Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video (1992) provides a rich array of moral and ethical questions to its viewer via both narrative and aesthetic, yet its key ethical significance is not established in answering these questions with any great conclusion, but rather, in successfully forcing its audience to actively contemplate and debate such questions; to ask, but not to find. The film therefore attracts and repels its own viewers in asking questions, yet not wishing to be ethically engaged in their answers. Because of this, Benny’s Video is an ethically challenging film for a number of reasons, including the ways in which, via ethical questions and filmmaking techniques, Haneke calls into question the notion of cinema as a pleasurable experience. Haneke is interested in disrupting the viewing experience, calling into question the presence of the spectator, while in turn, forcing them to question their own presence; ‘why am I still watching this?’ Throughout this essay, I will provide an account of how focusing on ethics can elucidate the content of Benny’s Video. I will first focus on how the narrative and aesthetic of the film are not only used to raise ethical questions, but to challenge the spectator’s relationship to the film. I will then go on to provide an account of the ways in which conflicting ethical gazes are used in the film to view death, ending with an analysis of how the film challenges the idea of passive spectatorship in questioning the ethics of spectatorial responsibility.
Catherine Wheatley proclaims, “(Haneke’s) films encourage the spectator to consider their own participation in the act of film-going, to reflect upon why they enter the cinema and what it is they want from the viewing experience. They encourage them to look at their motivations and the ethics of these motivations.” (Wheatley, 2009, p.42-43) The very first scene of Benny’s Video falls in line with Wheatley’s central claim, in which we witness the violent slaughtering of a pig via a captive bolt. This scene is seemingly part of the opening of Benny’s Video; we follow the pig being escorted outside via a shaky documentary styled long take. The camera documents the scene objectively, tracking with the pig as it cries out and struggles against its captors. However, the scene shifts in tone dramatically after the distressing murder of the pig, when the footage suddenly begins to reverse, resurrecting the pig via film, while at the same time, setting up the clip to be viewed once more, only this time, from a slowed down prospective, one that prolongs the moment in which life is taken, making it more painful, and more ethically questionable to view. In this, Haneke makes the spectator aware of their spectatorship in hinting that this view is actually subjective, a ‘film-within-a- film’ that has been created with a specific purpose. Being aware of the creator of this clip makes us aware of our position as spectators because ethical questions are instantly raised, including who created this clip, why, and for what purpose? The spectator’s participation in the events of the clip is quickly called into question. Not only this, but in allowing the spectator to view an alternative version of death to the one just viewed, Haneke is establishing dread and expectation in asking the viewer why they are continuing to watch a slow motion version of something that was painful to watch the first time. This opening scene challenges the relationship between film and spectator, calling into question the notion that films should be a form of entertainment; for it is by making the viewer feel physically uncomfortable that allows this scene to assert its central claim so successfully. On this, Wheatley suggests that, “Discomfited, the spectator becomes aware of themselves as someone sitting in the cinema … the object of critical awareness is moral, involving both our emotional involvement with the film, and the ethical implications of that involvement.” (Wheatley, 2009, p.45) Here, the film is using the manipulation of film form, not in order to ask the spectator direct ethical questions, but to force the spectator to ask these questions of themselves through personal discomfort.
The second death of the film arrives when Benny kills Evi, a local girl of whom he has recently become friends. Although the killing is prolonged and violent, there is no direct reason for this murder to have taken place given in the film, and is quickly forgotten about in the next few scenes by an unaffected Benny, of whom, never fully acknowledges the true significance of his actions. Interestingly, in comparing the films of Haneke to those of classical Hollywood, Wheatley states, “When watching a classic realist film, the moral conclusion the audience arrives at (is) generally the one promoted through the ideological apparatus by the use of emotional persuasion.” (Wheatley, 2009, p.44) In Benny’s Video, there is no rational reference point of Benny’s emotional trajectory; the murder of Evi is unexplained, brash, and haphazard; the spectator is left in the dark as to why and how the murder took place so suddenly. This is because the film is more concerned with the relationship between itself and its audience than that of its own content, resulting in an effect widely differing from that of the ‘American moralist cinema’. Benny’s Video makes clear that the act of ‘thinking’ about why Benny killed Evi is more important than the act of ‘knowing’ it; in asking these questions, the spectator is inherently practicing ethical thinking. To emphasize this point further, the film hints subtly towards a number of different factors as to why the murder took place, yet presents these as cognitive tools for ethical thinking, rather than clues for narrative investigation. For example, Haneke creates aesthetic reflexivity in the scene by presenting it upon a TV screen as footage captured by Benny’s camera; we never see the scene directly, but are experiencing the murder from a ‘screen-within-a-screen’ viewpoint, thus are naturally encouraged to make an ethical comparison to the violent films and media influences Benny had experienced earlier in the film. Wheatley explains, “By placing reflexive techniques within new frameworks, Haneke is able to co-opt the spectator into a uniquely moral relationship to the film (…) to encourage a more open-ended reflection on the spectator’s part about moral questions.” (Wheatley, 2009, p.5) The film never directly suggests that violent film imagery is to blame for Benny’s lack of emotional empathy, but by filling the film with indirect aesthetic references to violent pop culture films and easily accessible media images of war, Haneke establishes a profound ethical relationship with the spectator in allowing them to personally evaluate what responsibility they hold to such images, and whether viewing them (as Benny excessively does) is a bad ethical decision or not.
