to spy on their older daughter Evi’s suspect activities after moving out of the family home, as she uses the well-appointed apartment to host a party designed to generate revenue through a pyramid scheme in her parents’ absence. It is a convenient domestic arrangement of tacit mutualism (and mutual disregard) that soon reveals the moral crisis innate in their dysfunctional relationship when Benny befriends a seemingly bored and aimless young girl (Ingrid Stassner) who transfixedly watches the random features displayed from the shop window of a local video store each afternoon after school, and brings her home to share in his obsessive, alienated reviewing of the slaughter footage.
The second installment on the correlative effects of urban alienation and media violence in contemporary society in what would become known as Michael Haneke’s trilogy of “emotional glaciation” (along with The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance), Benny’s Video is a provocative, confrontational, and indelibly haunting exposition on isolation, rootlessness, displaced turmoil, and human desolation. Using the opening sequence of the animal slaughter home video as Benny replays, hyperextends the moment of death through frame by frame pauses, or otherwise manipulates the resulting images captured on tape into increasingly indistinguishable resolution and textured, decontextualized audiovisual patterns of signal noise, Haneke illustrates the underlying process of cognitive abstraction – and consequently, systematic dissonance – that serve to not only dissociate the innate violence of the act with its logical consequence, but also blur the distinction between the experiential levels of fictional and real violence through the synthesis (and contextual anesthetization) of public information and entertainment in the creation of a commercially viable, commodified consumer media product. Moreover, through the narrative incorporation of Evi’s pyramid scheme, Haneke also provides an intrinsic structural correlation to the collapse – and perversion – of the nuclear family in the absence of communication, trust, moral guidance, and emotional engagement as the ever-widening confidence game reveals an overarching socio-behavioral pattern of self-interest, a mindset that compels the individual to become progressively distanced from the initial source of the “investment” in order to realize profit, and the requirement of the participant’s covert complicity (and cover-up) in the perpetuation of the scheme. It is this underlying disarticulation of moral responsibility and dissociation of cause and effect in the wake of media saturated infotainment and socially fostered, empty shell games of deflected accountability that is inevitably reflected in the film’s eerie prescience on its examination of the consequence of desensitizing technology and the pervasiveness of media violence – a senseless and tragic portrait of empty privilege, alienated communication, and despiritualized bankruptcy.
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