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Winter Sleep (2014) Review: Turkey as Allegory!

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin from the movie Winter Sleep sits with folded hands, while Melisa Sözen as Nihal stands with her hands in her coat pockets, gazing at him in a minimalist scene reminiscent of Chekhov stories.

One of the most striking aspects of Winter Sleep is its ability to take themes explored by Chekhov and characters from 19th century Russian stories and transplant them into modern-day Turkey with such authenticity and a uniquely Turkish perspective.

Winter Sleep: A Summary

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, known for his long takes and literary dialogue, focuses on Aydin, a former actor who now runs a hotel inherited from his father and writes for a local newspaper, and his relationships with his much younger and beautiful wife, Nihal, his sister, Necla, and a poor family who are his tenants.

The film’s script is based on two Chekhov stories, “The Wife” and “Excellent People,” and the characters and their relationships are at the heart of the story, with plenty of space given to deep and literary dialogue. As such, Winter Sleep stands apart from Ceylan’s other films, and its ability to tell a story with such an authentic Turkish voice is a testament to the director’s skill.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin from the movie Winter Sleep, sitting with folded hands amidst the picturesque Cappadocia landscape.

“The Wife” by Anton Chekhov is a story about Pavel Andreyevich, a wealthy man who receives a request for help from a nearby village. He tries to involve his wife and friend in organizing a charity campaign, but they do not show interest. He later learns that his wife has been secretly holding meetings and collecting donations for the villagers. Feeling hurt, he confronts his wife and takes over the campaign. He then leaves for Petersburg but changes his mind and visits his friend’s farm, where he becomes angry when reminded of an incident where villagers stole from his barn. The story ends with Andreyevich returning home and expressing his emotions that he cannot express to his wife due to his pride.

“I couldn’t go, Natalie. I came back. Have I gone mad, or turned into someone else, or become an old man? Think what you will. […] Just know that you are the only one close to me. In fact, I have missed you every minute, every second, but my pride wouldn’t let me say so. We can’t relive the old days when we were husband and wife, and there’s no need for that anymore. Take me as your servant by your side…”

In the film, we hear the same words as in the end of “Winter Sleep,” but in the story, Andreyevich expresses his feelings in a way that his wife can hear, while in the movie, Aydin only thinks them silently; we see him standing in the yard as Nihal watches him from behind the window. At the end of the story, Andreyevich finally starts writing the book he has been planning to write for a long time, titled “The History of Railways,” just like in “Winter Sleep,” where Aydin starts writing “The History of Turkish Theatre” at the end.

The Influence of Chekhov’s Stories on Winter Sleep

As can be understood from this short summary, apart from some minor changes, the plot of Winter Sleep follows Chekhov’s story, with Aydin’s character based on Pavel Andreyich, Nihal’s character on Natalie, Suavi’s character on Ivan Ivanich, and Levent Teacher’s character on Doctor Sobol. The conflict between Aydin and his wife Nihal, which dominates the second half of Winter Sleep, is a direct copy of the conflict between Andreyich and Natalie in Chekhov’s story. Therefore, it would be unfair not to give credit to Chekhov’s masterful storytelling, as the successful dialogues in the film almost exactly overlap with the dialogues between Andreyich and Natalie.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin from the movie Winter Sleep, wearing glasses, engrossed in reading an article on his laptop.