Benny’s Video is a film strongly concerned with filmic representations of death, and, in particular, the responsibility of the spectator in viewing them, as well as that of the filmmaker in capturing the event itself. Vivian Sobchack’s work on ‘the ethical gaze’ is primarily concerned with documentary film; however, important to note is that both deaths in Benny’s Video are only ever presented as documentary clips within its filmic space, so are treated as such by the film’s narrative and characters. The ethical difference in viewing these clips is established in the fact that one depicts the death of an animal, and the other, a human. The clip of Evi’s death is morally and ethically more challenging to the events of the film, even though the clip depicting the pig’s death is more brutal and violent. Screams and cries precede each death before the final climatic moments of deafening silence, and each is committed with the same murder weapon, a captive bolt pistol. However, despite the many similarities of these clips, they are each presented under largely conflicting ethical gazes, meaning their ethical relationship to the spectator goes beyond that of their content. Sobchack suggests five types of ethical gaze, all of which she summarizes as “human behavior visibly encoded in the representation to signify the particular embodied situation of the filmmaker”. (Sobchack, 2004, p.249) Therefore, in assuming conflicting ethical positions taken by the film against these two clips of death, we must first look at the relationship between their content, subjects, and onlooker.
When documenting the death of the pig, Benny’s gaze is like that of Sobchack’s ‘interventional gaze’, which she describes as “often marked by the urgent physical activity of the camera … the visible image is inscribed with the loss of the human intentional behavior that informs it, the very image of vision becoming random, diffuse, and unconscious in relation to the world and its objects.” (Sobchack, 2004, p.252) During the clip, the filmmaker’s reflexive presence is strongly marked by his active involvement. Benny physically tracks with the pig towards its place of extermination, eventually framing the shot towards a more composed and tighter close-up as the expected moment of death draws closer. However, the clip also extends ethical debates one step further in blending the fiction of its content with the non-fiction of our experience viewing it since we know this pig cannot act, and therefore must have lost its life during filming. On this, Michael Lawrence states, “The death of the pig in Haneke’s film forces upon us the conflation of representation and the real. The dual status of the pig that its death forces upon us is mirrored in the film by the pig’s dual status as a pig killed in the past and an image of that same pig being watched in the present.” (Lawrence, 2010, p.72) The status of the pig as ‘fictional’ in the film is conflicted with the spectator’s knowledge of the pig as ‘real’, thereby calling into question our ethical responsibility in choosing to continue viewing the images of its death.
To contrast this, the death of Evi is captured within the film under what Sobchack may call the ‘humane gaze’, which she describes as “marked by its extended duration, the humane gaze resembles a ‘stare’ … it visibly and significantly encodes in the image its own subjective responsiveness to what it sees … it may fix itself in shock and disbelief … hypnotized by the horror it observes.” (Sobchack, 2004, p.252) The scene is captured within a static viewpoint from an unattended camera. The action of the scene plays out regardless of the camera’s positioned gaze, with the murder of Evi occurring largely off-screen. In this, Haneke is allowing Evi a certain degree of humane dignity in not directly showing her murder, while still communicating through sound and tone the suffering, pain and violation experienced by her body. The spectator is placed within a helpless position; glued static, fixed with fear in a single position as the shocking events play out. Whereas the death of the pig is marked in the film by the spectator’s responsibility in ‘viewing’ the content of the clip, the death of Evi is marked by the spectator’s responsibility of being ‘involved’ in the murder itself. The spectator holds full responsibility of the currently unattended camera, yet is unable to switch off the film, thus placing them under the same level of involvement as Benny in recording the film’s first death. This ethical position is blurred when considering the many similarities between these two deaths. On which, Lawrence concludes, “Benny’s Video wishes us to consider the relationship between the two deaths … to contemplate the possible connections between Benny’s fascination with his video and his killing of the girl … the inclusion of documentary footage showing real animal death ruptures the coherence of the fictional narrative representation.” (Lawrence, 2010, p.72) Although an actress working to ‘simulate’ death plays Evi, her character undergoes a death narratively and aesthetically connected to the ‘real’ death of the pig, including being killed by the same weapon, as well as being filmed by and viewed through the same grainy camera footage; hence the ‘real’ death of the pig is used to call into question the ethics of recording and viewing the ‘simulated’ death of Evi.
