An Analysis of Authenticity in 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini, Zelig by Woody Allen and Benny's Video by Michael Haneke

Categories: Film Analysis


Federico Fellini’s  (1963), Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) and Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video (1992) are pieces that confront and challenge the spectators. The films utilise devices, which entice the viewer to generate an individual interpretation. This is a notion that is explored by the existential philosophers, and is termed as authenticity and will be further pronounced in the first paragraph. Secondly, there will be an exploration of how this category of films operates as a movement. Thirdly, the films are aware of their own creation and are self-reflexive of nature, which furthermore interacts with the audience.

Thereafter, there will be an exploration of the use of irony as a device for enticement. Finally, the films investigate the notion of death, which further enhances the spectator’s responsibility for one’s own interpretation and choices. In regards to these aspects, Federico Fellini’s , Woody Allen’s Zelig and Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video can be seen as films that challenge and entice the individual viewer towards personal authenticity through the use of self-reflexivity, irony and the presence of death.

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The notion of authenticity encompasses the individual being’s responsibility for one’s own choices in life. Jean-Paul Sartre (1965, p. 64-5) states that ‘[i]f it is agreed that man maybe defined as a being having freedom within the limits of a situation’ a utilisation of this ‘freedom may be considered as authentic or inauthentic according to the choices made in the situation’. Then authenticity is to have ‘a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror or hate’ (Sartre, 1965, p.

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64-5). The main reason that authenticity is crucial is that ‘[a]uthenticity is the fundamental a priori condition for viable ethics’ as ‘[e]thics can exist apart from fundamental thinking’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 90). This ‘fundamental thinking’ is the main foundation of existential authenticity. To avoid escapism of responsibility or inauthenticity and to furthermore provide personal change ‘the philosophers of authenticity use fictional portraits and dramatic descriptions of extreme situations that make us realize how, even, in everyday situations, it is up to us to create our own selves’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 25). In existential authenticity subjectivity is of importance as the ‘more objective truth increases, the more our inner certitude decreases’ (Rollo May, 1994, Foreword), as personal authenticity is ‘an explicit expression of revolt against the spirit of objectivity’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 80). Moreover, authenticity and ‘to become who you are’ must be carried out individually and ‘through one’s own mental resources’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 84). Cinema is an arena that can generate a space to entice authentic interpretations.

The majority of 1930s through 1950s Hollywood films were made with ‘profit steering the process’, where the films ‘were made to entertain, and that usually meant explicitly not dealing with the harsh realities that constitute our live’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 58). Outside of Hollywood, however, filmmakers were often more bold in their choices and provided more personal films that expressed the human condition. They furthermore utilised devices such as to ‘intentionally keep the plot open or overturn our typical narrative expectations – strategies that make the viewer think’, which is especially true for the French and Italian cinema of the post-war era, a cinema that resulted in films ‘conveying important truths the filmmakers wanted to express’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 59). In turn the influence of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini produced ‘a sea change in American filmmaking’ and generated films that ‘did not shy away from the human condition but often embraced it’, which Woody Allen is a good example of, whose films ‘are very consciously existentialist’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 59). Though, the ‘continuing trend is to repeat financial successful formulae’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 59), one still see examples of films that entices authenticity in independent cinema across the world. The existential philosophers and authors such as; Kierkegaard, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre and Beckett operated in different time periods and in various countries across the world. The same elements apply to existential filmmakers who deal with authenticity, as they create personal stories that deal with universal matters of the human condition. One contemporary example of this is the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, who states that his ‘films don’t specifically target Austria’, but the world (Wheatley, 2009, p. 21), and has produced films in Germany, France and the United States. Other contemporary directors who utilise similar devices to entice authenticity are; Lars von Trier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mike Leigh, Pedro Almodóvar, Terrence Malick and Roy Andersson, who are established and spread throughout the globe. The connection however, is that these filmmakers are auteurs, and have the freedom to work in an independent way and are ‘[l]ess pressured by a profit motive’ (Pamerleau, p. 58-9). They operate as philosophical authors who ‘show us philosophical insights’ rather than ‘attempt to tell them’ (Pamerleau, p. 43). One way to challenge the audience is through the use of self-reflexive devices.