Aydin’s sister Necla character is inspired by the character of Vera in Chekhov’s “Excellent People” story. “Excellent People” focuses on the deteriorating relationship between literary critic Vladimir Semyonich and his unemployed, lethargic, and depressed sister Vera Semyonovna, who lounges on the sofa behind his desk. The disagreement between the siblings begins when Vera starts to defend the philosophy of “not resisting evil” and asks her brother, “If we were to make not resisting evil the basis of our behavior, what kind of life would we have?” In response to this question, her brother Semyonich says, “What kind of life? If we don’t resist evil, we give complete freedom to those who commit crimes. Civilization would cease to exist, not a stone would be left standing on earth.” Vera, however, says, “No matter what you think, my problem is solved. I can’t see any reason to resist a personal evil done to me. Do they want to kill me? Let them kill me. If I try to defend myself, the murderer won’t become a better person just because I did that.” Vera’s philosophy of not resisting evil is similar to the passive philosophy of Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism, which became popular in Russia in the 1880s and is based on turning the other cheek when slapped. Vera’s adoption of Tolstoy’s philosophy leads to changes in her lifestyle. In the end, Vera leaves home to participate in a charity campaign and never returns. In “Winter Sleep,” the conflict between the siblings is not based on an ideological disagreement, as in Chekhov’s story.

The most remarkable aspect that needs to be emphasized about Winter Sleep is its ability to present a genuine, contemporary, and uniquely Turkish story while revisiting the themes explored by Chekhov, by transplanting characters drawn from 19th century Russian stories to present-day Turkey. Aydin, the protagonist of Winter Sleep, embodies characteristics of both Vladimir Semyonich from “Excellent People” and Pavel Andreyich from “My Wife”: Aydin, an intellectual who expects his sister to like and share his opinions in her writing, becoming angry when this expectation is not met, is reminiscent of Semyonich; while his attempt to disguise his selfishness under the guise of philanthropy in order to regain the attention and respect of his half-younger and beautiful wife is reminiscent of Pavel Andreyich. However, it is undeniable that Nuri Bilge Ceylan has creatively blended the material he has taken from Chekhov and produced an original work by making various changes and additions, and has succeeded in creating a wholly indigenous character in Aydin that cannot be reduced to either Pavel Andreyich or Vladimir Semyonich from Chekhov’s works.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin from the movie Winter Sleep, standing on a snowy train track, hands in coat pockets, gazing into the distance.

Aydin’s Narcissistic Personality and Attitude

At the beginning of the film, we learn that Aydin receives a letter from a young woman expressing her admiration for him, unlike in Chekhov’s story where the letter is anonymous. Aydin is pleased by the letter, which strokes his ego, and expresses his willingness to help the village from which the letter was sent, just like Andreyich in the story. However, when he doesn’t receive the support he expects from Nihal and Suavi, he becomes upset. This scene highlights Aydin’s narcissistic personality, as he seeks approval from those around him, especially his wife and sister. It is clear from this scene that Aydin is someone who wants to be seen as charitable, but his insincerity is exposed when he is confronted with the financial difficulties faced by his tenant, Imam Hamdi. Aydin’s true character is revealed when he shows no empathy towards the struggles of Imam Hamdi and his family, despite considering building a school in the village after receiving the flattering letter. Aydin thinks that he is absolved of any moral responsibility by delegating his landlord duties to his steward, Hidayet, and his lawyers. When Imam Hamdi begs him not to evict him, Aydin denies any responsibility for the situation and tells him never to come to his house again. Aydin donates a large sum of money to a charity event organized by his wife to impress her, but at the same time, he expects Imam Hamdi to pay for the broken window of his son’s car, even though he knows they are struggling financially. Aydin’s complete disregard for Imam Hamdi’s name is yet another indication of his self-centeredness. These actions demonstrate that Aydin is a character who is completely absorbed in his own narcissistic world and is indifferent to the events happening around him. While he frequently uses words like “morality” and “conscience,” his behavior towards Imam Hamdi raises doubts about his true character, reinforcing the impression that Aydin is an egoistic, self-centered character.

