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Arts & Culture

Guest Review: 'The Cut'

Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) and his twin daughters in Fatih Akin's "The Cut."
Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) and his twin daughters in Fatih Akin's "The Cut."

A story of love, human frailty, and genocide

Companion viewing

“Ararat” (2002) Atom Ergoyen (Canada/France)

“Mayrig” (1991), Henri Verneuil (France)

“The Lark Farm” (2007) Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Italy)

“Head On” (2004) Fatih Akin (Germany)

“The Edge of Heaven” (2007) Fatih Akin (Germany)

Guest blogger Rebecca Romani says Fatih Akin's new film "The Cut" (opening this weekend at the Ken Cinema) may be one of the best feature films yet on the Armenian Genocide.

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin may say he didn’t intend his new film to be a “genocide film," but Akin’s “The Cut” may well be one of the best films yet to address what befell the Armenians living under Ottoman rule between 1915 and 1918.

A beautiful and somewhat sprawling film, “The Cut” is a deeply felt, compassionate piece, just right, for this, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian massacres, also known as the Armenian Genocide. “The Cut” joins a bare handful of films on what is one of the least commented upon modern massacres of the modern era.


Little known to many Americans, but much discussed in Europe, what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire concurrent with World War I, is generally considered the first genocide of the 20th century by many nations (Turkey and the U.S. are two of the exceptions). Starting in April of that year, the Ottoman Empire systematically deported and murdered between 800,000 and 1.5 million of its Armenian subjects over the course of about three years. Thousands more fled the Empire, and the Ottoman State seized property and lands as well as Armenian children made wards of the state.

The Armenian solution was graphic and brutal and provided the blueprint for similar actions like the Holocaust, the Bosnian massacres and what is happening to theYazidi in Iraq today under ISIS, also known as Da’esh.

It is against this background that Akin’s “The Cut” follows Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim), a young Armenian blacksmith living a comfortable life in Ottoman Mardin with his beautiful wife, Rahel (Hindi Zahra), twin daughters, and an extended family. The year is 1915, and the new leaders of the Ottoman Empire, The Young Turks, have made secret and not so secret plans to rid the empire of its non-Turkoman people, especially the Armenians.

The Ottomans begin rounding up Armenian men like Nazaret as conscripts, only to use them to build the railroads as slave labor. Nazaret and his friends are slated be finished off by Turkish brigands and convicts, when the Ottoman Army is done with them, but at the last minute, a Turkish convict allows his hand to slip, merely piercing Nazaret’s neck instead of slicing his throat. Later, the convict, Mehmet (Bartu Küçükçaglayan), doubles back to save Nazaret, and together, they evade the Ottoman Army.

Saved, but now mute, Nazaret searches for his family on a journey through the horrors of the Armenian “refugee camps” in Ras-al-'Ayn to the safety of a Muslim Syrian’s soap factory turned refugee sanctuary in Aleppo. Along the way, Nazaret, a devout Christian who wears an Armenian cross tattooed on his wrist in memory of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, will lose his country, his people and his faith. He will learn why his sister-in-law is no longer able to see God as merciful, and he will be told of the fate of most of his family -- like hundreds of thousands of Armenians -- deported in death marches toward the Euphrates, raped, beaten, shot, or left to die. All have perished but his twin daughters.


Their fate becomes Nazaret’s obsession and his eight-year search for them leads him along the threads of the Armenian diaspora -- from the orphanages of Aleppo to the Benevolent Societies of Havana, to the icy plains of North Dakota. What Nazaret finds will break your heart.

A word of caution, while Akin does not indulge in splatter action, the scenes of executions and the death marches are shot with such quiet attention to detail that they feel all the more horrific.

Akin’s last film in his trilogy of “Love, Death, and The Devil” is both an ode to the power of parental love and the moral quandary that is human nature. In his trilogy, Akin sees people as being capable of love, compassion, and horrific cruelty driven by ideology or the need to survive. In “The Cut” not all Ottomans are horrible, and Nazaret is no saint -- several times he ignores opportunities to save others in favor of pursuing his dogged quest, nonetheless learning that small mercies can be found in the most unexpected of places. It is against the backdrop of one of the most depraved State-sanctioned massacres that Akin gives the Devil his due.