The filmic effect described by Lawrence is important for considering the ethical position of the spectator since the film uses both the differences and similarities of these deaths to challenge the idea of passive spectatorship in allowing its audience to cognitively compare them, thereby forcing viewers to question the ethics of their own ‘spectatorial responsibility’. Michele Aaron describes filmic spectatorship as inherently “hooked on the ‘real’ or imagined suffering of others.’” (Aaron, 2007, p.112) In this, Aaron suggests that pleasure is received by the spectator in viewing violent acts such as the ones depicted in Benny’s Video. This is, she suggests, because spectatorship involves a “negotiation of personal pleasures and others’ interests.” (Aaron, 2007, p.88) In viewing the scene of Evi’s death, the spectator is entering into an unwritten contract with the film, character, and actress, one in which we agree to witness and experience her suffering, and she agrees to simulate it to us, thereby making film spectatorship an act rooted within masochism. Aaron summarizes this point, stating, “A contractual alliance operates between spectator and text as it does between masochist and ‘pseudo-sadist’, a relationship founded upon an agreed acting out, or fulfillment, of the masochist’s needs”. (Aaron, 2007, p.90) In viewing Benny’s Video and consciously choosing to continue watching past its scenes of violence, we sign a filmic consent to take pleasure within the suffering of others’ and ourselves, thereby making the spectator ethically accountable for the film’s depictions of real and simulated death.
In classical Hollywood cinema, a death such as Evi’s would be ethically safeguarded either aesthetically by reassuring the spectator that her death is indeed fictional, or narratively by punishing Benny for his unethical actions. Aaron suggests that the masochistic relationship between spectator and text “depends upon its suppression for its smooth running” (p.91), yet Benny’s Video works against this, challenging the notions of passive and collective spectatorship by removing these ethical safeguards. For example, the film ends not only with Benny avoiding punishment for his crime, but successfully placing the blame on his parents, thereby escaping any moral judgment or conviction. Since the spectator is in part ethically accountable for Benny’s crime, they too escape punishment, leaving an emotional response of dishonesty and guilt towards the film’s ending. This effect is emphasized by the film’s last shot, which shows police CCTV footage of Benny walking away from his parents in a similarly styled grainy camera footage to the one Benny used to film the deaths of Evi and the pig. In ending with this perspective, the film is drawing an ethical distance from Benny’s parents in asking the spectator whether they are guilty or not in choosing to help Benny cover up his crime. However, the scene is also drawing a comparison to the clips of death in the film via aesthetic since Benny’s parents experience their emotional suffering within the same ‘film-within-a-film’ style, only this time, not captured or filmed by Benny himself, but instead, drawing distance from him. The spectator’s emotional response of guilt is present because Benny’s Video successfully removes the ethical responsibility of a collective spectatorship; the film offers no collective moral answers within its narrative, thereby forcing individual spectators to formulate their own ethical response to its content.
Throughout this essay, I have used appropriate examples to highlight the ways in which Benny’s Video allows its spectator to remain ethically engaged throughout, not only in regard to the content of the film, but also in terms of wider ethical issues and debates. The film first establishes ethical thinking by narratively and aesthetically constructing a self-reflexive perspective within the mind of the spectator, going on to use this self-reflexivity in order to challenge ethical ideas such as the human gaze in relation to death, before fulfilling its ethical engagement by questioning the spectator’s responsibility to taking part in such moral exercises. It is clear that a close focus on ethics can elucidate Benny’s Video in a number of ways. However, this focus can also explain the film’s moral filmic code, allowing us to further expand on the ethical debates outlined and proposed within the film, thereby extending our understanding of both ethics and filmic form, as well as the inseparable relationship between the two.
Aaron, M. (2007) Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On, London: Wallflower Press.
Lawrence, M. (2010) ‘Haneke’s Stable: The Death of an Animal and the Figuration of the Human’, in On Michael Haneke, ed. Brian Prince, David Rhodes, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Sobchack, V. (2004) Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Wheatley, C. (2009) Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, New York: Berghahn Books.