Review: The Monopoly of Violence/Babi Yar. Context

For those of us who don’t live in France or, for that matter, the EU, the so-called Yellow Vest Movement, in which mostly working people and far-left and far-right elements opposed to Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal policies clashed violently with police during large-scale street demonstrations, was a typically French phenomenon. There always seems to be demonstrations taking place in Paris, as if France were a nation of preternaturally aggrieved citizens. Most likely this conclusion is born of lack of fundamental knowledge of the French situation, but, in any case, it points to the supposition that French people are at least engaged, if not necessarily in politics then in the everyday struggle to make those in power understand how much pain that power can exact on them. Journalist David Dufresne’s assembled footage documentary about the movement focuses on the main product of this struggle, violence, and whether it is the state that determines how and when that violence is applied. 

All the video in the movie was recorded digitally by demonstrators, media, or police (mostly through bodycams), and Dufresne prompts discussion of their content among the people who participated and scholars whose job it is to interpret such images. Many are so violent as to be unsuitable for mainstream broadcast, and much of this violence is perpetrated by the police, though there are shots of demonstrators getting their licks in, so to speak. Dufresne, however, isn’t interested in trying to be even-handed. It’s obvious from both the English title of the movie (the original French title translates to something like “a well-behaved country”) and the bulk of the commentary that the authorities in any society have the upper hand because they can wield violence more readily than the citizens can. What mainly interests him is how violence is a function of emotional overreaction, and whether the state can use that to its advantage. When the police, after the fact, defend their actions they often seem to be ignoring the proof of their viciousness that’s right in front of our eyes. In one potent scene a large group of young Arab men are being made to kneel painfully for hours, seemingly because it pleases the police who have subdued them. After a while, the constant battering of demonstrators’ heads and bodies becomes numbing, which may be a point: the police themselves are so used to it they don’t think of it as “violence” any more.

The commentary is illustrative without always being coherent, but it is consistent in the way it frames the violence as being inevitable given the varieties of social imbalance. Some scholars mention that the state can only hold power with the consent of the majority, but that theory doesn’t properly take into consideration the present media environment, where proof of the brutality of authority is available everywhere. Ironically, a subtext of the movie is that the cops themselves feel they are the victims, because their actions are always on display. One even tells Dufresne that he can’t do his job properly because of the fear that someone might be nearby recording him with their phone. It’s as if he were saying that citizens are depriving him of his right to a monopoly on violence. 

Violence was the overt point of the Nazi regime’s hold on authority, and Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary about the massacre at Babi Yar in the Ukraine, where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered en masse in 1941, attempts to place the atrocity in its historical context by accessing only contemporaneous films and photos and then post-dubbing ambient audio to give the images more presence. The opening title cards claim that Loznitsa wants to plumb the “meaning” of the massacre, which sounds odd at first, since the Nazis already had decided on the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population. But the footage and the commentary he digs up attests to the concept that the Jews were convenient scapegoats for almost anyone, not just Germans under the sway of Hitler. Ukraine, after all, was a Soviet state, and Jews, as a minority, were caught between the communist authorities and the aggrieved non-Jewish locals. When the Germans move in and take control, they have little trouble assembling a Ukrainian militia to do their bidding, which is to suppress the Soviet presence. The Jews are accused of collaborating with the Soviet secret police in acts of sabotage, and are summarily rounded up and transported to the titular ravine, just outside of Kyiv, where they are shot and buried. However, other Jews are simply told to show up at designated locations where they are then taken to be killed. The monopoly of violence here is absolute. The Germans instigate the atrocity, but they carry it out with the help of Ukrainians, who likely imagine they have no choice. POWs, communist functionaries, Ukrainian nationalists, and Roma were also executed.

Loznitsa’s context necessarily includes plenty of footage detailing the horrors of the Nazi occupation, whose corollary purpose was to normalize the dehumanization of Jewish people. However, a quarter of the documentary takes place after the war, when the Soviets round up all the Germans they can get their hands on and put them on trial. In this section we hear testimony, from both Germans on trial and civilian Ukrainians who witnessed their actions, and then see the Germans publicly hanged, their bodies twitching under overcast skies surrounded by hundreds of spectators. For the most part, nobody during the trial says the word “Jew.” All the victims are conveniently nameless. But it’s the final image of the film that really adds the context, especially given what’s happening in Ukraine right now (the movie was completed and originally released in 2021): Babi Yar ravine, still holding bodies, became a receptacle for industrial waste in 1952. 

The Monopoly of Violence, in French, is now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

The Monopoly of Violence home page in Japanese

photo (c) Le Bureau-Jour2Fete-2020

Babi Yar. Context, in Russian and German with English intertitles, is now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Babi Yar. Context home page in Japanese

photo (c) Atoms & Void

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