Michael Haneke’s latest work, 2017’s Happy End, begins with a shot harkening back to his film made a quarter-century earlier, 1992’s Benny’s Video. Both begin with a video, clearly identified as such — the signature vertical video interface of Snapchat and the cascading lines of digital video, respectively — that depict an animal’s death. Beyond the obvious associations with inflicting harm on small creatures as an early sign of psychopathy, the shots serve as an early declaration on the power of the moving image.
Haneke understands that people need images and videos to mediate reality, to provide a buffer zone between us and the messiness of death. Furthermore, it is not enough to be a passive consumer of this gaze. It is important for the audience, and Haneke’s characters, to be the subject and wielders of this gaze. By endowing viewers with the agency to decide what is worthy of being inside the frame and what is not, they have the illusion of being in the driver’s seat of life — an elusive sensation in the face of death’s terrifying presence. With the advent of the moving image, “violence became domesticated in its image and the pleasant chill of horror administered in homeopathic dosages was quite welcome,” Haneke wrote in “Violence and the Media,” a valuable treatise on the ethical implications of filmmaking. “The controlled invocation of evil permitted the hope for its controllability in reality.”
Much of Haneke’s formidable oeuvre centers around these questions of human interplay between violent content and its delivery methods — not just how people fall victim to it but also how they perpetuate it. Happy End is his first production to tackle the moving image in the age of social media, featuring vignettes of a bourgeois family in coastal France grappling with a frightening technological evolution in image-making. The video camera put means of capturing frightening occurrences into consumers’ hands many years ago, yet only recently have they had the means to disseminate them to a wide audience at the click of a button. But rather than lunging headfirst into Haneke’s latest rumination on how digital communication inhibits personal relationships and stifles compassion for the refugee crisis, it’s instructive to return to Benny’s Video to understand his philosophy on a more elemental level.
Before videos were a means for young people to connect, they were a mechanism to understand. Teenage Benny, animated to horrifying effect by Arno Frisch, makes sense of the world through both the images he creates and the ones parading across the television in his room. In Haneke’s world, the television screen is a terministic screen, a set of symbols and cues that help guide a person’s perception of the world. The image rushes in to fill a void of responsibility normally filled by a society’s elders. Notably, Benny’s parents Georg and Anna sleepwalk through parenting, leaving him to his own devices with little emotional context for the sensationalistic images shaping his mind. As Haneke later illustrates, this passive enabling of his digital fixation paves the way for serving as active accomplices in his real-life streak of cruelty.
Even before the World Wide Web revolutionized humanity’s position with regards to information, Haneke contemplated the creation of a parallel digital world. This realm is a space that looks like the real world but abides by a different set of rules. No wonder it’s tempting to immerse oneself in it. Haneke understands both its threat and its appeal. The latter is a crucial differentiator of the director’s work from the various “how we live now” movies that attempt to capitalize on paranoia over the latest innovation that excites the young and baffles the old. Toward the end of Benny’s Video, the subject turns the camera on himself for a direct address — Haneke even felt the psychological urge for a front-facing camera before the technology caught up.
Haneke has an almost sociological interest in digital media and what separates it from film — the ability to manipulate it. With the famous rewind scene in 1997’s Funny Games, he evinces capabilities previously impossible in the analog realm. Time is no longer a ball rolling down a hill, gaining unstoppable momentum. It can be halted and spun in reverse, more readily susceptible to fit the comfortable narratives we want it to reflect.
Like young Eve’s use of Snapchat and cell phone video in Happy End, Benny’s reliance on his video camera to interpret the world is associated with his juvenility. By coming to terms with death through a simulacrum, the characters show their immaturity and emotional stiltedness. But that’s not to mean Benny should be dismissed or underestimated (as the film’s pivotal scene demonstrates).
After luring a girl to his house from outside a local video store, Benny shockingly deploys a cattle gun against her — the same one used to slaughter the pig from the film’s opening scene. The aftermath of the struggle and Benny’s intent to finish the deed plays out in the camera’s view in a television screen, relegating the spectator’s view to a still shot that often obscures the full picture. With death out of the frame, it’s arguably worse. The moment distills Haneke’s thinking about the capacity of the moving image. “The still image generally shows an action’s result,” Haneke wrote, “whereas the film shows the action itself. The picture usually appeals to a viewer’s solidarity with the victim, while film often puts the viewer in the position of the perpetrator.” Most people trust that discerning viewers can sense something disturbing about assuming such a point of view — but what if they don’t? Enter Benny.
The problem is not just that people can create violent imagery or document violent acts — these have little effect outside the documenter of the image (and its victim) without an audience. The murder in Benny’s Video implicates us, the audience, for watching. Haneke chides the spectators, removed from the action by a screen, for their inability — or is it their unwillingness? — to stop the violence. They are helpless to assist Benny’s victim. Sure, that’s a violent act taking place in a movie, but what about the conflict in Bosnia taking place concurrently with the events of the film and mentioned sporadically in voice-over? Or the violent accident in Sweden mentioned before the closing credits? If they can’t summon the resolve to fight back against the violence outside the frame of the film, it’s likely no one will lift a finger to help those suffering from violence outside the frame of reference of observable reality, Haneke suggests.
It can be as close as a murder in plain sight or as far as an unfolding crisis many countries away. Viewing it through a screen makes it feel less proximate and urgent, thus validating inaction as a valid response. This set of conditioned responses hastens an ominous politics of inevitability for the consumption of images. If people did nothing before to stop violence because we would eventually outgrow this paradigm, they will continue to do nothing as society’s demise accelerates.
“For the viewer,” Haneke observed, “the boundary between real existence and image was difficult to establish from the beginning, which is precisely why the medium [of cinema] won a great deal of its fascination.” The lines got blurrier with the advent of television and the glut of content, and it continued to accelerate with the rise of digital video at the time of Benny’s Video (and picks up velocity with the pocket-sized technology seen in Happy End). With the video screen serving as a primary method of socialization for so many impressionable youths today, it’s vital to make the distinction between these two spaces. By continuing to collapse the demarcations — or eradicating them altogether — the anesthetizing effect of the violent image on screen will spill over into the response to real-life injustices.
Watch ‘Benny’s Video’ at FilmStruck.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).