Medz Yeghern is the synonym Armenians gave to the brutal extermination of their people by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to the end of First World War, which also gave a new word to the English language – ‘genocide’, coined by Raphael Lemkin. Also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the state-sponsored murders were widely seen as foreshadowing the modern techniques of murder that would be brought to terrible perfection by the Nazis during the Second World War. Turkish-German director Fatih Akin has chosen this catastrophic event for his new epic film, The Cut (2014).
Nazaret Manoogian (a superb Tahar Rahim) is a simple blacksmith in a small town called Mardin, where he lives with his wife Rakel (Hindi Zahra) and twin daughters Lucinée and Arsinée (Dina and Zein Fakhoury). All is well until the fateful day that soldiers come knocking on the door. Nazaret finds himself part of a road gang, a prisoner working with other Armenians. They hear tales of extermination and witness a death march, even as their comrades drop dead from overwork and neglect beside them. One morning, the men are tied up and marched into a canyon where they’re all to be executed by a posse of prisoners and bandits. This scene is played out in its full horror, but Nazaret is spared when a thief, Mehmet (Bartu Küçükçaglayan), makes the non-fatal incision of the the film’s title.
Aided by his saviour, Nazaret looks only to survive at first, surrounded everywhere by potential enemies and now, because of his partly slit throat, unable to speak. He happens across a camp of the dead and dying, where he meets his sister-in-law who tells him that his family are all dead. Later, he will find refuge in a soap factory. This first half of the film is by far the most successful. Akin is obviously influenced by David Lean, not only in the grandeur of the spaces and the sweep of the narrative but also in his choice to make scenes of death and murder not the documentary-style cinema vérité of sequences in Spielberg’ Schindler’s List (1993), but pointedly and cinematically beautiful. The death camp resembles an oil painting and a well filled with dead bodies is a striking, Bruegel-like image.
There are some weaknesses as Akin’s unquestionably good intentions sit too nakedly on the screen: the stilted idyll of Nazaret’s home life for instance and the goodness of Arab soap maker Omar (Makram Khoury) who rescues him in Aleppo. The biggest problem is the decision to have the Armenian characters all speak English. This is just about manageable in the first half but on learning his daughters are still alive, Nazaret goes on what can only be described as a globe-trotting search for them. Again, Akin’s laudable intention is certainly to have the film seen by as wide an audience as possible, and few criticised Schindler’s List for not being in German and Polish, but when Nazaret arrives in America one wonders whether he can understand the English because it’s basically Armenian or what.
Although The Cut’s second half is supposed to represent the diaspora that succeeded the genocide, it has the effect of making the narrative appear almost random as Nazaret is sent from pillar to post and his emotions, now expressed only through gestures and written notes, are narrowed down to hopes and dashed hopes. A well-behaved and unashamedly populist film, the kind that could be shown in schools and community centres, Akin’s The Cut remains an undeniably important film regardless. What it does extremely well is to movingly illustrate a terrible moment in history which has been sadly neglected in the West and actively suppressed in other parts of the world.