Turkish citizens are up in arms after a film premiere in Istanbul constructed a make-shift concentration camp at a red carpet gala premiere, complete with barking German shepherds, guards in SS uniforms, children’s shoes and toys piled on the floor, even a barbed wire fence with an “Achtung!” sign.

Cicero (2019), directed by Serdar Akar, tracks the life of Elyesa Bazna, the real-life Nazi spy who, in his role as valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey in Ankara during World War II, spread top-secret information to Nazis in exchange for cash.

After enjoying some initial success at the Turkish Box office, Twitter became awash with images of the premiere screening event, setting off a wave of controversy.

Part of what makes the set for the evening gala all the more perplexing is that the movie does not even focus on the deaths of the millions of Jews who entered extermination camps.

In a post-premiere interview following the screening, the producer, Mustafa Uslu, said that he was tired of seeing films that portrayed one-dimensional narratives about the Holocaust, suggesting that it was time to focus on different dimensions of Nazi crimes, hence his decision to make Cicero.

In the Twitter storm that followed, the film critic Firat Yucel dejectedly claimed that Turkey would have forced Hannah Arendt to “[re]write the Banality of Evil,” saying that anyone “moved” by the tone-deaf installation bore no consideration for its incomprehensible ignorance.

Following the premiere, the media outlet Haber Turk ran a story with the headline, “The Nazi Concentration Camp Gala.” In a typical scene-and-heard style celebrity gossip column tone, the article doesn’t question, much less point out, the controversial setting, nor how it could be perceived as hateful and intolerant to Turkey’s Jewish community.

In a Haaretz opinion article published yesterday, February 5, Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who frequently writes on Turkish and Israeli/Palestinian affairs, said, “With most Turkish media outlets subject to government pressures not to stir controversy, it is no wonder that no other major outlet tackled the topic head on.”

In 2014, Fishman contended that anti-Semitism has now been “co-opted, if not incited, by [Turkish] Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling party.”

“In one of his greatest challenges as a leader,” Shira Rubin wrote in Haaretz in 2014, “Erdogan claimed during the 2013 Gezi Park protests that the Europeans and the ‘interest-rate lobby’ — a thinly veiled reference to Jewish financial circles — were backing the anti-government campaign, with the ultimate goal of dividing Turkey from within.”

Cicero’s premiere touches a nerve for the 15,000 or so Jews who remain in Turkey, but in the ensuing Twitter storm that followed, thousands of other secular Turks voiced an import coalition protesting the film’s unsightly gala setting.

“This is stomping on the sacred souls of people who lost their lives during the Nazi darkness,” said director, producer and scriptwriter Murad Çobanoğlu. In an open-letter sent to the Turkish Movie Work Owners Association (SineBir) and shared with Hyperallergic via email, Çobanoğlu said that, “Nazi death camps were places where the systematic genocide of children took place, this should not be turned into an ornamental site to generate publicity for a film. It just shouldn’t be done.”

Soon after the controversy reached a near fever pitch, Cicero’s producer took to social media to apologize to the Turkish Jewish community for the uproar the Holocaust theme decor had caused.

The gala bears at least some reference to historical events that make genocidal themes in Turkey all the more difficult to stomach. Notably the Armenian Genocide, also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, mostly citizens within the Ottoman Empire who were exterminated between 1915-1917; in addition to the long history of discrimination and massacres perpetrated against Turkey’s Kurdish population, which remains ongoing, and which the European Court of Human Rights and many other international human rights organizations have rightly condemned Turkey for.

What’s clear is that while a fake Holocaust concentration camp at a film premiere may seem ignorant at best, anti-Semitic at worst, the insensibility of such an action is certainly not lost on the minorities who remain under threat in Turkey today, as they have for decades.

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Dorian Batycka

Dorian Batycka is an independent curator, art critic, and DJ currently based Berlin. Previously, he was curator of contemporary art at Bait Muzna for Art Film (Muscat, Oman), assistant curator for the...