Absence and Apathy: Masculinity in Crisis

in 66th Berlin International Film Festival

by Tara Judah

When thinking about ‘masculinity in crisis’ on screen, films like Raging Bull (1980) and Fight Club (1999) spring easily and immediately to mind: the study of physicality and the subsequent manifest failure of that desired (or perceived as desired) physicality into violent physical acts have, for a long time, dominated the discourse. But, in a context of global financial crisis and social and political conflict, the crisis of masculinity in cinema has been repositioned from cause to effect. As such, what it once was ceases to exist, leaving it to occupy one of two unappealing positions: absence or impotence.

Three films screening in at the 66th Berlinale in the Forum section, Toz Bezi (Dust Cloth, Turkey/Germany, 2015), Inertia (Israel, 2015) and How Heavy This Hammer (Canada, 2016) reveal an absence or apathy in men who can no longer adhere to the constructs of masculinity that the social and familial structures around them traditionally required.

Toz Bezi

Nesrin (Asiye Dinçsoy) and Hatun (Nazan Kesal) are Kurdish women, living in the poorer outer suburbs of Istanbul. They travel by bus – Nesrin with her daughter Asmin – to an affluent district where they clean houses for a living. Though we don’t initially know why, Nesrin’s husband is absent; he won’t answer her calls, he doesn’t come home and when she thinks she spies him in the crowded streets the male figure she calls out to refuses to turn around.

Having kicked him out, tired of his apathetic attitude towards job seeking, Nesrin is left to provide, cook, clean and care for Asmin, alone. Her journey is a downward spiral into despair. Gradually she shifts through anger, self-pity, hope and desperation until finally she hits acceptance and leaves, just as her husband did.  

Hatun’s marriage is more stable, but her husband’s work is even less reliable than her own – a terrifying prospect given the harsh prejudice in her line of work. Worse still, he is always drunk and the two fight constantly. Their son is failing in school and yet all Hatun can think about is moving to a better, more affluent, part of town. She even tells Nesrin that she can’t help her with rent money because she is saving to buy a home in the district where they clean. There are few prospects for Kurdish families forced to live in Turkey and even family and friends cannot, or won’t, help out.

Constantly the women talk of shame, pride, harshness and sensitivity; they are governed by status despite having no access to it. They ask for help from those more fortunate but they are met with ridicule, disdain and condescension. Eventually, due to social pressures, Nesrin breaks down. She sees her family unit as broken and her ability to take on both feminine and masculine roles in the familial unit is impossible: she cannot be the breadwinner, homemaker and pillar of support all by herself. In this instance the matriarch fails. It is presented as a yin without a yang. Most troubling of all is that this suggests that the absence of masculinity causes a subsequent crisis in femininity which then leads to the absence of both and a total breakdown of the fabric of family and society.


One morning Mira wakes after a nightmare to find her husband is gone. Assuming he is at work she continues about her day. The following day she wakes to find he is still missing. After visiting his workplace – Benny, we learn, is a customs worker – it is clear that he has disappeared. She reports him as a missing person to the police and they assure her that he will turn up. Each year, 5000 people go missing and most return within a couple of days, they tell her. Later, when the officer arrives at her door with a drunk, dishevelled man, Mira is flabbergasted: this derelict man is not her husband of eighteen (or is it nineteen?) years, but the officer doesn’t see this as necessarily true, or important – he fits the description and, is a man. For the female police officer it seems that the specifics of which man are no longer relevant.

When Mira reveals to her mother the details of her nightmare the day that Benny went missing, we learn that she harbours deep rooted disgust with her husband; there is something lacking in his representation of masculinity. The inference is that he is not fulfilling his role adequately and, perhaps, there is nothing specific about him as a person that makes him valuable in any other way to her. If masculinity was all he had, and now there isn’t even that, then what use is he? Perhaps, Mira decides, it is time to stand on her own two feet.

Having finally accepted that Benny’s absence is permanent, Mira takes his clothes to a second hand store, but they do not want them, “People aren’t buying,” she is told. There is no need in this current climate for the discarded items associated with a discarded masculinity, so Mira burns the clothes, instead.

It is only at the completion of her character arc; having embarked upon a new sexual affair, found personal happiness as well as a part time job, that Benny turns up. He is disoriented and asks Mira if she is his mother. He is childlike and helpless, having forgotten who or what his masculinity is. He needs the matriarch to nurture him because he can no longer survive on his own. He is overweight and dirty. They sit in silence as he eats. The questions that eventually follow are about why they don’t have children. Mira does not answer. Either they can’t or didn’t want to, but it is a sore point and territory she won’t re-tread. Their familial unit was already broken and his return can’t mend it. She is saddened at now needing to be both mother and wife to this broken, amnesic, disgusting representation of masculinity – his absence was preferable to his impotent, imbecile return.

How Heavy This Hammer

Erwin, a balding, overweight, lazy man also embodies the apathy and obesity that masculinity now suffers. It has become engorged and slovenly after a series of societal changes; global economic crisis, the empowerment of women and, in this instance, computer gaming culture. He rarely works, occasionally plays sport but spends most of his time trying to kill things and win points in the titular child’s video game. He is an appalling parent and role model – bullying and neglecting his two sons – and treats his wife with disdain on the rare moments that he dares to treat her any way at all. He is overweight and it is making him ill but he won’t see a doctor and has no motivation or means to make a change.

Pride seems to exist in him despite the evidence in the film that he has nothing to be proud of. Confidence in his sexuality and gender exist too even though the film shows he has nothing to be confident about, either. These qualities are already unappealing but they are become loathsome as he uses them to exact sexual assault on a woman with whom he attempts to have an extra-marital affair. He is disgusting and has no moral compass. Still, he is surprised when his wife will not take him back.

What we can glean from these examples of failed masculinity in film is that the crisis has deepened: there is either no masculinity at all or, if there is, it is so unrecognisable and misshapen that it has become repugnant as well as impotent. The most worrying effects, however, of this deep crisis in masculinity, is 1) that it negatively impacts on femininity, 2) it neglects, bullies and abandons a new generation through removed role models and maltreatment, and 3) as a direct result of points 1 and 2, it can lead to a total collapse of the family unit. For films where the only context is the family unit, we can also see this collapse as a wider metaphor for society, state and nation.

Tara Judah