Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Edge of Heaven (2008)

In Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, a mixture of traditional three-act structure storytelling and the fluid, non-linear narrative style that has become increasingly popular in the past fifteen years or so yields intriguing and largely sound results. This was my first exposure to Akin, who has apparently been making interesting and socially relevant films about German-Turkish tensions stemming from the large population of Turkish immigrants in Germany, of which he is one himself. The Edge of Heaven is the kind of film that doubtless motivates a dutiful film enthusiast to seek out the filmmaker's previous films, hoping to catch up on the filmography in order to shed some light on what may be quizzical issues pertaining to the director's latest work.

The Edge of Heaven was Germany's official submission in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category. It is beautifully, sometimes wrenchingly acted, and features a kind of international humanism that recalls Truffaut's melancholic affection for people of all cultures and races. There are some excellent compositions by Akin. For good and ill, or better and worse, consciously designed so or not, this film pulsates like a hybrid, a rigorously "smart" film that is gracious in allowing for bursts of raw human emotion to radiate outwards.

The film's first major storyline commences in Bremen, Germany. An elderly Turkish immigrant named Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz) taking a stroll throughout an area that appears to host many a woman of "easy virtue" (as one prostitute describes herself). Soon he finds a prostitute named Yeter (played to weary, seen-it-all-but-can-still-be-wounded-by-life perfection by Nursel Kose), also a Turkish immigrant, who has lost track of her twenty-seven year old daughter in Istanbul. Yeter tells Ali that she sells herself off to her daughter in letters as a worker making shoes, occasionally sending her child a pair of shoes in order to bolster her lie with "evidence." Ali becomes infatuated with Yeter, and after what is ostensibly a fairly brief period of time in which he has repeatedly visited her, offers her the opportunity to "work" solely for him, living with him and "screwing only me" in exchange for approximately the same amount of money she would be making plying her old trade. (That she is harassed by Turkish Muslim immigrants aboard a bus, and wishes to get out of this existence, further motivates her to make the move.)

It becomes difficult to explain what occurs next without giving away crucial information, and yet, for some reason, Akin has chosen to include foreknowledge of these occurrences in the titles of his first two acts. To make a rough analogy, imagine if Ingmar Bergman had given the name of the second "act" of The Seventh Seal, "The Witch's Death." Akin has intentionally destroyed a great deal of the narrative's forward momentum, deflating the audience's sensitization to shock, with inchoate reasoning I myself cannot completely understand. Does he wish to make the film a Brechtian meditation? If so, it seems to go against the more manipulative technical aspects with which he lays out the heavy-duty drama of his film.

No matter. Let us just say the film travels a different direction for its second act, which is where all of the main protagonists are actually revealed but Ali's son, Nejat Aksu (a sensitively warm Baki Davrak), a well-educated professor in Hamburg, whom we met in the first act, and where the bulk of the actual action of the film takes place. It turns out that Yeter's daughter, Ayten Ozturk, is a militant with the zeal of the convert to intense ideals and abstractions. Embodied with equal parts pulchritude, fervor and angst-shrouded sweetness by a dangerously enchanting Nurgul Yesilcay, she's something of a ticking time bomb that needs to be defused before she harms anyone, including herself. Embittered by the vacuity of her personal life, lacking the presence of a guiding parental hand in all matters but financial from her mother, she finds fighting for the cause of social reform on the boisterously hectic streets of Istanbul temporarily salves her own quandaries. Nejat, meanwhile, is on his own quest in Istanbul to find Yeter's daughter, Ayten, but after an unfruitful period of time he buys a German bookstore from a German homesick of his country. The idea of finding one's place in the world is most touchingly rendered in a completely unblemished scene between Nejat, the Turkish professor in Germany, now in Istanbul, finds ineffable solace in the buying of a German bookstore in Istanbul from a German desiring nothing so much but to return to the societal reality of Germany rather than merely reading about it hundreds of miles away.

As Nejat's search for Ayten gradually loses nearly all hope, Ayten goes to Germany in order to find her mother. There she meets a German girlfriend, Charlotte 'Lotte' Staub (capably played by Patrycia Ziolkowska), who tries to assist Ayten in the search for her mother while letting her stay with Lotte and Lotte's mother, Susanne Staub, who is impeccably given life by Hanna Schygulla, who is given a kind of "clean-up hitter" (to borrow David Mamet's phrase) show-stopping role and makes the best of it with serene confidence. Her performance is singularly imbued with palpable strength, dignity and wisdom.