As a director of Turkish origin, Akin is also reaching across a divide with “The Cut.” Until recently, discussing what some Turkish officials called “The Armenian Question,” could lead to censorship at best, death at worst in Turkey. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist was killed in 2007, by a young Turkish nationalist. Akin himself has received death threats from ultra right Turkish nationalists. The Turks have steadfastly refused to recognize the massacres, saying, in part, this was committed under the Ottoman Empire, and not an issue of the current modern state. They have yet to acknowledge the deportations, seizure of property, and assassinations. Only recently has the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inched toward recognition and apology.

If Akin is looking back 100 years at unspeakable violence against a population, he is also addressing our times and the current state of affairs in Syria and Iraq. The Armenian Genocide set not only the tone but also laid out the blueprints for similar actions throughout the 20th century. Now, 100 years later, when you see the scenes of forced marches and the Armenian slave girl, you cannot help but think of ISIS and its abuse and enslavement of the Yazidi people and Christian minorities. Akin, himself familiar with being a religious and ethnic minority in Germany, clearly sees the parallels.

Akin wrote the script with Mardik Martin, an Armenian-American scriptwriter, who also co-wrote Martin Scorsese’s “New York Stories” and “Raging Bull.” Martin adjusted the script, adding details. Akin and Martin even named the main character after Haig Manoogian, the Armenian-American film professor who co-produced “Raging Bull.”

And again, this might be part of the issue with the film. By focusing on one person, Nazaret, and peeling back the layers of the fate of the Ottoman Armenians, Akin gives his story a weight and compassion that sheer facts and numbers cannot do. However, if a story like this is not told, when it is finally explored, every detail begs to be let in, there is a need to do justice to the enormity of the event. As a result, “The Cut” loses focus at times and wanders through the landscape.

Akin has engaged in exhaustive research which lends his epic an unusual level of accuracy from the Armenian cross tattooed on Nazaret’s wrist to the streets of Havana. Lest you think the refugee camp scenes are exaggerated, dozens of photos taken at the time show scenes of greater horrific detail and the contemporary reporting out of the region is more graphic still.

If “The Cut” has a major weakness for American audiences, it is because Akin has chosen not to analyze what happened but to let Nazaret the Blacksmith guide the viewer through some of the horrors of the Ottoman solution to the Armenians and the goodness of people. While many Europeans and some Turks already know many of the details of what happened to the Armenians, Americans tend not to, which might make Akin’s film a little less accessible.

Nonetheless, "The Cut” is a beautiful and deeply compassionate film. Shooting across four countries, Akin lenses his scenes in deep focus, beautifully exposed 35mm. His vistas are gorgeous even when you know heartache and tragedy may lie just over the hill. The camera loves the faces of his cast and the bounced lighting and careful use of filters makes even scenes such as when Nazaret’s sister-in-law, Ani (Arevik Martirosyan) is mercifully released from her degraded state in the camps, horrifically beautiful. And the haunting, circling melody underscores Nazaret’s search for information about his daughters, always on the verge of finding them, always coming up short.

However, Akin’s sweeping vistas also stretch out the film a little too long. At a run time of about 138 minutes, much of it spent in the company of the mute Nazaret, the deserts, beaches, and winter plains start to drag on. A more tightly edited journey would allow the film to focus more on Nazaret’s reaction to his surroundings as opposed to endlessly stranding him in a gorgeous tableau.

Akin has called upon a stellar cast, many Armenian and the rest of Middle Eastern descent. The versatile and expressive French Algerian actor, Tahar Rahim (“The Prophet,” “Free Men”) is amazingly supple with his eyes and face once Nazaret is made mute and the shifts in his expression as he watches Charlie Chaplin for the first time deeply underscore the very real tragedies Nazaret has seen. The very talented French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian does a nice turn as the refugee, Krikor, who has lost everything and unlike Nazaret, discovers the hidden cruelty of the oppressed, while Israeli-Arab actor Makram Khoury, seen recently in “Homeland” and “Miral” brings a weary compassion to his role as Omar Nasreddin, the Syrian soap seller who protects the refugees.

Of all of Akin’s recent films, “The Cut” is possibly his most ambitious and least constructed films. It overreaches in part of the story and leaves some important stones untouched. Nonetheless, it’s a telling commentary on how past can become prologue if not dealt with properly and it is clear from Akin’s portrayal of the brutalities Nazaret witnesses, that Akin is drawing clear connections to today’s headlines from Syria and Iraq. “The Cut” may not be the best film you watch all year, but it may well be one of the most important.

"The Cut" opens Friday, Oct. 2, at the Ken Cinema.See the Ken Cinema website for times and details.