One of Aydin’s defining characteristics, which reinforces the overall impression of him, is his condescending attitude towards the poor represented by his tenants, Imam Hamdi, his brother Ismail, Ismail’s wife, and their son Ilyas. He belittles them as crude, dirty, lacking refined tastes, and common people. Aydin deludes himself into thinking that his trivial newspaper columns, which nobody reads, will enlighten the people. However, he is so oblivious to the material difficulties the people face that he expresses amazement when Hamdi and Ilyas walk through the snow instead of driving a car or riding a motorbike. He complains about the neglect and dilapidation of their homes. He is even so bothered by Imam Hamdi’s untidiness, muddy shoes, and foot odor that he writes a column about how religious figures should set an example for the people. Another one of Aydin’s columns criticizes the tasteless preferences of rural people, which reveals his discomfort with their culture. In this sense, Aydin may be seen as representing the haughty and disconnected Turkish intellectual. Nuri Bilge Ceylan appears to support this interpretation by naming the character Aydin (Turkish mean: Intellectual), but he denies painting a critical portrait of an intellectual, saying, “Actually, I don’t want to view Aydin as an intellectual. I regret naming him Aydin a little.” However, Ceylan’s statement that “we wanted to create a character with all its complexity. Ebru and I were never in a mindset that the character should support a certain intellectual typology, or serve this stereotype,” cannot entirely obscure the fact that Aydin embodies the petty-bourgeois, culturally sophisticated, educated, and disconnected intellectual, as his name implies. As emphasized by contemporary critical theories, a text escapes the author’s control from the moment of its creation, and even the author cannot prevent unintended meanings from emerging, as the reader becomes paramount. As post-structuralist theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault argued in their articles “The Death of the Author” (1967) and “What is an Author?” (1969), just as it is impossible for the writer to control or limit the meanings produced by a literary work, a filmmaker who is also a sort of author cannot restrict the meanings generated by their film.

READ MORE: 10 Fascinating Trivia About the ‘Winter Sleep’ Movie

Aydin’s flaws, weaknesses, ambitions, internal conflicts, and psychological depth displayed throughout the film do not prevent him from being a representative of a certain social class. Aydin’s character is delicately crafted, complex, and has psychological depth, which allows him to be seen as a social allegory reflecting Turkey’s social dynamics. Looking at Aydin from this perspective adds a sociopolitical dimension to “Winter Sleep.” This raises the question of whether Fredric Jameson’s literary theory that suggests all Third World texts can be interpreted as national allegories is applicable to cinema. According to Jameson, “Third World culture [must] necessarily involve the effort to narrate individual experience and the collective experience that this signifies.” In his article “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” (1986), Jameson provides examples from Chinese and Senegalese literature to argue that even texts that seem to focus on an individual’s psychopathology can be read through a sociopolitical lens, as they possess an “allegorical resonance” or “political resonance.” Although Jameson’s theory is often criticized for being reductionist, orientalist, and Eurocentric, it does bring a new perspective to the relationship between politics and literature by highlighting how even seemingly apolitical Third World texts can have political and social dimensions when viewed allegorically.

A child shown sweating and visibly uncomfortable while being compelled to kiss an elder's hand against their will.

The Sociopolitical Dimension of Aydin’s Character in “Winter Sleep”

One of the most significant features of Winter Sleep that enables it to be read as a social and political allegory is the events triggered by Ilyas throwing a stone at Aydin’s car and Aydin’s behavior in these events, which reveals an allegory of class conflict in capitalist society within the context of landlord-tenant relations. Through the act of Ilyas throwing a stone at Aydin, whose belongings are being seized because he cannot pay rent, the film allegorically addresses the issue of stone-throwing children in Turkey and the socio-economic reasons underlying it. Aydin’s inability to understand why Ilyas threw the stone and his insistence on asking Imam Hamdi, who came to apologize on Ilyas’s behalf, “let’s see why he threw the stone?” points to the ideological blindness of Aydin and the bourgeoisie class as a whole. One of the most important indicators that enable us to evaluate Aydin as a typical representative of the petty bourgeoisie in Turkey is his advocacy of ideological discourses that absolve capitalism. When Levent Teacher mentions Aydin’s refusal to open his hotel to earthquake victims, Aydin lashes out defensively, saying, “Am I guilty just because I have a few pennies?” It is evident from Nihal’s words that she does not believe in Allah and considers it backward to do so, yet she does not hesitate to defend poverty as Allah’s will, saying “this is the system, Allah created it like this.” At the beginning of the film, when Suavi, who could be seen as another representative of the bourgeoisie class, uses the same argument to advise Aydin to give up his charitable works, Nihal opposes him because it does not fit her charitable persona.