Self-reflexivity in cinema is a device that makes the audience aware of its own construction. Catherine Wheatley (2009, p. 38) writes that Hollywood cinema’s ‘interpellative effect is premised on our inability to make rational judgements while watching a film’ and this suppression of consciousness of what is viewed averts the spectator to be morally aware. Thus, ‘any filmmaker seeking to create a film that positions the spectator as an independent thinker must break the cinematic illusionism’, which is the initial step toward making the viewer ‘aware of the medium’s working’ so one can ‘make [one’s] own judgement’ of what is viewed (Wheatley, 2009, p. 38). In this manner the spectator becomes an active participant, where one ‘engag[es] both perceptually and intellectually with the cinematic events’ on screen (Read and Goodenough, p. 25). Wheatley (2009, p. 38-9) continues that critical awareness is the primary condition for ‘any kind of autonomous thinking’ where the use of cinematic self-reflexivity allows one to do so. Moreover, the use of reflective devices makes the spectator self-conscious, as they ‘become aware of themsel[ves] as complicit in the cinematic spectacle’ (Wheatley, 2009, p. 153). The film-spectator relationship generated through self-reflexivity produces a necessary introspection of what is felt and thought (Wheatley, 2009, p. 154). This self-examination is a foundation of personal authenticity, and is moreover explored in Federico Fellini’s .

Federico Fellini’s is a deliberately orchestrated film that draws attention to its construction through a highly personal drama. The movie is a so-called self-begetting film[1], where the premise is of ‘how this film came to be made’ (King, 2001, p. 14). This draws attention to its own creation, where Federico Fellini’s ‘self-reflexive, autobiographical’ approach must be ‘addressed in understanding authenticity’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 191). His ‘semi-autobiographical films provide specific examples of the search for authenticity on the part of the film’s characters and the filmmaker himself’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 165). Friedrich Nietzsche (2012, p. 4) writes in regards to this aspect that such an authentic individual is ‘no longer an artist, he has become a work of art’, where Fellini’s work illustrates an example in how such a person ‘creates himself’ where the ‘act of creation, creator and creation merge’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 71). Walter Pamerleau (2009, p. 191) writes that the ‘obvious similarities between Fellini and Guido’ make the audience ‘conscious of the fact that Guido’s attitudes toward making a movie are the same as Fellini’s’. He continues that this ‘gives the film an added weight when we consider how it teaches us something about the human condition, because the movie portrays not just the courageousness of the fictitious Guido but that of the flesh-and-blood Fellini’ (Pamerleau, p. 191). Fellini (cited by Pamerleau, 2009, p. 172) states that he makes films about himself, and interpret what happen around him, and if the audience who watches his films ‘come to an equal awareness of themselves’ watching the films, ‘then they have achieved the state of clear-sighted detachment from themselves which is essential in making new choices, in bringing about changes’. Thus, in , Fellini creates a film where the audience are aware of the choices the director has made, and become aware of the choices and narrative in one’s own life. Self-reflexivity is moreover a well-known trait in Woody Allen’s oeuvre.

In Zelig, the film style reflects Woody Allen’s individual intentions and objectives. Equally to that of Søren Kierkegaard, Allen seeks a truth that is ‘true for him’, ‘with which he could identify and which he could appropriate into his innermost self, to become what he authentically’ is (Golomb, 1995, p. 47). Jerold Abrams (2011, p. 113-4) writes that Allen’s work ‘is not really based in any ethical continuity with nature or community’, but rather to ‘stare headlong’ into ‘one’s own subjectivity and appropriate it as one’s own’. This goal is not universal but a subjective one (Abrams, 2011, p. 113-4). Allen entices this ‘goal’ through his voyeuristic film language, where he himself plays the main character. The form of documentary in Zelig stresses Michel Foucault’s idea of the ‘panopticon’[2], where in this case, the viewer, continuously has to ‘survey his own behaviour’ (Abrams, 2011, p. 102). Woody Allen utilises a language that ‘reveal the inadequacy of intellect’ (Wallace, 2011, p. 80), where one cannot intellectualise a response, as his objective mirrors that of Nietzsche (2010, Section 290), which is to ‘give style to one’s character’. Style is obtained by ‘[h]e who surveys all that his nature presents in its strength and in its weakness’ (Nietzsche, 2010, Section 290), thus the film may unmask the spectator’s potential inauthenticity, and as a consequence this conduct may be assessed. Similar devices are moreover seen in the work of Michael Haneke.

Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video carries a lot of emphasis towards film as a physical object in its own right. In the opening of the film one sees white static snow and the title Benny’s Video, consciously followed; ‘[by] Michael Haneke’, the varying of levels of diegesis draws attention that this is of his making. Wheatley (2009, p. 30) comments that the audience ‘become aware of themselves, sitting in the auditorium, as a consumer of the film. But at the same time, they become aware of the film as a construct, the product of a director’ (Wheatley, 2009, p. 30). Wheatley (2009, p. 61) states that the audience thus become ‘critically distanced from the images that had previously been so visceral as we become aware of the film as construct’. She continues that the ‘reflexivity of Haneke’s films motivates the reflexivity of the spectator’ and ‘encourag[e] the spectator to think first and foremost about their own self’ (Wheatley, 2009, p. 43). Haneke deliberately encourages an active engagement of the spectator as ‘[p]assivity and authenticity are incompatible’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 124). Haneke does not ‘offer a right response, since the only right response to Haneke’s films is to reach one’s own conclusion’ (Wheatley, 2009, p. 47), where he ‘creates a cinematic form to which the spectator’s response is personal and subjective’ (Wheatley, 2009, p. 9-10). Michael Haneke’s (2000, p. 171) objective above all is to ‘provide a construct and nothing more’ where ‘its interpretation and its integration into a value and belief system is always the work of the recipient’. An additional method of enticement of authenticity is that through the use of irony.

Irony is a significant device in existential philosophy, and is used in order to challenge the reader. Jacob Golomb (1995, p. 26) writes that ‘the most powerful and widely used literary means of enticing the reader is irony’. Through irony one is ‘saying something without really saying it. It is an art that gets its affects from below the surface…saying much more than is seems to be saying’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 26). According to Golomb (1995, p. 28) ‘[a] direct assault would only provoke a defensive response, making real change less likely’, while irony on the other hand ‘uncovers the shallowness and superficiality’ of a given ethic indirectly. The use of irony assists to depict a social or personal ethos, to emphasise this ethos, however at the same time rejecting it (Golomb, 1995, p. 47-8). This gives the individual viewer the responsibility to generate his or her own interpretation, as one ‘is left wondering what is actually true, and has no choice but to choose for himself’, and thus irony functions ‘both a kind of a-rational literary affirmation and a refutation’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 47-8). In the three films discussed in this essay, the use of irony aids the directors’ objective of enticing the audience toward authenticity.

The closeness to theatrical style of Federico Fellini’s  continually sits on the verge of detached irony that challenges his viewers to provide their own interpretation. Fellini’s ‘style is one that tends toward spectacle, and never far from a comedic element, which seems a prima facie reason to think that his films are decidedly unrealistic’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 171). This exaggerated filmic style encourages the viewer to evaluate the hyperbolic actions displayed, where the overdramatically decisions of Guido are virtually presented in a mockingly manner. The use of classical music, in particular the reworking of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in one of the opening scenes ‘adds greatly to the film’s drama, its sense of mystery, and, more crucially, its sense of irony’ (Travers, 2004). The director’s flamboyant visual style helps the audience ‘emphasize those aspects of life that are relevant for most of us’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 171). Moreover, the ‘[c]haracters always seem a bit extreme or caricatured’ and ‘calls our attention to the fact that this is a staged event’ (Pamerleau, 2009, p. 171) Somewhat self-ironically Fellini’s main character, Guido’s lesson is that ‘he has always taken but never given love’ (Crowther, 1963), and when he come to this realisation he gets all the people to hold hands on the set of a rocket launching pad. Through the over-exaggerated nature of the film, the spectator is continuously invited to survey and examine these actions and to provide one’s own interpretation to what is viewed. The use of irony is to a large degree present in Woody Allen’s film Zelig.

Woody Allen started his career as a stand-up comedian, and is widely known with the comedic notion of irony. Furthermore, he utilises an ironic literary method, which Søren Kierkegaard termed as; ‘to deceive’. This entails ‘that one does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man’s illusion as good money’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 43-4). The technique of ‘to deceive’ is applied in Allen’s film Zelig, where we follow Leonard Zelig throughout a lifetime, where he undertakes the roles as a republican, a leftist, a psychiatrist, a Chinese man, a Frenchman and in the end he is just known as ‘the chameleon man’. The use of the form of a mockumentary further enhances that the ‘ironist says that which he does not believe, and believes that which he does not say’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 28). Woody Allen employs a type of irony that is especially important, ‘the irony that indirectly casts doubt on the validity of prevailing values and thereby arrests or lessons the reader’s motivation to continue upholding them’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 27). Allen achieves this effect ‘by the simulated adoption of another’s point of view for the purpose of ridicule, by reducing this point of view to absurdity or by depicting psychologically disastrous consequences of clinging to prevailing values’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 27). Although the spectator is aware of its artificiality, the comedic form distances the viewer from what is viewed, which ‘permits a sense of proportion’ (Jarvie, 2011, p. 52). The ‘effect that concerns us here is enticement, which cannot be achieved by direct propositional language’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 26), which in Kierkegaardian terms ‘seeks to move [the audience] to a vita active of free and decisive choice and authentic actions that can create genuine self-hood’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 46). The employment of indirect communication is not just to enlighten the reader, but is used ‘above all to change [him]’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 44). This may encourage the viewer to observe one’s own inauthentic actions, which demonstrates that ‘authenticity is something we are aware of when ‘we flee it’’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 8). Moreover, the use of irony is present in Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video.

