Turkish Film Pulled by German Theaters

By Michael Levitin

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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BERLIN — In Europe’s latest entanglement over free speech, German officials and Jewish leaders are calling for a ban on a Turkish action film that demonizes Americans and Jews. On Wednesday, Cinemaxx, Germany’s largest theater chain, was the first movie house to respond, announcing that it would strike the film from its program immediately.

Following a smash success in Turkey earlier this month, “Kurtlar Vadisi Irak” (“Valley of the Wolves — Iraq”) has sold more than 200,000 tickets and climbed to fifth place in the German box office since it hit theaters here last week. With its bitterly anti-American and anti-Jewish depiction of the Iraq War, some say that the film is stoking hatred and sending the wrong — and an unacceptable — message to Germany’s large Turkish population.

“I urge the cinema owners in Germany to pull this racist and anti-Western hate film immediately,” said Edmund Stoiber, Bavaria’s conservative premier and one of Germany’s most recognized politicians, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag last weekend.

Stoiber’s statement followed the initial one made late last week by Charlotte Knobloch, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said that the movie “supports hatred of Jewish people and attacks Western civilization.” Alluding to the country’s Nazi past, she said, “Germany can’t be a place for [this kind of] propaganda.”

The film comes at a time when the integration of Turks into German society is lagging due to high levels of crime, unemployment and failures in education — and critics say that the movie offers little to improve the dialogue. In fact, they argue, by presenting a young movie-going audience with anti-American and antisemitic clichés, the film is likely to widen the cultural divide between Islam and the West, in the lead-up to Germany’s discussions about Turkey entering the European Union.

“These kinds of hate messages aren’t what we need in a society filled with immigrants and mixed ethnic and religious groups,” said Michael Kohlstruck, doctor of political science at Berlin’s Technical University. Kohlstruck is a specialist in right-wing extremism and youth violence. “All it takes is a few people mobilized by the film to become a danger by carrying out attacks.”

Still, Kohlstruck added: “It’s not right for a liberal society to forbid these films. It’s better to leave them open and to discuss them.”

In order to ban the film, German law says that authorities would have to determine that it violates Criminal Code 130, which outlaws hate speech, or Code 131, calling against the “exhibition or glorification of intensely violent acts.” Given that the film has been running here for nearly two weeks — and isn’t any more violent than an average action film — it seems unlikely that the government would move to block the movie.

But some German politicians and Jewish leaders would like movie theaters to stop running it.

“Whether it’s cartoons against Muslims or antisemitic propositions in a movie,” said Michael May, executive director of Berlin’s Jewish community, “I’m generally a proponent of free speech. But not at the cost of riots and clashes. I’d like this to be a self-imposed censorship based on a commercial decision.”

The film starts off by retelling an actual event that happened in Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq, in July 2003; American forces arrested and held in captivity 11 Turkish soldiers, who were later released. The film then quickly turns to its fictional action hero, Turkish intelligence officer Polat Alemdar. He sets out to avenge his humiliated countrymen. In the process, American troops massacre civilians at a wedding party, firebomb a mosque during evening prayer and carry out summary executions — not to mention the abuses depicted at the Abu Ghraib prison. But perhaps the film’s most evil villain is the American Jewish military doctor (played by Gary Busey), who extracts Iraqi prisoners’ organs to sell to rich buyers in New York, London and Tel Aviv.

Made on a $10 million budget, the film, which is a spin-off of a popular Turkish TV series, is Turkey’s most expensive movie to date. Seen by some as a cinematic backlash to “Midnight Express”the 1978 American film depicting the ruthless way of life in a Turkish prison — a number of Turks are nonetheless questioning its artistic value.

“I prefer a Turkish Michael Moore to a Turkish Rambo in Iraq,” Baris Sanli wrote in the Ankara-based Turkish Weekly. Middle East expert Cengiz Candar told the BBC in Turkey, “This film poisons the climate in a way that it enhances jingoistic nationalism among Turks.”

That does not appear to be the view held by Turkish Parliament speaker Bulent Arinc, president of the Turkish National Assembly, who attended the movie’s gala opener with the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It is an extraordinary film that will go down in history,” Arinc raved to the Anatolia press agency.

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