Both uncredited, Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille co-directed The Squaw Man (1914), which was DeMille’s first film and the first of several collaborations with Apfel. But while DeMille proved a showman, a producer somewhat masquerading as a filmmaker, Apfel was an artist whose Ravished Armenia (a.k.a. Auction of Souls), five years hence and without DeMille, is a masterpiece of silent U.S. cinema—if the twenty or so minutes of fragments of it that we now have provide a sufficient basis for determining this. Here we have, sadly, another lost film.
The subject is the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which Turks still deny having perpetrated—and nations like the U.S. fail to acknowledge in their strategic bid for Turkey’s cooperation in other matters. The protagonist of the whole narrative film was Arshaluys (Aurora) Mardiganian, a survivor of the genocide and the author (with historian Henry Leyford Gates) of the 1918 book upon which the film was based. Mardiganian, who had made her way to the U.S., played herself—a fictional version of herself and, also, an “eyewitness” to history that more fully suggests the event beyond the bounds of her direct experience. In this elasticity, range and condensation, then, Mardiganian’s self-representation is more profound, say, than Audie Murphy’s playing himself in To Hell and Back (Jesse Hibbs, 1955).
What survives of the film are shards of the mass tragedy: the deportation of Christian Armenians into a desert that, as calculated, will kill them; Islamic Turks’ direct assaults: rape, torture, murder. Interrupting a series of long-shots, a woman is burned alive.
Brutal, overwhelmingly sad—and without a trace of sentimental pornography, perhaps because everything human is kept in intricate motion. History as tragic clockwork. Human industry dedicated to “ethnic cleansing”—vast space turned into a cul-de-sac.
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