Michael Haneke uses irony to give the spectator responsibility to generate one’s own interpretation. He states that he has never ‘been a pessimistic person’, and continues that if that was the case he ‘would only make entertainment film because [he] wouldn’t think that people actually care, and are intelligent enough, to want to deal with the questions’ he raises in his films (Jahn, 2012). Michael Haneke raises question that critiques modern society through the use of irony. The main critique Haneke proposes is ‘the emotional glaciation of society’ (Wheatley, 2009, p. 62). In Benny’s Video, subsequent to the murder of the girl, Benny and his mother leave for a holiday to Egypt. At one point they are watching a rather trivial entertainment show on TV, where the mother states that ‘everything is fine’, however she breaks to tears just after. This scene emulates the constant critique of escapism. Haneke emphasises the absurd tendency of a society where individuals who are ‘prevented from genuinely creating and expressing his self’ develops a ‘deepening alienation’ ‘between him, his ‘civilised’ acts and civilization’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 68). In correspondence to the literary devices utilised by Friedrich Nietzsche, Haneke ‘assist[s] us in overcoming culture’s repression and entice us into uncovering and reactivating our own creative power’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 68-69). The shocking, but ironic twist at the end of the film sums the irony as Benny’s parents cover up their son’s murder, and they themselves are victimised. However, the viewers ‘are enticed into considering the issue for themselves’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 46), as Haneke ‘refus[es] to give his audience any answers’ (D’Ambrose, 2013), where one has ‘to take sides by making existential decision to adopt for himself one of the possibilities’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 46). Another feature that entices personal authenticity is the awareness of one’s impending death.

Death is a significant predicament in enticing authenticity. The most critical aspect ‘in breaking through this circularity to a viable mode of authentic existence is Being-towards-Death’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 105). The acceptance of one’s own death ‘liberates one from losing one’s self in the authentic illusions of the anyone’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 106). Martin Heidegger (2001, p. 294) argues that authenticity reveals and fulfils itself through the ‘freedom towards death’, as ‘with death, Dasein[3] stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being’. If one has not accepted one’s finitude one acts in an inauthentic manner ‘not only because authenticity makes one anxious about one’s responsibility for one’s self in-the-world, but also because it appears an easy escape from anxiety in the face of death’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 107). However, ‘such defense mechanisms collapse with the awareness of impending death’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 107). In facing one’s death, one has to ask one self, what it means ‘not to be’, as ‘one cannot grasp nothing, one asks what it means ‘to be’, which ‘puts the questioner in touch with her sense of ownness, with her authentic Being’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 107). Moreover, this freedom ‘brings about the conditions fundamental to ethics’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 114), where the authentic individual becomes more empathic, as the contemplation on ‘dying enables [one] to open [oneself] to the option of being authentically bound to others, of caring about them’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 106). In essence to be aware of one’s own finitude brings forward individual authenticity, ‘which promotes, secures and enhances that very basis for genuine morality’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 114). The concept of Being-towards-death is present in the films studied in this essay.

portrays the director Federico Fellini’s struggle as a man and as a filmmaker. His goal is ‘to make a true and authentic film but he is out of ideas’ (Stone, 1995). Throughout the film the audience follow Guido through dreams, fantasies and mystical occurrences. However, it is the thought of death that leads Guido to take an authentic decision of cancelling the film, as ‘[e]ach time we entertain the possibility of dying we undertake assessment of our Being’, and through this ‘anticipation we define our existence’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 107). At a press conference at the end of the film, Guido hides under a table and puts the gun against his head. The event of the ‘suicide is a symbolic act’ which reinforces ‘a kind of redemption’ (Stone, 1995). Through this self-confrontation, Guido faces his facticity, where he can no more ‘project [his] responsibility or salvation onto transcendental forces’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 104). He accepts the decision to abandon his film project and finally acknowledge a defeat. Furthermore, for the first time Guido also approaches his wife ‘to accept him as he is’ as through authenticity actions are decisive as ‘[t]here is no vague, elusive emotion called ‘love’, there are only concrete deeds and acts of love’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 24). Death is also a device used to confront the viewer in Woody Allen’s Zelig.