As stellar as The Edge of Heaven often is, it also stumbles, and not just because of Akin's almost excessive determinism or the suspense-murdering introductory title cards for his three acts. To reiterate, if the idea is to eliminate suspense, he would have been better suited to not be so manipulative--especially in one sequence that suffers from the bending of the rules of coincidences to nearly the breaking point (wouldn't you know a band of marauding, thieving children would show up at precisely the worst possible time). The subtlety of the universe Akin has created is often lacking, as momentous, ponderous shots that feel like "gotcha" capsules begin to pile up. A few of these would have been genuinely appreciated, but go too far as Akin finally does and the whole house of cards is threatened from a mere gentle blow. It almost causes the entire enterprise to blanch under the weight of Akin's wholly legitimate and exciting omnibus concept.

Akin is getting at important issues, and his handling of such is more nuanced and measured than one is normally used to receiving at the cinema where controversially explosive matters are often reduced to thunderously inane gibberish and nonsensical pandering. If Akin's earlier work is much like this then there is a great deal to look forward to watching on my part. The Edge of Heaven seems to struggle with itself at times, almost unsure of what exactly it wants to say beyond the innocent fact that these people are living their lives, and those lives sometimes shockingly lead to tragedy for those belonging to their immediate orbit and finally to themselves. That may be a blessing. That it seems to have some trouble finding the way in which to say what it conclusively says at all is perhaps more technically worrisome. A handful of scenes play a little too didactically, but upon reflection that was very possibly their point. To illustrate the full panoply of feelings and thoughts, sometimes generic colors must be utilized. Finally I would like to think The Edge of Heaven is merely stating that amidst the chaos of our times, of the individuals embroiled in the intrigues of the European Union; of Muslim immigrant populations within that union; of oppressive regimes and the dirtiness of revolutionary violence in any corner of the world, no matter how justified it may be, people found their place, and in doing so, found peace.


sartre said...

Terrific review Alexander. I skimmed over some sections as I'm yet to see the film. But your description of its strengths, though qualified, has me really excited. And I'm intrigued by his seemingly unconventional use of foreknowledge as a device.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sartre. Much appreciated.

Craig Kennedy said...

I missed this one. I don't remember what was happening while it was playing here, but I never got around to it and now it's gone.

One to keep an eye out for on DVD I suppose.

Alexander Coleman said...

Definitely one to check out on DVD, Craig. I sometimes forget how films like this would already be long gone from LA and a couple of other places, perhaps, by the time they get here.

Daniel G. said...

Excellent review indeed, and even better because I find it so in line with my own. For a little while after I saw it I was afraid I was going to be the only one who didn't buy all of it, but as more people see it I feel a little better. Not that I would have changed my mind (or my review), but it lets me know I didn't miss anything major.

***HUGE SPOILER ALERT - DON'T READ***I just want to make sure I'm not connecting too many dots here. There is only mother in this story, and she is shared by both of the main characters, right? Do you get what I'm saying? It was a throwaway comment about the years that had passed in the marriage...

But that and the other coincidences, as you say, were just a little too overdone. Or maybe I was just in a crabby mood from the title giveaways.

You should check out Im Juli if you're in the mood for a lighter Akin film. It's the only other one I've seen but I highly recommend it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Daniel, I'm glad you liked the review and that we have found ourselves in such extensive agreement.

I have to admit, I'm a little perplexed by your question about a mother. As I saw it, and recollect, there were two mothers in the film--Yeter, whose daughter was Atyer, and Susanne Staub, whose daughter was Lotte.

I have a feeling I'm misreading you, though, Daniel, so feel free to correct my probably erroneous assumption in trying to answer your question.

Thanks for the recommendation of Im Juli, Daniel. Very interested in that one.

Daniel G. said...

***SPOILER ALERT***OK, whoops, I forgot about Yeter, as we don't see her again. I'm talking about what happens when Lotte's mother goes to Turkey and meets Nejat. As they're driving around he asks her if she's ever been there before, she says yes, a long time ago - like long ago when she had a child with Nejat's father (there was a lot of talk about former relationships, remember, estranged parents and children)? One big happy family, that's my theory. Don't discount the fact that she (Lotte's mother) and he (Nejat's father) are also RIGHT next to each other as he's being deported. They don't see each other because, as Akin's style goes throughout the rest of the film, they JUST miss each other.

So am I crazy or what?

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow. Gotta admit, your (very interesting) theory kind of blew me away. That puts the whole film in a different light.

But, I don't think it's true. For one thing, Lotte looked and seemed to be very... Teutonic, not half-Turkish.

I did notice how Nejat's father is right next to Susanne, though.

Did Nejat's father say something about Nejat's mother dying, or something? Or am I imagining that?

Yeesh, I feel like I need to see it again to get all of this perfectly right, but I'm not sure I honestly want to.

If I were to bet, though, I'd say it's not one big happy family as you say--that said, it would be an interesting twist, especially in light of the, as you note, style of the film to show how everyone involved just misses each other. It's like Crash, except instead of everyone crashing into each other, they just miss each other. Except it's a lot, lot better than Crash. Yeah.

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