In 1980 a wave of moral panic swept over Sweden. This might sound a little surprising considering the reputation we had for having a liberal view about what to show on the screen. We didn’t just export steel, cars and tennis champions. The Swedish Sin was a success product.
However, the open minded approach only concerned nudity and sex. As for the other side of the coin, violence, there were far more concerns and restrictions.
The concept “video violence” was debated in 1980, especially after there was a very critical TV show that brought up the topic in the public television. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was appointed as a symbol of the entire phenomenon (which unsurprisingly was about the best marketing that movie ever could have asked for; its popularity increased dramatically.) Or to put it more correctly: there wasn’t much of a debate since it was a very one-sided discussion with one dominating viewpoint: that video violence was of evil and should be banned.
How would a young and innocent audience be affected by watching this kind of movies? Would they dream nightmares? Or could it even lead to worse things happening, people taking inspiration from what they’ve seen in the movies, trying to copy it?
Leading the youngsters astray
This wasn’t the first time someone had raged over the dangerous media consuming habits of the youth of today: long before the film medium was invented there were people who thought that certain forms of literature would lead youngsters astray.
In recent years, the film medium has got competition from role playing and computer games as targets of accusations from concerned citizens.
One of the ideas that is brought up from time to time is that if people engage enough in activities of imagination, they will get sucked into this world and get trouble to keep track of what’s real or not. It’s a bit like what old people used to say about making faces to keep the kids from doing it: “if you don’t beware you might get stuck that way”.
I’ve never believed in the idea of this simple connection. Human beings are complex and there are a multitude of reasons why people behave like they do. Some kids grow up with wonderful parents and end up doing terrible things. Others go through pretty horrendous experiences without and become good people anyway.
Watching Benny’s Video from 1992, it seems to me as if the Austrian director Michael Haneke took impression from the warnings against the dangers of excessive video watching in the 80s.
The story is about Benny, a teenager from a well-off family, who seems to isolate himself a lot, spending a lot of his time watching videos in his room. Some of them are feature movies, others are home videos. One weekend when he’s parents are away he brings home a girl he has met in the video rental store. They talk for a while and then he puts on one of his home videos, which shows how a pig is slaughtered at a farm that his family has visited. It turns out that he has stolen the slaughter pistol and he challenges the girl to use it. She refuses, but Benny, affected by all his video watching, disconnected from reality, shoots the girl multiple times until she dies, while a video camera records everything that happens.
After washing off the blood, Benny proceeds with his life as if nothing had happened, not showing any sign of emotions or remorse. Eventually his parents come home and they get to see the video recording of the killing. But rather than reacting with horror to what their son has done, turning him in to the police, they decide to cover it up.
Keeping the facade
So what did I think of it? Well. Reviews that are either very enthusiastic or extremely negative are generally more interesting to read, so I wish I could take a stronger stance than I do. “I loved it” or “I hated it” sounds so much better than the lame “It wasn’t bad”. But I need to be honest here. And my verdict is exactly that: it wasn’t bad, even though it felt a little bit stretched out. At times it felt like a short film with fillers.
From what I had read on beforehand, I had expected to see more violence and blood. Haneke demonstrates how much you can accomplish with small means, telling without showing.
Listening to the voice of the dying girl is even more heartbreaking than it would have been to watch her in picture.
The idea that a boy who has watched a lot of video films will turn into a monster feels like a tired reminiscence of the old video violence debate. It’s too simple, too black and white to convince or engage me. On the other hand I found the parents and their actions pretty interesting. The conversation between them, overheard and documented by Benny, is as memorable as it’s bizarre.
Admittedly the situation in Benny’s Video is extreme, but in a smaller scale, I believe it’s not unusual for parents to cover up bad things their kids have done, rather than turning them in. The facade must be kept. At what price? That’s one of the more important questions that Benny’s Video raises.
This was the first movie by Haneke I ever watched, and while it didn’t become one of my favourites, it managed to tickle my curiosity to check out more of his films. Hopefully the next one will be about topic fresher than warning for the dangers of too much video watching.
Benny’s Video (Michael Haneke, AT, 1992) My rating: 3,5/5