The notion of death is displayed through an historical aspect in Woody Allen’s film. The major issue of Allen’s film is that of inauthenticity, similar ‘to that found in the writings of such existentialist philosophers as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre’ (Detmer, 2011, p. 186). These authors criticized ‘the tendency to go along passively with the crowd, to do what others do, to believe what others believe, uncritically, rather than thinking for oneself and acting accordingly’ (Detmer, 2011 p. 186). The main concern here is ‘that those who live this way fail to live their own lives, but rather eventually die having lived lives of ‘the others’ (Detmer, 2011, p. 186). The film is shot as a historical documentary so one can assess the major consequences of not facing the ‘Being-towards-death’ and hence ‘not to live [one’s] own life’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 107). One who lives in an inauthentic manner does not take responsibility for his or her own actions, which may lead to fatal consequences. This is why the use of documentary form is of importance, Woody Allen is not interested in the ‘character’s private life’, however he is interested in the phenomenon and how it ‘relates to the culture’ (cited by Fox, p 141). The climax of the film is set on a rally with Adolf Hitler, which functions as a political comment on Nazism, where [t]he point is that genocidal campaigns do not happen because thousands go mad; but rather because millions will passively’ go along in order ‘to escape from the burdens of independent thought and action’ (Detmer, p. 187). Woody Allen states that ‘not to make waves, carried to an extreme, could have traumatic consequences. It could lead to a conformist mentality and, ultimately, fascism’ (Kakutani, 1983). Viewing Zelig’s lifespan in retrospect emphasises the being’s finitude, and the viewer may consequently evaluate one’s own existence. Death is frequently present in Haneke’s Benny’s Video, in order to generate individual responsibility.

The opening of Benny’s Video is again of significance in relation to Being-towards-death. Firstly, ‘the presence of snow on the screen’ is ‘a sign of the termination of the image chain, and secondly is a ‘visual correspondent to a ‘real’ death’ – That of the Schöber family in Haneke’s preceding film The Seventh Continent, and that of the slaughtered pig in the film discussed in this essay (Wheatley, 2009, p. 61). The main character, Benny (Arno Frisch), shows the footage to the girl (Ingrid Stassner), and repeats it several times to watch her reaction, just as Haneke did at the opening of the film to anticipate the viewer’s response to the same footage. The rewind pause of the opening footage is of importance in the film. Haneke is concerned with emotional glaciation and distraction in the film, however this video is ‘wound up with the idea of death and its ending of time’ (Gouws, 2012, p. 93), where the footage is repeated to initiate an authentic reaction from the viewer through focused attention (Gendlin). In the film, the central character has his hair shaved off, ‘an act which can be read as a rite of passage in which he accepts…death, his finitude’ (Gouws, 2012, p. 92). Anjo-Mari Gouws (2012, p. 91-4) argues that the main character’s home videos thus ‘become symptomatic of the way in which his attitude to death and finitude changes over the course of the film’ – as no re-playing ‘is given to the tape of the girl’ and ‘she remains dead’. The notion of death is repeated numerous times throughout Benny’s Video, both through style and theme in order to make the viewer aware of one’s own finitude.

In , Zelig and Benny’s Video the directors achieve to challenge the viewer towards authenticity through numerous aspects. The films confront the viewer through the use of self-reflexive devices, in addition the viewer have to generate their own interpretation of the irony utilised on screen, and furthermore one has to face the question of one’s own finitude through the presence of death. The above-mentioned characteristics were also utilised by the existential philosophers such as; Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre in order to entice authenticity. In regards to authenticity, the films discussed in this essay manage to challenge the spectator through employment of self-reflexivity. Furthermore, the pieces carry emphasis on the use of irony, which invites the individual viewer to generate one’s own opinion. Lastly, the films involves notions of Heidegger’s Being-towards-death that incites the spectator to evaluate one’s own facticity. Conclusively, Federico Fellini’s , Woody Allen’s Zelig and Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video entices the viewers towards authenticity through the use of self-reflexivity, irony and the presence of death.


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  1. A Self-begetting whose narrative is self-reflexive – the ‘film deals with the mechanisms, conventions, and motivations’ for why it is created (King, 2001, p. 14-5).
  2. The ‘panopticon’ was Foucault’s idea of a prison that reflects the voyeurism of contemporary society. The prison is of ‘a circle of isolated cells’ which faces a blinding light, making the prisoner feel ‘he is always being watched’ (Abrams, 2011, p. 102).
  3. Dasein is Martin Heidegger’s entity that exemplifies the ‘experience of being’ (Golomb, 1995, p. 89).

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An Analysis of Authenticity in 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini, Zelig by Woody Allen and Benny's Video by Michael Haneke. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from

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