During World War I, around a million or more Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically murdered by Turkish authorities through execution, starvation, forced marches, and a variety of other horrors. Over the decades, Turkish governments have (foolishly) disputed the use of the word genocide to describe these atrocities, and there have been efforts to explain away and minimize what happened — even though the events were well-documented and reported upon at the time, and some of the leaders of the Ottoman government were convicted and executed, in part for these crimes. (Growing up as a Turk, I was told that these were just unfortunate wartime massacres and that it happened on both sides — an insufficient answer to the question, “What happened to the million and a half Armenians who used to live in this country?”)
There’s still a lot of political contentiousness over the issue in Turkey, but the simple fact that it can now be debated at all is some sign of progress. Another sign, oddly enough, is that when The Cut, a film about the Armenian genocide by the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin opened in Turkey, it was met mostly with shrugs. A decade or two ago, it probably would have been banned, and Akin — a beloved figure in Turkey — declared persona non grata.
Of course, one reason that The Cut didn’t cause a greater stir might be because it takes a distant, parablelike approach to what could have been an emotionally overwhelming tale. It follows Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim), an ambitious blacksmith with a beautiful wife and twin daughters. Worried more about getting ahead in life, Nazaret isn’t one to worry much about political events. The year is 1915, and the war has just started, but living in Mardin, in southeast Turkey, he thinks he’s far from danger. Reports of the Allied landing at Gallipoli (which also coincided with the arrest of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople) go in one ear and out the other. The rest of the Armenian community in Mardin is wary, but ultimately confident of its safety. “We’ve always been loyal to the Turks,” one man observes.
Then one night, Nazaret is taken from his family and told he’s a soldier now. But he’s not given arms or a commission; instead, he’s forced, along with other Armenian men, to work on clearing and building roads — a slave. They’re starved, beaten, and made to work until they keel over dead, but these men remain in denial about what’s happening: At one point, a forced march passes by, and they see a woman in the throng set upon and raped while her children watch. Nazaret and the other men implore the Turkish soldier overseeing them to intervene; the Turk, indifferent, keeps his rifle pointed at them. It gets worse: Once the road work is done, the Armenian men’s throats are cut. However, a terrified ex-con tasked with slicing open Nazaret’s throat doesn’t cut deep enough, and instead only renders our hero mute.
The Cut spans years as Nazaret wanders the dusty, barren stretches of southeastern Turkey — an area that today falls along the Syrian border. Stories and images of horror filter through as if in a dream. He hears that Mardin has been completely cleared of people. He sees a well filled with dead, naked bodies. In the town of Ras al-Ayn, he comes across a vast, surreal landscape littered with corpses and refugees, many of them women and children. There, he finds his dying sister-in-law, who tells him that his whole family has been exterminated. In the film’s most horrific scene, Nazaret spends an entire day cradling the skeletal woman while she begs to be put out of her misery; he finally, slowly, strangles her.
Throughout these scenes, Akin adopts a somewhat removed, almost aestheticized style. It’s not that he keeps a physical distance, or turns his camera away; indeed, he punctuates the sister-in-law’s death with a startling close-up. But the spare landscape, the muted delivery, the protagonist’s forced silence, and the picture-book compositions all lend the film a fablelike atmosphere. It’s an odd but pointed choice for this director, whose work is often so earthy, visceral, and wild. (His masterpiece remains 2005’s Head-On, a romance that zigzags unforgettably between the sleazy and the sensuous.) References to fairy tales and lullabies run throughout The Cut, and at one point, we witness a camp filled with Armenian refugees guffawing at a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.
It’s all working toward something, though. Nazaret eventually learns that his daughters might have survived, and the second half of The Cut follows his efforts to find them — a journey that takes him from the Middle East to Cuba and the U.S. But the desolate, dreamlike, wandering nature of the film never changes. This doesn’t always work narratively — the film definitely drags in its final hour — but it’s a simple, powerful metaphor: The whole world is an unreal wasteland when you’ve lost your roots and your voice.
The Cut is a haunting movie, but there are times when one wonders whether Akin should go more for the emotional jugular, rub our faces in the monstrosity he’s depicting. I’m sure that he’d argue, correctly, that he’s making a film about humanity rather than evil. The Cut is filled with instances of sacrifice and unexpected mercy: After the Ottomans lose WWI, we see Armenian crowds jeering and throwing stones as defeated Turkish soldiers and families march out of town; Nazaret picks up a rock, but decides not to throw it after seeing a Turkish mother nursing a young boy who’s been hit in the head. The film, like its protagonist, sheds its anger for sorrow.
The question lingers, even though it’s not one we’ll ever adequately answer: How should art tackle great historical evil? Debates still swirl around even the most honored films. Does 12 Years a Slave go too far, or not far enough? Is Schindler’s List reduced by the fact that it’s a tale of survival amid a historical reality that was anything but? Does Amistad need more flashbacks to the ship, or fewer? How do we balance art and humanity — and subtlety — with the need to bear witness, to confront? Can it even be done? The Cut doesn’t answer these questions, but there is little doubt throughout that it’s a work of artistry, grace, and, yes, outrage.