Cine-ethics and Class Struggle: a Review of Palme d’Or Winner Winter Sleep Özen Nergis
We live in a global society where to speak of class conflict and social tension is a breach of good taste and decency. In cinema, class conflict is invariably masked under subject-centered narratives, such as romance, action heroes, and critically acclaimed inner conflicts. Class conflict is usually recognized in the form of cinema engagé, which ostensibly compromises its artistic value in favor of its political commitment. World cinema, however, continues to engage with class antagonisms but it treats these issues locally, which in turn risks framing the subject as a third world problem. In Winter Sleep, an endorsed masterpiece with Palme d’Or, the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan revisits the theme of class contradictions after his 2010 film Three Monkeys, this time more subtly, yet more capitally. Built around the central axis of conflict between a former actor landlord and his tenant, the imam of a small rural town, the film explores ethics and aesthetics of realism, and representation of class oppression. The Turkish director cautiously foregrounds class divide both locally and globally, transitioning smoothly between class conflict as a precursor of the current political regime in Turkey and the ever-increasing global inequality generated by capitalist dynamics and older social structures. He also masterfully subverts the binary between the engagé and the art house cinema, and offers a new perspective on realism in cinema today.
The aesthetics of class conflict has been characteristically contained within the boundaries of social realism and other forms of politically engaged art and literature, which is oftentimes populated with stereotypes and predictable storylines. It has also been locked in orthodox Marxist ideologies, which are now remembered with nostalgia, if not with overt condescension by some. It is a moment that we would like to remind ourselves has passed, leaving behind works with relatively small art value. In cinema, other than pronounced examples like Chinese film of the 50s and 60s, British social realism, and the Soviet era, the naming of the subject as such, i.e. class conflict, has been carefully avoided. An overall look at cinema criticism today would reveal that even films engaging directly with class struggle are subjected to distorted emphasis on their cinematography or its issues of cultural representation. In such symptomatic reading, The City of God is fundamentally about drugs, and La Haine about race, to cite a few examples. Critics and viewers alike have carefully avoided the subject. The issue of class antagonism has been limited to the genre of documentary, which has produced unprecedented and masterful examination of class, especially in Latin America, with the films of Fernando E. Solanas. The careful weeding out of class struggle in cinema and its critique, as well as its limitation to non-fiction, debunk many directors’ efforts to put it back on the table.
Set in rural central Anatolia, Winter Sleep gives a critical figural role to class antagonism using the country and city trope, a recurrent motif in Ceylan’s cinema. The landowners—the former actor and hotel owner, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), his wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag)—have all moved to Cappadocia from Istanbul in order to take care of their father’s estate and a hotel, possibly running from their failed careers in the metropolis. The urban-rural divide, complicated by divisions of class, is epitomized in the cartographic placement of the estate owner on a hill and the tenant way below. The former actor and hotel owner, Aydin, which means "enlightened" in Turkish, played by prominent Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer, is figuratively the light bringer from the city to the "darkness" of the country. A landlord looking down on his subjects from the top of a hill, Aydin is a character between a disillusioned bourgeois in existential crisis and a wealthy man in pursuit of material and social capital, who ironically believes himself to be generous. The tenants who are locals of the town, however, do not get as much screen time. We learn very little of their lives.
It is no coincidence that the central conflict of the film is structured between an actor as the landlord, and an imam Hamdi (Serhat Kilic) as the tenant. It reflects inner conflicts and polarizations in contemporary Turkish society between "enlightened" elites and religious lower classes (a long-standing tension in Turkish society which no longer truly holds in the current conjuncture). It also points to larger questions of the film concerning representation of the working class and the poor. In a self-reflexive scene, Aydin tells his sister Necla of an imam character he played on stage, a ridiculed stock character of a religious man who is into wine and women. Not the least troubled by the discrepancy between Hamdi and the fictional imam of the play, Aydin jumps to conclusions about Hamdi based on his own stage performance. Aydin’s own sense of self as the "enlightener" is maintained, not through subjective reciprocity with Hamdi, but through the theatrical fantasy of an imam. Hamdi as the other is objectified and constructed in order to satisfy Aydin’s sense of superiority, reaffirming his social distinction. This broken chain of representation, where the represented (Hamdi) corresponds neither to its representation (fictive imam) nor to its representative (Aydin as imam), epitomizes the isolation of art from major social realities. The scene is self-reflexive in this sense, juxtaposing the film’s own realism to theatrical portrayals of "the other" that Aydin favors. Aydin’s occupation also presents a critique of mainstream theatrical practice in Turkey, commonly conceived of as civilizing mission—a covert reference to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, in which an actor declares his dictatorship in the city of Kars.
The film’s latent threat of class antagonism is slowly revealed by numerous trips the characters take up and down the hill: Hamdi pays two symbolically charged visits to Aydin’s hotel, one with his nephew Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan); Aydin descends a couple of times only to climb back in aversion, and his wife, Nihal, "humbly" descends the hill for charity, only to be mocked. As viewers, we are placed within Aydin’s point of view from the very opening scene and we are intentionally made complacent. The obtuse and shocking episodes of the reluctant encounters between the two households, coupled with striking cinematography and carefully composed shots, force us out of the comfort zone in which we were initially placed. Part of Ceylan's realism lies here: as an educated middle-class audience, we have limited access to the oppressed lower class—their household, their lives, and thoughts. While the privileged man speaks plenty, writes newspaper columns, and acts, there are only a few instances when the oppressed have a medium to speak. The other does not speak to us, but vents in what may be interpreted as acts of derangement: Ilyas casts a stone to Aydin's car; the tenant, Ismail (Nejat Isler) who is also Ilyas’s father, shatters the window of his own house as retribution for his son’s deed, Ilyas passes out when he is forced to kiss Aydin's hand, and finally Ismail burns Nihal’s charity money.
Such acts of transgression and/or violence are the only medium of expression that remains for the lower class, regardless of Hamdi's negotiation attempt with Aydin, which is merely a form of compromise. We, the middle-class viewers, are unsettled, if not frightened, in face of these actions due to our complacent embrace of the status quo from the beginning. These powerful reactions Ceylan elicits from his viewers tie in with the ethical and aesthetic question explored in the film: what is the ethical thing to do in face of "the other," and how can one ethically represent "the other" who does not have access to its own representation? Unlike Aydin, Nuri Bilge Ceylan makes no pretentious claims about the underprivileged: on the contrary, the director explores the limits of his own ability to represent the lower class, which marks his signature realism. Ceylan puts forward two models of representation and two ethical modalities that stand in contrast to one another: the film’s and the protagonist’s. The former recognizes its own ethical and aesthetic limits in face of the other, while the latter upholds bourgeois pretense to moral superiority—a symptom of internalized class hierarchies—leavened with hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. What’s more, this is not simply a class question for Ceylan; he also brings issues of gender and the animal into play.
