The Edge of Heaven

Artificial Eye Film Company and Strand Releasing
Fatih Akin/Turkey-Germany 2007

In nominating this film as its contender for this year’s Oscar (although it didn’t make the shortlist), Germany made a significant – if symbolic – gesture to its newest citizens. If The Edge of Heaven – a composed yet piercing demonstration of the depths to which Germany and Turkey are intertwined – wasn’t so polite a film, it would be deserving of ever more cheers.

Director Fatih Akin was born in Germany, but his Turkish heritage has been an inescapable fact of his identity. Just as one cannot expect Oprah to choose between being black or being a woman, the immigrant experience means that many more people worldwide define their identities with a hyphen. Explorations of this new diaspora and the second generation are providing some of modern Europe’s most exciting films: Persepolis, Brick Lane, Dirty Pretty Things, even La Haine, and now The Edge of Heaven.

It’s about three parent-child couples: Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a lonely elderly man who offers a home to Yeter (Nursel Köse), a prostitute who accepts in light of another promise made to her. Nejat (Baki Davrak), Ali’s son, is a German professor whose reaction to father’s new relationship is unexpected. Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) is a student at Nejat’s university who takes in Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), Yeter’s estranged, rebellious daughter, under the disapproving eyes of her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).

The complexity of their relationships reminded me of no film more than Gilles Mimouni’s L’appartement (adapted into English as Wicker Park). Whereas L’appartement’s young lovers swapped identities and sexual relationships as most people change shoes, Akin has choreographed something more complicated – a demonstration of how open borders close off other opportunities and, even in a surveillance culture, how easy it is to get lost.

While some of the characters are impulsive and heedless, others are more measured and cautious – but not always. Akin has a gift for realism in the everyday choices of his characters. For example, they tell lies. They also – notably Ayten and Nejat – change based on the choices they’ve made. There’s also space in their heads for relationships they have with people far away, such as Yeter’s tears when she misses her daughter, or Lotte’s frustration with her mother in a long-distance phone call.

This is a very tactful film. Conventionally shot, there are no bravura moments under the bright sunshine which permeates even the prison scenes. Nejat’s job as a German professor is meant to be a daring racial commentary; perhaps this is more pointed to a German audience. Although presumably all the Turkish characters are Muslim, religion barely features; it’s something to discuss when talking about other people. That leaves music to express emotions, whether the dignified classical music Nejat surrounds himself with, or the thumping club music which underlines Lotte and Ayten’s discovery of their future together. Head-On, Akin’s first film and one of the most garlanded films of 2004, framed scenes of unbelievable emotional violence with a soundtrack of ’80s electro-punk and traditional Turkish laments. It was as memorable and inescapable as a knife to the throat. It was therefore no surprise for Akin’s next film to be a documentary about the different Turkish music scenes.

Mercifully, The Edge of Heaven is less brutal; the violence is indirect and all the emotions are strangely muted. But two of the main characters die, and their deaths are telegraphed by title cards between the film sections. The added inevitability and expectation this gives the audience only emphasizes the distance between the characters. It does seem that since Head-On Akin has lost his nerve for direct confrontation.

It’s not fair to compare The Edge of Heaven to Head-On, which was an infinite scream passing through nature. The two films together show clearly how much Akin has achieved, his significant growth as a director, and how many new stories there are in the new Europe. But Head-On was so exhausting to watch, this film might find a wider audience. More importantly, several images of the film stay with you: Nejat waiting on a beach, Yeter crying on a bus, Susanne pointedly coring cherries for a pie as Ayten loses her temper (Schygulla did more than 20 films with Rainer Maria Fassbinder).

There’s also a moment in Istanbul when Ayten watches police drag some women into their van. As they shout their names to the watching crowd, the onlookers actually cheer the police. Nothing needs to be said to remind us there are still Germans alive who can remember such things happening to them.

Its U.K. release on Feb. 22 is notable as The Edge of Heaven will be available simultaneously in cinemas and on Sky Box Office (the major cable TV provider). This interesting new technique will enable the film to be seen outside the art-houses of London. If successful, it might be a sea change in how foreign-language films are distributed here.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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