The relationship between the fetishistic possibilities of imagistic violence and its cyclicality through iterations of “real” and seen violence is at the core of many of director Michael Haneke’s films. Whether it is the sadist, baseless violence of Funny Games, the measured but distant violence of Caché, or indeed the impartial, impassioned violence of Benny’s Video, each of these films deal with the relationship between images of violence and the malleable youth that at once consumes and is consumed by these images, most pertinently when the repercussions of committing violence are never experienced.
Benny’s Video opens with hand-held scene of a pig being moved by a group of farmers from a barn to an open area. The camera follows the farmers as the pig finally stops walking, only to be stunned and killed by a captive bolt gun. The footage then stops, goes into rewind, and continues this killing in slow motion. There is an architect to the violence, the footage, and its repeated viewing. Later in the film, we see the protagonist – teenager Benny – use a similar captive bolt gun on a friend in his room. She falls to the floor, and Benny proceeds to kill her without a hint of remorse or emotion. This is all visible through a television, which is connected to a camera that is pointed at this act of violence.
As Benny’s Video continues, we see Benny engaging in various activities typical of a teenager in the early 1990s – and indeed today: eating McDonalds, watching American action movies, and smoking cigarettes. The film’s plot does not extend beyond Benny’s day-to-day life, and the impact his violent actions have on his parents. As they find out about Benny’s violent act through videotape footage, their instinct is to protect him by hiding the body, relieving him of culpability. In this instance, however, they relieve Benny of any direct repercussions.
The destructive relationship between our reality and filmed reality is explored here. This is not to disparage violent cinema, but is a means of addressing the ways violence in media severs society’s ties to the real, and this correlation is strongly apparent in the context of adolescence, and in particular ‘protected’ adolescence.
Similar to the opening of Benny’s Video, Caché begins with a shot that is not explicitly part of the diegesis. This is to say our first impression upon seeing the opening – a static long-take of a conventional narrow street in Paris – is that it is Haneke’s camera we are looking through. As the film continues, however, we hear two characters engage in a dialogue about this scene. The footage then rewinds and it becomes clear that we are watching diegetic footage of a street in Paris.
The distinction between the director’s camera and the camera within the film-world is unstable, creating a distancing that reflects the film’s exploration of violence and media. Social issues and news revolving around violence are constantly referenced on the television in our protagonists’ apartment, and the central conflict of the film – a family including a husband, wife and child, being surveilled by an unknown stalker and having recordings of their home sent to them – leads to the main character, Georges, engaging in threats of violence to parties whom are not determined as the stalkers.
The direct and impactful violence that occurs in the film takes place in Georges’ youth. Georges tells his wife Anne, who worries for the safety of their child, that when he was six he tricked his adopted brother, Majid, into beheading a chicken. Georges had then told his parents Majid did it to scare Georges, at which point Georges parents decide to send Majid to an orphanage. This cycle of protecting children from perceived violence, only to misunderstand the repercussions of emotional violence, is clear in Caché, and is a thread that runs through Haneke’s films. As the film continues, Majid – now an adult and being accused by Georges for being responsible for the tapes being sent to him – kills himself leaving his teenage son fatherless. After various confrontations between Majid’s son and Georges, the film’s final shot shows Georges’ son and Majid’s son engaging in a conversation outside George’s school. Their conversation is not audible to the audience, but the violence committed prior will have an indelible impact on both of their lives.
Funny Games’ opening further complicates the diegetic and non-diegetic world, this time through sound. Our main characters – a father, mother, and their pre-pubescent child – are sitting in a moving car listening to classical music. The parents are heard discussing the composer of the piece as the camera observes from a birds-eye view. The source of the dialogue is unknown, but anticipated as coming from within the car. The scene continues, and we see the inside of the car as the parents change the track on the stereo. It continues to play classical music, before it is abruptly changed to heavy death metal – only this music is not heard by the family, only by the audience. This change is accompanied by the stark title card “Funny Games” in bold red letters over the family.
This scene sets the stage for the interruption of violence that follows this family on their vacation. Shortly after they arrive at their holiday home, two young men – Paul and Peter – knock on their front door and innocently ask for eggs. Soon, however, the audience understands that they are not intending to take the eggs and leave, but instead take the family hostage, torture them, and ultimately kill them. Although motivations are never made explicit, it is clear throughout the course of the film that their actions are solely for their own enjoyment.
Unlike the parallels of images and violence, and the effect it has on youth in Benny’s Video and Caché, Funny Games explicitly foregrounds the relationship between the audience, characters, director, and representations of violence. There is no longer a blurred relationship between action and image, as one of the antagonists, Paul, consistently breaks the fourth wall throughout the film. He not only addresses the audience, but asks us what we want to see, and how we hope the events of the film will unfold. This narrative mapping reaches its logical conclusion when Anna, one of Paul’s captors, quickly grabs a loaded gun sitting on the table in front of her and kills Peter. Although this is the first onscreen death in this film up until this point – as Anna’s husband and son are killed off-screen – it is also the one that has the least impact. This is because Paul, upon seeing what has unfolded, searches and reaches for the television remote within the diegesis, and rewinds the scene. As the scene reaches the point prior to Anna picking up the gun, Paul reacts and prevents Peter’s murder. After eventually killing Anna by dropping her into a lake, Paul and Peter knock on the front door of another holiday home in the area and ask for eggs, continuing their path of violence.
Throughout these films, we can see Haneke working through the immediate and implicit impact of representations of violence, directly imbricating the audience as they are carried out in the film. The acts of violence are predominately carried out by characters below the age of eighteen in all three films. Upon further assessment, we can surmise that the actions of these characters – Paul and Peter, Benny, and Georges – will inevitably reverberate through everyone they interact with by the end of the film. Paul and Peter will continue their routine of violence, Benny’s attitudes towards violence is unchanged as he implicates his parents in his friend’s murder, and George’s son will inevitably be impacted by the conversation he has with Majid’s son. Haneke is not indicting the children, but instead looking to the violence that is engrained and turned to spectacle in everyday society, and the effect it has on our consciousness of that violence, and lack of repercussions for commuting such violence.