Class hierarchies are coupled with gender struggles in the film, which features two female protagonists—a sister who seems to have lost her power over the family property, and a wife who is confined and imprisoned to her husband’s estate and money. Ceylan gives us plenty of access to female characters for the first time in this film, particularly in powerful monologues. In her family estate, entirely controlled by her brother, Necla is made to feel decidedly de trop, a redundancy within the bourgeois household. As the oppressed within the privileged, she is the character that introduces the overriding question of the film in a philosophical discussion over breakfast: what is the right thing to do when someone harms you? Necla’s ethical discussion attacks hierarchies and hypocrisy on which the stability of the bourgeois family and estate depends. Yet in her defense of not resisting evil, Necla clearly implicates her ex-husband and her brother as the evil-doers. The discussion scene is followed by Ilyas and Hamdi’s visit for an apology and suggests narrative and discursive continuity between the two incidents. Aydin ironically finds himself at the center of a moral conundrum as the victim of wrongdoing: Ilyas broke the window of Aydin’s car, and Hamdi refuses to vacate Aydin’s house or pay rent. These evil acts of the lower class—perceived as such by the middle class— sum up the bourgeois system of morality based entirely on the principle of personal property. Aydin demands more than an apology, he wants compensation for his financial loss. However, not even an apology could be performed, as Ilyas passes out as he is forced to kiss Aydin’s hand. In this emblematic scene, Aydin, alone with the tenants and without his mediators (his lawyers and his aid Hidayet), unveils his own moral hypocrisy, convincing himself that he is acting virtuously by letting the boy apologize. Bilginer’s performance in this "kissing of hand" scene is subtle and brilliant, seamlessly transitioning from a joking laugh to hateful condescension. The visit consequently leaves Aydin more frustrated: he later goes into a rant about values and justice. In his long speech, the head of the petit-bourgeois household turns concepts of morality and conscience into empty signifiers, stripping them of their meaning.
Aydin’s wife Nihal, on the other hand, responds to Necla's ethical challenge with charity. As a trophy wife who uses Aydin’s power and material wealth, she engages in philanthropic activities, such as organizing fundraisers to help the poor in the region. Aydin and Nihal represent the vicious cycle of exploitation and its legitimization: she gives back to the region what Aydin’s family accumulated through exploitation in the first place. An example of this petit-bourgeois charity is illustrated in a harrowing scene at Hamdi’s house, where Nihal attempts to give money she took from Aydin to Hamdi in order to help them pay back Aydin. Under the guise of altruism, Nihal proposes this charitable exchange as a type of protective investment. Discerning the strange logic of exchange here, Ismail, by burning the money, brings to its limits the economy of morality that Nihal’s charity enterprise represents. This symbolic act, and not-so-uncommon trope in Turkish cinema, could have easily turned into a melodramatic scene where the poor choose pride over money and thereby conform to the status quo. Ceylan, conscious of this risk, manages to convey the sense of transgression in Ismail’s act with uncanny visuality. Ismail, shot against the burning fireplace, stands menacingly over Nihal, peering down from above at her. His action, irrational and violent, demonizes Ismail. Once more we, the viewers, share the petit-bourgeois character’s feelings in this antagonizing scene: perplexed, disconcerted, terrified and slightly irritated. This brings us back to the film’s larger self-reflexive contemplation on crisis of representation: how to achieve a realistic representation of the lower class other without middle-class chronotopes, such as melodrama, especially when the only medium of speech left to the other is violence.
What is glaring at us from the screen is a proclamation of class struggle by art cinema, which has received institutional support by the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. I have little doubt that most viewers watched the film from a strictly cultural or personal angle, i.e. the director as a native informant representing problems in his country, or a film merely reflecting on complexities of its characters. A critic of the film in the Guardian, for instance, has importunately argued that while the narrative thrust of this story may be interpreted as political, the devil is in the personal details. What he basically tells us is “Yes, it seems to be political, but let me show you what it is really about.” This is a symptomatic interpretation, diverting the focus of the film from class conflict to "apolitical" personal narratives. The devil, however, is actually in this overstated and fabricated antagonism between the political and the personal, in the insistent condescension of any politics in cinema, and finally in the internalized ideologies that we refuse to let go.
Winter Sleep can be neither objectively called Marxist, nor deemed social realist. Despite, or possibly owing to such avoidance of established tropes in representing the lower class, the language of the film, both visual and discursive, achieves a level of complexity that gives the issue of class struggle new life in world cinema. There have been rumors that Von Trier is expecting the Palme d’Or next year with Nymphomaniac. Maybe it is time to shift the contemporary trend in cinema from connecting with pathologies of the marginalized individual—which has produced countless examples in the last thirty years or so—to disclosing pathologies of modern society that systematically marginalizes the lower class and the poor.