One of the key scenes in Winter Sleep, which can be interpreted as a social allegory, is when Nihal brings a large sum of money to Ismail, both out of genuine pity and to prove that she is a better person than her husband. Ismail throws the money into the fire, unable to accept charity due to his pride. This individual action also carries political resonance. The scene highlights the fact that the charity campaigns organized by wealthy philanthropists serve only to ease their consciences and can never be a solution to poverty caused by the exploitative capitalist system. Ismail’s occupation as a miner is also significant, emphasizing the ineffectiveness of good deeds in the face of systemic economic oppression. This theme of charity serving as a superficial way to cleanse one’s conscience and feel like a good person is also present in Chekhov’s story “My Wife”. Towards the end of the story, Doctor Sobol Andreyich admits that their charity campaign will not be able to truly help anyone and is merely a way to deceive themselves and others: “You will see that our work for the people will be limited to three or five rubles in the form of charity. We won’t go any further than that… anything more would be humbug, self-deception… To feed a thousand families we would have to spend three hundred and fifty rubles a day. But we give very little indeed, far less than three hundred and fifty; we call it charity and helping the poor, and your wife and I are considered good people. People admire us for it… What splendid philanthropy! What humanitarianism!” The story “My Wife”, which forms the basis of the Winter Sleep screenplay, is also a social allegory, but with one difference: the character equivalent to Aydin, retired palace official Pavel Andreyich, represents the declining Russian aristocracy of the 19th century, which began to lose its power with the rise of capitalism and the abolition of serfdom.

Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) holding a gun while hunting, with a horrified expression.

When viewed as an allegory for Turkey, Winter Sleep can be seen as a reflection of certain social groups in Turkey and the prevailing thought and behavior patterns within them, in addition to Aydin’s character. The film offers insights into the psychology of dissatisfied members of the bourgeois class who, despite being unhappy with their lives, fail to take responsibility for them and instead blame others for their shortcomings, such as Nihal. Necla, on the other hand, prefers to deceive herself rather than confront reality, as evidenced by her desire to deduct the maid’s salary for breaking two tea cups, despite claiming that she won’t resist those who wish her harm. Levent, the opportunistic teacher, who tries to ingratiate himself with the local elite, and Imam Hamdi, who must swallow his pride and grovel before his landlord to avoid being evicted, are also types that undermine the idealistic image of the provincial teacher that occupies a significant place in Turkish literature. Finally, Hidayet, the tough caretaker who bullies those beneath him while cowering before his boss, and the adventure-seeking motocross rider who represents a Westernized, apolitical lifestyle and a hollow notion of freedom, complete the Turkey allegory presented in Winter Sleep.

Winter Sleep focuses on the character of Aydin, who seems to have shut his eyes to reality and is in a state of hibernation, telling the story of small bourgeois individuals struggling within the confines of their narcissistic and sheltered lives, inevitably presenting a social allegory. Although Nuri Bilge Ceylan objects to Aydin being perceived as a representative of a certain social class, it can be said that he does not view Aydin entirely negatively. Ceylan remarks, “I don’t see Aydin as entirely negative, I think he carries traces of all of us.” This suggests that Aydin’s negative qualities, such as his narcissism, grandiosity, and indifference to the outside world, do not marginalize him, but rather can be attributed to everyone, especially the social class to which he belongs. In short, Aydin is “as guilty as anyone else,” and therefore the stone thrown by the vengeful Ilyas, who wanted to become a police officer when he grew up, was actually thrown at all of us through Aydin.

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Last modified: September 24, 2023