Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

An anthropology of civil war

Ewa Jasiewicz looks at Austrian film director Michael Haneke's tenth film The White Ribbon, an unflinching gaze into the elemental roots of ideological violence

February 8, 2010
7 min read


Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.


  share     tweet  

Set in a small German village on the eve of the first world war, The White Ribbon follows the thread of a series of mysteries – the deliberate felling of the village doctor from his horse by a tripwire; the torture of the child son of the village baron; the kidnap and torture of a young disabled boy; and a barn burnt to the ground. These events are devices to reveal the slow, everyday, regimented violence and power relations in feudal pre-war Germany that is the real story. For the film’s director and writer, Michael Haneke, the narrative serves to uncover ‘truths’ and universal themes within the overall political context.

Many reviewers have remarked on Haneke’s ‘darkness’ in his exploration of themes of guilt, shame and repression, but they say very little about the real social grist of his craft – power and power relations. Haneke is an anthropologist of social and political conflict. He has said: ‘If there was one title that could be applied to all my films, it would be “Civil War” – not necessarily civil war in the way we know it, but the daily war that goes on between us all. All the big wars can be traced back to all these small ones between all of us.’

Evolving violence

Haneke’s background in television and theatre comes through in his use of confined spaces for elaborating character and plot – the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen. His meditative, unbroken long-shots create an immediacy and natural quality that carefully allows for the talent of his actors to evolve the violence and tenderness within human relationships before us in real-time.

One uninterrupted shot is masterful. It shows the young boy Adolf (played immaculately by Levin Henning) leaving the room where he and his siblings have been summoned for punishment and walking past us into another, then returning – the whip he has been forced to bring only visible at the last moment – before disappearing behind a closed door upon which the camera focuses, plainly, starkly, as one waits and waits for the inevitable sound of pain inflicted. The spectator is empowered throughout the film – a self-stated aim of Haneke’s work – by being allowed to follow, peering from behind the backs of the main protagonists, past the napes of their necks, and to enter, to wait and to witness the most intimate glimpses of violence and vulnerability in the characters’ lives.

The intertwined threads of the banality of evil and degradation of human life fuelled by inequality run through the film. From the death of a poor family’s mother due to the profiteering of her landlord, to the suicide walked in upon with a barn door opening and shutting like an eyelid, to the pre-school boy’s wide-eyed walk-in on his father zipping up his flies before his tear-stained daughter – the witnesses are children, the victims are children and the perpetrators become children. Their indoctrination with violence through powerlessness is an explosive combination that can lead to the belief in ‘easy answers’ for future empowerment such as those supplied by Nazi ideology.

Haneke says of his film: ‘I want to show how all sorts of suppression can make you open to an idea when someone comes along and says “I can save you”. It’s like the story of the Pied Piper … It’s the war that takes place between people that makes them receptive to such ideologies. The civil war between groups of people.’

In the case of The White Ribbon the war is between men with status and women deprived of it; between land-owning feudal barons and a peasant class, including lumpen Polish migrant labourers, in which one can glimpse a future subjugation as the Slav slave race; and between authoritarian religion-propped parents and their captive children – the children being the canvas upon which to paint and imprint the authoritarianism and repression that literally (re)create the conditions for the (re)generation of fascism.

Haneke’s study covers both the economic and social levers and confines of power, exploring both the home and the village, the private and the public, as mutually reinforcing spheres of influence.

No refuge

Behind closed doors, there are the children with no refuge, reliant upon and dominated by their parents, who wield supreme power over them – regimenting their behaviour with violence and restraint, from whippings and beatings to being tied up in bed, to being marked with the film’s quintessential trope – the white ribbon. In Germany, das weisse band was originally designed as a nonviolent form of discipline for children, being tied to the arms of those being punished. For Haneke it is the key to revealing that the definitions and boundaries between physical and non-physical violence are false; that the non-physical is as hurtful, destructive and terrorising as the physical, and is often connected, somewhere along the emotional line, with brute force.

The simplicity of the band worn by the two children of the priest (Burghart Klausner) in the church choir, to discipline them back to an innocence that is constantly undermined, reveals the ultimate contradiction. This is that the authoritarian imposition of ‘innocence’ has corrupted them and they have come to take on the language of their oppressors – physical and emotional violence – as a group outside the confines of the home.

When confronted with the truth of the children’s emerging power games, their father closes ranks and defends the indefensible – in the name of the white band he instituted, the ideology of innocence is supreme. We see that the white band and the identity or ‘social peace’ it is attempting to impose is as violent as the whip or gun or the idea of white supremacy. Its imposition is an act of civil war.

In an earlier film, Cache (2005), the themes of violence upholding social peace are similar. Here Haneke shows the concealed violence of middle-class Parisian social peace played out through the lives of a couple in denial of their agency in the reproduction of France’s colonial and racist legacy in Algeria. The scene of violent television images from Palestine and Iraq beaming between Auteil and Binoche, as they argue in their living room about who it is that is sending them close-ups of their own life on videotape, reveals that the real violence is in their class and the oblivious white-skin privilege of their lives, which are built upon the colonial violence going on in the background. The civil war is in the home.

Haneke is also adept at mapping gender power dynamics. The scene between the doctor (Rainer Bock) and his flush-faced live-in lover (Susanne Lothar) after rough sex behind the dinner table, in which she tentatively asks him if he missed her, opens up an ambivalent power game in which the doctor holds all the cards. ‘You’re doubting yourself again,’ he pathologises her, only for her insecurities to be confirmed later when he crushes her blow by blow with calm and casual verbal violence. The civil war is between the man empowered by an entire patriarchal society behind him and a status-less woman.

Haneke uses the innocence of the fledgling romance between Eva (Leonie Benesch) and the teacher (Christian Friedel) to underscore the depth of the abuse in the village and the social rules it shatters. With its blushes and awkward silences and chivalrously-avoided inappropriate situations – such as a picnic by the lake – the courting between Eva and the narrator is the only real innocence in the film.

Haneke is an implicitly political film-maker, and his films are about us. The White Ribbon is an example of anthropological drama that it is to be hoped will open the door for similar, unflinching examinations of human power and control. If Haneke defines his film as being about ‘the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature’, then those origins are in the inequalities, abuses and hierarchies of power, in private and public, locally and globally.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.


With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya