In 2012, Robert Bales, a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, massacred 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, many of them children. One Afghan farmer lost his whole family in the incident. When he was asked how he felt after losing his children, he replied, “I loved them all like they were parts of my body.”
The Cut, a new film by German-Turkish director Fatih Akin, explores a similar example of the intersection between mass violence and personal loss.
Director: Fatih Akin
Producers: Fatih Akin, Karl Baumgartner, Reinhard Brundig, Fabienne Vonier
Writers: Fatih Akin, Mardik Martin
Cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann
Editor: Andrew Bird
Music: Alexander Hacke
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Simon Abkarian, Makram Khoury, Hindi Zahra, Kevork Malikyan, Bartu Küçükçaglayan, Zein Fakhoury, Dina Fakhoury
Genre: Drama, History
Premiere: August 31, 2014 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 7, 2015
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
The film follows an Armenian blacksmith, Nazaret Manoogian, played by the charming Tahar Rahim. Set in the spring of 1915, the Ottoman Empire is disintegrating in WWI and nationalist violence is spreading. Manoogian, along with all the other Armenian men in his village, is conscripted to build roads. From this vantage, he bears witness to the forced deportations and death marches that came to constitute the genocide of a million people. The titular cut arrives when the Turkish military begins the mass executions of Armenian men in a startling scene of decapitation, “saving bullets.” This violence is an affecting reminder of the terrifying mechanics of mass killing. Even the fascist machine could not remove the blood and sweat and bodies from the calculus of mass killing. The Cut zooms in on the breaking down of bodies in mechanized killing and forced starvation, before charting the genocide’s lasting effects through the people that survive.
Technically, the film is unspectacular. Akin is much more of a storyteller than a cinematographer. And this occasionally subverts otherwise emotional moments. There is very little camera movement. But like his other major picture, The Edge of Heaven (2007), this film is surprising in scope. What begins in an act of mass violence turns into a movement of characters across time and continents. None of the promotional material I’ve seen really captures this aspect of the picture, which almost achieves a scale reminiscent of Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow (2004). After Manoogian escapes the war, he seeks out his lost twin daughters and uncovers their story of journey and survival.
Thematically, the most important aspect of the film is its willingness to engage this famously unrecognized historical stain. Akin is, critically, a Turk, and an Armenian, Mardik Martin, wrote the screenplay. But it would be misinformed to use this picture as an allegory for the “inevitable,” a “war of ideas,” or a “clash of cultures.” Even within the film, a suspicious amount of attention is paid to the Christian heritage of the Armenians. The film is best used as an example of the ways different codes are exploited for political and avaricious ends.
As with many examples of mass violence, the acts are not incompatible with the moral code in which they occur. As demonstrated in William T. Vollman’s treatise on violence Rising Up and Rising Down, the causes for mass violence are ambivalent, sliding along various codes. The zealot acts with impunity, safe inside their own symbolic order, justifying enormous violence. Consider the example of Cortes and the Aztecs, or the crusader’s reply “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius”: “Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His.”
Probably more troubling than the example of the zealot, however (and certainly more common), is the persistence of codified violence at the hands of gangsters and warlords. We certainly take many aspects of civil society for granted; while the current monopoly of violence favors a certain class, explicit brutality rarely manifests on the streets. In deference to the dull violence of the surveillance state, Americans are protected from violent factionalism. We don’t fear the whims of warlords and militias. (A too common reality even in the industrialized world, as seen in Cartel Land.)
The Cut demonstrates again how the bitterest violence is most often associated not with zealotry, but with political and expedient concerns. As Chris Hedges writes, “Ethnic warfare is a business, and the Mercedes and mansions of the warlords in Belgrade prove it.” Ancient grudges provoke the most banal and avaricious violence. And calling this mass violence banal is not meant to dishonor the victims, but rather to intercede against contemporary tendencies towards mythologizing around crusades and “wars of ideas.” This is a serious film, at times intimate and devastating, and an important piece of an ongoing interrogation into mass violence and its mythology.