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In the valley of the wolves

Serdar Akar's Turkish thriller "Valley of the Wolves" is driven less by fear of a megalomaniac enemy than by desire for a fictional revenge. By Alexandra Stäheli

It's a strange feeling when, as a film critic, going to a film suddenly becomes an experiment which – with each additional newspaper report – feels increasingly like an exercise in self-preservation. In the last few weeks, journalists by the dozen have gone to see Serdar Akar's Turkish secret agent film "Valley of the Wolves" in cinemas in immigrant-dominated neighbourhoods of German cities to get a sense of how minorities are feeling and to expose themselves to these allegedly fear-inspiring, incomprehensible, rioting mobs. We read of Christian-haters, of peer pressure and youth who, at the end of the film, stand up and chant "Allah Akbar."

Necati Sasmaz as Polat Alemdar.
Photos © MaXXimum Films

We're standing in front of the Kino Küchlin in Basel's Steinen suburb where the film – unlike in other Swiss cities – is playing in the city's largest (960 seat) cinema. It's just begun to snow lightly, the people are rushing into the warmth of the cinema and the streets, notorious for multicultural clashes, are unusually empty for a Saturday evening. As is the cinema, which five minutes before the movie begins is still only half full, mainly with men of all ages. Armed with popcorn and cola, they silently watch the slide-projected ads, which are indeed aimed at precisely this audience - for local Turkish snack stops ("Every day is Doner Kebab-day").

Even when finally the agent Polat Alemar hits the screen on the heels of the oily American capitalist referred to as Uncle Sam, who is castigating the people in Iraq in his autocratic, horrible, random way, there is an unusual quiet in the cinema, a quiet one rarely experiences on a weekend in popcorn cinema. Exactly three times, the viewers rouse themselves to polite applause – of course in the places where Sam or his men are being brought to justice. The peak of excitement comes with the dramatic and somewhat archaic showdown, when the lovely Leyla finally seeks revenge. She, the bride with fluttering eyes, dies in the arms of Polat, who has just completed her revenge by ramming her 1,000 year old dagger into Sam's inflated breast.

Bergüzar Korel (Leyla) and Necati Sasmaz

A young woman wearing a short shirt exposing her belly button says she found it "extreme but funny and entertaining" while her friend grins and shyly fixes her headscarf. Both of them are holding brochures and concert flyers from an "Information Centre - Turkey" that claims to be confessionally, nationally and politically independent. These were given out by a man during the intermission and seem to contain information on Switzerland's individual cantons and democratic system. The film's relatively flat statement about corruption in the Western world is thus met in an almost comic way by gestures of Enlightenment and integration.

Certainly, the film has undeniably nationalistic, anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Semitic traits, as has already been well-documented. It works with cliches, stereotypes and projections. The characters are so overdrawn that the story threatens to tip into the realm of fairy tale or allegory towards the end. But this reduction to a simple scheme of good and evil - which is also complicated by a humane American soldier and even more by a Sufi Sheik who calls for an end to the violence – is part of the inventory of every Western action film, as is the aesthetic of violence (not especially well handled here), the chase, the apparent destruction of the bad guy and his surprising return for the final showdown.

Bergüzar Korel

What distinguishes Polat Alemdar's mission from that of James Bond is the fact that its starting point is not fictitious. In the American action of 2003 - now known as the "Hood Event" - an American unit attacked eleven Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq for no apparent reason and "with no regard for their military honour," as the film distributor MaXXimum puts it on their website, transported them away with sacks on their heads while the local population watched. While the plot of every other Western secret agent thriller is driven by fear of global rule by a megalomaniac Arabic oil magnate or an eye-rolling, deeply evil Russian – a mission with which James Bond was still entrusted even years after the Berlin Wall fell, without causing an international crisis – this film, the Turkish reverse, is not about power or money.

Polat's task is rather to re-establish a moral value, and to attain fictional revenge for an actually-experienced injury to many people's sense of honour. For that reason it can be viewed from a psychological perspective as part of a compensation mechanism. But does such a film have to be rated as dangerous and banned as Bavaria's premier Edmund Stoiber recommended? No more than any other action film or war flick. While average moviegoers will find Polat's brimful and – all things considered – rather boring mission more or less entertaining, those who have already been radicalised in one way or another will have no problems finding confirmation for their views.

Billy Zane as Sam William Marshall (Uncle Sam)

But what does Akar's film contribute in terms of the now almost totally meaningless talk of a "clash of civilisations"? First off, perhaps, the insight that "the West", just like "Islam", is not one unified category, and that viewers in Berlin's Neukölln district can be of a very different political stripe than those in other European cities. In addition it could show that in the all out image war between the East and the West, we are sometimes even more appalled by our own images than we are at those of "the others". It could be that the Muslim media is in fact holding up a mirror, and that instead of unreadable Oriental cryptograms, it is reflecting our own, all-too-comprehensible images. This media effect was seen in the "9/11" attack, which seemed to be staged along the lines of a Western catastrophe film. It was seen when Iran called for a Holocaust cartoon competition. And it is seen now when a Turkish film studio produces an ungainly version of a James Bond thriller according to the Western rules of the genre and with Western stereotypes – except that the good guys and the bad guys have switched roles.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on February 27, 2006.

Alexandra Stäheli is a film critic for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She is author of "Materie und Melancholie: Die Postmoderne zwischen Adorno, Lyotard und dem pictorial turn" (Matter and Melancholy: Postmodernity between Adorno, Lyotard and the pictorial turn).

Translation: nb, jab. - let's talk european