[15 December 2008]
Edges, borders, and barriers fill the latest feature from German director Fatih Akin, whose screenplay for the film took top honors at Cannes in 2007. In action that moves from Germany to Turkey, first- and second-generation Turkish immigrants, Germans, and Turks navigate physical, political, and emotional obstacles in desperate, and often futile, efforts to connect. A son becomes alienated from his father. A daughter fails to find her estranged mother. Lovers are separated. Two women die senselessly.
The accidental death of a woman at the hands of Ali, a Turkish pensioner living in Bremen, sets the plot in motion. Ali’s son, Nejat, a literature professor motivated by guilt over his father’s actions and by a sense of obligation, searches for the woman’s grown daughter, Ayten. But while Nejat looks for Ayten in Turkey, Ayten is already in Germany, having fled political intrigue in her own country. There she falls in love with a German student she meets at the university. The two briefly search for Ayten’s mother, before Ayten is arrested and deported to Istanbul.
The first third of the film follows Nejat’s story, the second third Ayten’s. The final third brings both narrative strands together. Cues at the start of the second section let us know that the action of both narratives happens simultaneously, and from that point forward we see how the two stories intertwine, a perspective denied the characters, who come heartbreakingly close to revelations that we, with our greater knowledge, know could prevent.
While this structure lends The Edge of Heaven both the pre-ordained fatality of tragedy and also its attendant pathos, Akin places his story firmly in the specific political milieu of the Turkish-German immigrant experience. Repeated shots of planes landing and taking off, of conveyor belts and baggage carts, along with several scenes of bureaucratic proceedings announce that characters are at the mercy of the cruel machinery of international relations, not just the caprices of fate.
Yet Akin always places the personal above the political, most clearly in his preference for devoting long takes to character reactions, usually without dialogue. One shot lasting a good minute and a half follows Nejat as he enters a German bookstore in Istanbul for the first time. We watch his pleasure as he scans titles while he traverses the aisles of the store. Such efficient characterization enables Akin to flesh out all the members in his ensemble cast.
Another scene captures the mother of the woman who dies in the film’s second part, in her hotel room in Istanbul, where she has come to try to understand her daughter’s death. We watch as if through a stationary surveillance camera, which offers a wide-angle view of the room from high on the wall. A time-lapse sequence shows the mother burning through her despair (and a good bit of the contents of the room’s minibar) over the course of the evening. Akin makes us feel privileged to witness such moments of unguarded emotion (and because of the voyeuristic nature of the shot, a little guilty, too).
The scene neatly thumbnails Akin’s brand of filmmaking. As he did in 2005’s Gegen Die Wand (Head On), he puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and with a documentarian’s eye, records what happens. Not surprisingly, Akin has tried his had at music documentary, with Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005).
Despite its tragic plot, The Edge of Heaven posits that redemption is possible. In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, one character offers another forgiveness as the two converse over telephones in a prison visiting room. As the barrier suggests, however, reconciliation is often tempered by an emotional distance that can never quite be eradicated.
The film ends on another such guardedly hopeful note. Nejat, now relocated in Istanbul, has traveled to a small Turkish town in search of his father, who has been deported from Germany. He waits on the beach for his father to return from fishing. Perhaps they will reconcile; perhaps not. The credits roll before we find out.