The Ottoman Lieutenant

Leni Riefenstahl was by all accounts a serious, talented, and ambitious filmmaker. She was also an amoral opportunist who ignored facts in the interest of her film career and personal advantage. She hitched her wagon to the wrong goddamn rising star. See: the verdict of history. I wonder if director Joseph Ruben isn’t following the same path to some extent?

Ruben’s film The Ottoman Lieutenant is Turkish propaganda to promote the idea that the Armenian genocide wasn’t a systematic program by the Ottoman government and therefore doesn’t fit the definition of the word “genocide.”  It’s meant as a retcon for the bloody history of that time, cleaning up the record for the country that became Turkey. History is (re)written by the victors even a century later.   

It is releasing concurrently with a similar film called The Promise starring Oscar Isaac that presents the generally accepted narrative about the genocide.

Cara Buckley, in a New York Times article from April, 20th, 2017, says “six weeks before The Promise hit theaters this weekend came another film that shared uncanny parallels. Like The Promise, The Ottoman Lieutenant hinges on a love triangle set in Turkey during the early days of World War I. Unlike The Promise, The Ottoman Lieutenant, which stars Michiel Huisman and Josh Hartnett, was backed by Turkish investors and has been pilloried by critics for whitewashing historical events.

“Heroism, altruism, and passion are presented in the simplest terms…”

I’m not as well-versed in 20th-century history as I should be. I spent more time with movies and books than paying attention in history classes, though as an adult I realize that history is relevant and I’ve taken an intense interest. Ironically I have learned history from watching movies, which is a shaky way to go about it, only works if you augment with skepticism and dig for facts. Most dramatic films exist to sell tickets, not to preserve historical fidelity.  The Ottoman Lieutenant exists to give a particular interpretation of history.  

I did the research before watching the movie. Should I have looked? Do you ever read about a movie before viewing or do you go in cold? I do both for different films. I don’t avoid spoilers in films/TV. I’d rather not be surprised.

The  conditions leading up to the Armenian genocide evolved through complex layers of events with multiple drivers over time but the short version is that the Ottoman Turks worried that the Christian Armenians (who were a reviled and oppressed underclass in the Ottoman culture) would side with the Russians in the coming war (WWI)  and decided they’d mitigate that risk by systematically deporting, conscripting, imprisoning, and killing most of them.

According to wikipedia: “Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies the word genocide as an accurate term for the mass killings of Armenians that began under Ottoman rule in 1915. It has in recent years been faced with repeated calls to recognize them as genocide. To date, 29 countries have officially recognized the mass killings as genocide, as have most genocide scholars and historians”

I’m puzzled as to why the word is what hangs people up. Nobody argues with the body count. When you kill 1.5 million people, who gives a shit what it’s called? Let’s just not do that again. Unfortunately, words do matter. This is particularly noteworthy now in the U.S. where we are saddled with a government rife with stupid semantics and “alternative facts.”

“The eponymous Ottoman officer Ismael (Huisman) is a romantic wet dream…”

Then I watched the movie. I should have gone in cold and then looked it up but I’m rarely that patient. Aspects of it would have annoyed me even if I hadn’t done the research. My resulting bias shows here: It’s disturbing that the film strips down a complicated moment in history to brightly colored basic ideas and impulses. Heroism, altruism, and passion are presented in the simplest terms and most convenient definitions without the messy contradictions (or the full accounting) of historical reality.

Taken as just a film it’s not terrible. Dutch actor Michiel Huisman is great in the HBO show Treme and commendable here as the Ottoman officer. Josh Hartnett is sturdy and delivers a reliable performance. Sir Ben Kingsley is beyond review at this point. His very presence brings the room up a notch. Maybe less so these days? It’s been a long time since Gandhi. He is still a fine actor and right at home as the tormented ether-addicted doctor running the hospital in the dusty wartime hellscape.

Icelandic actress Helma Hilmar plays Lillie Rowe, an idealistic American nurse. Hilmar brings fresh-faced beauty and composure to the role.She is the American audience’s vicarious lens: the fearlessly plucky protagonist whose idealism compels her from her life of luxury to a brutal country where women are poorly regarded and treated even worse. She’s intent on delivering supplies to a hospital in the caucuses. Who are these suicidal people?  I’m over characters who hear warnings like “high likelihood of war, rape, and murder, still want to go?” and undeterred they set their jaw and sally forth. A sane person would be deterred. The most troubling issue is this overwrought breathless framework of a classic movie romance. It’s disrespectful to the victims of the real events.

The eponymous Ottoman officer Ismael (Huisman) is a romantic wet dream. He’s kind and funny and handsome and wears his uniform smartly.  When it comes time for the sex he carefully asks Lillie if she’s sure. She’s the one who initiates sex, in fact, asking him to tell her the Turkish word for “kiss.” Oh my. He’s far too perfect. Later in the film he’s even more perfect. I am skeptical of the notion that a man in that culture at that time could be so deferential to a young American woman. Possible. Unlikely.

The budget is splashed all over the place; the production is lush and epic. Sweeping landscapes flow by in saturated hyperreal color as Lillie travels across the desert and mountains. It’s a pretty film. I’m sympathetic to the filmmakers whose craftsmanship went into the movie. Absent historical context this would be adequate light fare presented as easily digested boilerplate archetypes and tropes but the weak script/dialog and narrative retcon can’t be ignored and spoils their efforts.  

Effective propaganda shouldn’t make one think too deeply. Riefenstahl would approve.

The Ottoman Lieutenant  (2016)  Directed by: Joseph Ruben. Written by: Jeff Stockwell. Starring: Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley.   

5 out of 10

2 responses to “The Ottoman Lieutenant

  1. Denial comes in many forms. Decades ago it was crude dismissal of the Armenian genocide by Turks that was essentially based on the notion of : “Armenians? what Armenians there were no Armenians only Turks lived in Turkey” in the same manner as Kurds were in reality “Mountain Turks”. Also, Armenian Christian churches and cathedrals were built by “Christian ancestors of Turks”.

    Later, realizing the untenability of simplistic official lies Turkish authorities adopted a more subtle, more sophisticated approach. The new line was “bad things happen in wars, both sides suffered equally”. It is this latest approach that permits the president of Turkey to even offer his “condolences” for all those who died…you know, during the “civil war”.

    Today, we witness yet another, prettier approach of denial through “The Ottoman Lieutenant”, a film financed and produced by government-connected Turkish sources who, we find out from the directing/editing team, even had a major say in the final editing, to the dismay of the director Joseph Ruben.

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