Armenian Genocide at the Berlin Film Festival: 'The Lark Farm' Wakens Turkish Ghosts

By Wolfgang Höbel and Alexander Smoltczyk

The film "The Lark Farm" is sure to stir up controversy at this year's Berlin Film Festival. It takes a close look at Turkey's most sensitive taboo -- the 1915 genocide against the Armenians. Extra security has been brought in for the Wednesday evening premiere.

All that was missing at the Festival Palace was the wave cheer, given the level of enthusiasm with which Dieter Kosslick, the festival's director, staged the opening gala of the 57th Berlin International Film Festival last Thursday. Once again, Kosslick has managed to position the German capital as a world-class film city, and this year's Berlinale again vies with past festivals in its relentless determination to deliver euphoria.

The French film "La Vie en rose," the first film on the festival's schedule, matched the effusive mood of the event. In the film, director Olivier Dahan tells the life story of singer Edith Piaf, sumptuously portraying her descent into drug addiction and disastrous love affairs. The president of the festival's jury Paul Schrader -- himself a writer, director and film critic -- has said he sees film as a kind of museum, or cultural memory bank. It's an interpretation that clearly applies to this year's festival.

Steven Soderbergh's black-and-white drama "The Good German," provides a good example. George Clooney portrays an American reporter in post-World War II Germany who is tragically in love with a beautiful but mysterious woman (Cate Blanchett). The American thriller "The Good Shepherd," starring Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin and directed by Robert De Niro, is a story about the early days of the CIA. In the historical drama "Die Fälscher" ("The Counterfeiters"), Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky describes how inmates at the Nazi concentration camp in Sachsenhausen were forced to print British pound notes in a counterfeiting workshop.

Taboo in Turkey

But there is one film that will encounter little competition for being the most important and stirring contribution to the culture of reminiscence. It deals with the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, a topic that is still considered taboo in Turkey. Indeed, sentiments on the issue are so strong that representatives of the Turkish government are still trying to convince others to avoid the topic as well. Last week, for example, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül made it clear that relations between his country and the United States could be seriously jeopardized by a resolution proposed in the US Congress that would officially condemn the 1915 genocide committed by the Turks.

"If this resolution is approved," Gül threatened representatives of the Bush administration, which is seeking a strategic partnership with Turkey, "why should we continue to support one another?"

Close to a century after the Armenian genocide, the issue remains explosive. When Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk had the courage to write about the genocide, he was promptly taken to court by ultra-nationalists. After the murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, Pamuk, fearing for his own life, fled abroad.

The Armenian genocide is sure to become a hot-button issue in Berlin -- home to about 250,000 Turks -- where legendary directors Paolo and Vittoria Taviani will premiere their new film "The Lark Farm" on Wednesday evening. It is a shocking film about the genocide and the film's distributor is nervous. The festival management, fearing riots, has hired additional security.

Bundles of flesh

It is a film filled with vivid images and meaningful gestures. In one scene, a Turkish soldier stands awkwardly next to an opulently set table. He carefully picks up the soup bowl, lifts it into the air, pauses for a moment, and then slowly pours the soup over the damask tablecloth. The horror begins with the insignificant, setting the stage for the unimaginable in the most polite of ways.

In another scene, Turkish servants suddenly refuse to unload the truck belonging to their Armenian masters, saying that it's too late in the day for work. A short time later, the masters, already earmarked for slaughter as enemies of the people, have been reduced to sobbing bundles of flesh as they beg for their lives. Such is how genocide begins.

In their past masterpieces, "Padre Padrone" (1977) and "Notte di San Lorenzo" ("The Night of San Lorenzo") (1982), Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, both well into their seventies, dealt with the human effects of persecution and political violence -- and with the desire to rebel against fate. While "The Night of San Lorenzo," an episode from the Italian resistance movement against Mussolini's fascist militia, managed to describe the senselessness of violence with the tools of absurdist comedy, "The Lark Farm" is a deeply dark melodrama.

In the political inferno the film portrays, Moritz Bleibtreu and Paz Vega are perfectly cast as tragic lovers. "It is not a film against Turkey, on the contrary," they say, and rightfully so. But the editors who published the Danish cartoons that so inflamed the Muslim world were also in the right. "The Lark Farm" could well become the political scandal at this year's Berlinale.

