A Family Affair

5.19.2008

By Dale Peck

Susanne shares this epiphany with Nejat, with whom she is staying in Istanbul (Lotte had stayed there first, having met Nejat through the German-language bookstore). Susanne awakens one morning to the call of the muezzins; hundreds of Turkish men are headed to mosque for the Feast of Bayram, which honors Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at Allah's command, and Allah's mercy in blunting the blade before it pierces the boy's flesh. Susanne points out that 'we' (Germans, Christians, Europeans -- the pronoun is as vague as the politics of Ayten's revolutionary group) share this story as well, and she asks Nejat who told it to him. His father, Nejat confesses. Nejat recalls asking Ali if he would sacrifice him, to which his father had replied that he would 'make God his enemy' to protect his son. Until that point Nejat had rejected all contact with his 'murderer' father (who, like Ayten, has been deported to Turkey), but the telling of this story awakens something in him. The movie closes with him setting off on the thousand-mile journey from Istanbul to Trabzon to seek rapprochement.

The theme would seem to be clear: Politics and family are messy, but only the latter offers any hope for peace, which is achieved by rejecting an ethical notion of justice for the emotional ideal of forgiveness. A bold statement, but one that is unsettlingly complicated, perhaps even contradicted, by the movie's narrative subtexts. Akin's Germans are selfless angels -- willing in Lotte's case to be martyred for another person's cause and in Susanne's to forgive the death of her daughter for the sake of making peace with her ghost. The Turks, by contrast, are bullies, whores, and murderers. Only Nejat, intellectually civilized by German literature and emotionally healed by Susanne's touch, rises above the rabble (the fact that Susanne is played by Hanna Schygulla, the muse of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, makes the healing touch of German civilization that much more uncanny).

Akin's film is undoubtedly a powerful and moving testament to the uneasy cultural interactions of an ever-shrinking world, but it's also suffused with a strange, almost apologetic nostalgia for something that looks suspiciously like the white man's burden. Modern Turkey, with its antidemocratic government policies on the one hand and rising Islamic fundamentalism on the other, is hardly a paradise, but the Europeanization seems a somewhat radical solution. Istanbul was Constantinople, after all, and before that it was the great city of Byzantium -- all this at a time when the Aryans' only contact with civilization was the tip of a gladiator's sword in the Roman arena. Though Akin's call for compassion is both urgent and vital, one wishes his eloquence could have been as substantive as it is heartfelt. Turkey needs more than a hug from Lili Marleen, after all, and the last time I checked German civilization had a dark side of
its own.

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