Obedience, cowardice, expediencey and vileness

The screenplay, based on a novel by Antonia Arslan -- a literature professor who now lives in Padua -- deals with the history of Arslan's family. The novel portrays the Avakians, a respected middle-class Armenian family that lives in a provincial city, hoping that things will not take a turn for the worse. The film begins with intimate scenes of beautiful faces and women wearing long dresses, filmed in the light of a Vermeer painting. The family patriarch has died, and even the Turkish Colonel Arkan (André Dussollier) bows to pay his respects to the deceased.

But then Arkan receives his orders from Istanbul, orders he promptly obeys. In only a few scenes, the directors depict the mixture of obedience and cowardice, of expediency and vileness that has always made ethnic cleansing and pogroms possible.

The men and boys are crucified, castrated and hacked to pieces, and the women are sent on a starvation march into the deserts of eastern Anatolia. Nazim, a beggar (played by Palestinian filmmaker Mohammed Bakri), betrays his masters but then regrets it and attempts to at least help the women. Youssuf (Moritz Bleibtreu), a Turkish soldier, is drawn to the family's proud surviving daughter (Paz Vega) and falls in love with her. In an attempt to flee, Nunik sacrifices herself to enable her nieces to escape. When Youssuf receives his orders -- "Throw them into the fire first, then cut off their heads" -- he decapitates Nunik to save her from being burned alive.

The outstanding performances -- and the sheer incomprehensibility of the events -- keep the film from descending into sentimentality, despite the costumes and the over-abundance of stage blood. The Tavianis have managed to produce images the film's viewers will regret having seen, because these are the kinds of images one has trouble forgetting. This is both the film's achievement and its curse.

Watching the film is almost unbearable. According to some eyewitnesses, soldiers gave Armenian mothers the option of killing their newborn boys themselves. Others say that women were forced to place their babies in a rucksack and stand back-to-back with another woman, their arms interlocked and… One doesn't want to know or see what actually happened.

A muffled silence

This is what Vittorio Taviani has to say about it: "The murder of the innocent has been a part of theater history since the Greeks, since Shakespeare. Three years ago we discovered the Armenian tragedy, almost by accident, when we read the book by Antonia Arslan. We wanted to tell it with the means at our disposal."

Arsinée Khanjian, a Canadian of Armenian heritage who lost part of her own family, plays the role of Armineh Avakian. In one scene the severed head of her husband is thrown into her lap. "She was adamant about acting in our film. She felt that it was a sort of obligation to her murdered great-grandparents. We promised her that we would only shoot this scene once, and without rehearsal," says Paolo Taviani. "According to the script, she was supposed to scream. But all that came out was a muffled silence. We left it that way."

The Armenians were Christians, often educated and affluent. As such, they made for the ideal fifth column when the Ottoman Empire attacked Russia. But the Ottomans lost the war. According to the official version in Ankara, the Armenians had to be resettled during the war, and most of them died as a result of disease and at the hands of Kurdish tribes. But many contest that version.

"One million Armenians were murdered. This is something hardly anyone dares to say," said Orhan Pamuk prior to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. His words immediately made Pamuk the victim of nationalist, hate-mongering propaganda. The persecution and murder of the Armenian minority remains the foremost trauma of the founding of modern Turkey.

It was, in fact, the "young Turks," those who were eager to found a new and modern state, who issued the orders which led to the deaths of the Armenians. Recognizing the genocide as such would be tantamount to admitting that the spiritual founders of modern Turkey were men who today would be easily convicted of war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. And yet the majority of officers charged with crimes against the Armenians were promptly released after the war.

Efforts in vain

For the past 70 years, Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has had plans to film the Armenian epic "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," by Czech-born poet, playwright and novelist Franz Werfel. And Sylvester Stallone has likewise recently indicated he would be interested in making the movie. But the project was repeatedly shelved for political reasons. Keeping NATO's eastern flank happy was apparently more important that bringing justice to a minority that had already been heavily decimated.

Even today the European Union avoids using the word "genocide," anxious not to cast a shadow on the negotiations over Turkey's bid for EU membership.

The film is an Italian-French-Bulgarian-Spanish co-production. Turkey's delegate to the European film fund Eurimage attempted to put a stop to the Taviani project. But this time Turkey's efforts were in vain.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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