Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven
Strand Releasing (2007)
In 2004 Der Spiegel anointed director Fatih Akin the new face of the German film industry. Yet Akin is not of German descent, but Turkish, nor has he any interest in the ghosts of Germany’s past. He finds inspiration in the new Europe and the lives of people like himself in the rising generation of Europe’s immigrants.
The low-life characters and raw emotion of Akin’s early films had German critics describing him as the avatar of Fassbinder. He evoked other comparisons too. The post-modern structures of Akin’s breakout film Head-On (2004) and The Edge of Heaven (2007) are reminiscent of Paul Haggis’s Crash and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. And because the films are the first two of a planned trilogy about love, death, and evil, they have drawn comparison with Kieslowski’s great Blue, White, and Red. Akin himself shuns comparisons, and his directorial style does indeed set him apart, especially from the older generation of filmmakers such as Fassbinder, who told his actors exactly how to perform each line. Akin has lots of ideas and—to use Lévi-Strauss’s term—he might be described as a “bricolage” filmmaker who tries to work things out with his crew as he goes. He relies on his actors to improvise and depends even more heavily on his film editor, Andrew Bird, to tie all his ideas together. Akin claims that Bird works “wonders.”
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Akin is a child of the generation of Turks whom the Germans brought in as guest workers to do menial labor during the economic miracle. More than two million have put down roots and transplanted their Turkish traditions and Muslim religion into the heart of cities such as Hamburg where Akin was born.
Akin’s cohort went to German schools where, along with a secular education, some learned skepticism about the values that shaped their parents lives. Outside school the more rebellious assimilated the beer-drinking, drug-taking, club-crawling, sexually permissive subculture of Germany’s urban centers. Akin has set his films in the vibrant world of the generational struggle that ensued.
In Head-On (Gegen die Wand), the first German film in decades to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the protagonists are second-generation Turkish immigrants who speak Turkish and German, and, inexplicably at certain moments, a few words of English as well. Cahit (Birol Ünel), a man of about 40, and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) a 20-year-old woman, meet in a mental hospital after both have attempted suicide—he crashed his car into a wall, and she slit her wrists. Even before the crash, Cahit, drinking too much beer and snorting cocaine, seems on his way to the grave. He makes his living clearing the floor of bottles after bands perform at a club. His self-respect is precarious; any provocation can throw him into a rage, or, as we learn, launch a suicide attempt. Akin, a friend of Ünel’s, wrote the part with him in mind: an archetypal Kurt Cobain-Jim Morrison character who romanticizes his own self-destruction. Like Cobain and Morrison, there is in fact something appealing, even a kind of integrity, about Cahit that attracts people to him: a girlfriend who from time to time shows up to have sex with him; a male friend who stands by him, even seems to admire him.
In Sibel, Akin has created a more unusual archetype: a woman full of sexual desire and ready for sexual adventures that will never destroy her innocence. She slits her wrists to escape her family’s oppressive sexual restrictions. Her brother, she says, broke her nose when he caught her holding hands with a young man.
In the hospital she comes up with a way out: she asks Cahit to marry her; she promises to be a good roommate and take care of his apartment for him; and, in return, under the guise of marriage to a Muslim man, she will pursue sexual adventure freely. Cahit reluctantly agrees and the marriage quickly becomes fraught. They argue on their wedding night and he throws her out. She goes to a bar in her wedding gown and invites the bartender at closing time to enjoy the rights of the groom. The next morning, still in her wedding gown, Sibel beams over the success of her escapade. Sibel, as it turns out, enjoys all life’s pleasures and brings happiness wherever she goes. She is a nymph of the club scene, enthusiastically partaking in drugs, sex, and alcohol. She is a goddess of hedonism, incorruptible and unimaginable in the Western patriarchal pantheon.
Cahit comes to regret the terms of the marriage contract. But Akin’s script holds him in its bounds in order to explore the hypocrisies of conventional Muslim marriage. When Sibel’s male relatives, who insist upon the honor of their wives and daughters, invite Cahit to join them on their regular excursions to the whorehouse, he responds, “Why don’t you fuck your own wives?” They are, of course, outraged.
Amid the hypocricy, a believable love emerges in Cahit and Sibel’s sexless marriage. Head-On is not a tale of grim reality. There is raucous humor and extremity of passion, and Bird’s visual editing lends it an oneiric dimension.
Akin gives us love but no happy ending. His story becomes more brutal and melodramatic. Cahit ends up in jail, and Sibel, left with nothing, goes to Istanbul to find work. There she hits bottom and is nearly stabbed to death in the streets. Her radiance vanishes and she settles for an ordinary life. In a coda, Cahit is released from prison and looks for Sibel in Istanbul. The spark is reignited and they spend three ecstatic days in Cahit’s hotel room finally consummating their marriage. But Sibel now has a daughter. She goes back to her obligations, and Cahit, no longer bent on self-destruction, returns to the Turkish village where he was born. Neither are the compelling archetypes we knew: the sober Cahit and the dutiful Sibel have stepped out of their fable and become ordinary people.
This account does not begin to convey the many cinematic ideas packed into into this film, not all of them successful. Lacking narrative transitions, for example, the scenes stitched together through a thematic device: as the movie opens, a group of Turkish musicians dressed for a ballroom performance play folk music on the shores of the sea with Istanbul behind them. They reappear several times during the film. It is a striking visual flourish that attempts to make a virtue of a necessity, but only partly succeeds in imposing a sense of structure and coherence on the film. Europe had a different opinion. After winning the Golden Bear, Head-On went on to take Best European Film at the 2004 European Film Awards over the odds-on favorites, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education. Akin was still unknown in the United States then, but he became a celebrity in Europe and at film festivals around the world.
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Akin had even more ideas when he began his next feature film, Auf der anderen Seite, literally “on the other side,” but titled in English The Edge of Heaven, without the allusions to otherness explored in the film. Weaving several stories together in a nonlinear narrative, the film juxtaposes life in Hamburg and Bremen with life in Istanbul and along the Black Sea. Although it took best screenplay for Akin in 2007 at Cannes, the reward must have been a consolation prize. Indeed The Edge of Heaven is not held together by Akin’s script but by Bird’s wondrous editing. There is an underlying theme to these stories, even a moral (as Akin calls it), but the moviegoer will need to do more than suspend disbelief and watch it unfold. Nonetheless, each of the film’s six main actors (all but one previously unknown to me) gives a great performance, making their characters totally convincing.
The first of Akin’s stories involves a Turkish widower, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), who has settled in Hamburg and worked all his life to care for his only child, a son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), and see him well educated. Nejat is now a professor of German literature teaching Goethe in a German university. Nejat’s values have, to say the least, diverged from those of his barely literate father. After the film’s opening sequence (about which I shall say more) we are launched into the first story. It is a day of festivities and we see Ali, old but spry, making his way through the red-light district. He seems to know what he is looking for, but only later do we realize that it is a Turkish woman. Having sampled the prostitute Yeter’s (Nursel Köse) services and gotten her to speak Turkish, he invites her to live with him, promising to pay her as much as she is earning. Ali acts as much out of loneliness as desire. And Nejat, after first being repelled by his father’s arrangement, becomes fond of Yeter. Akin imagined that father and son would both love Yeter, but if the son loves her it is not in the way his primitive father seems to think. The living arrangement ends when in a moment of drunken rage Ali strikes her. She dies, Ali goes to jail, and Nejat disowns him. This is melodrama packed on melodrama, and yet every scene is believable, not at the level of reality but like a dream, which seems real while you are having it.
This melodrama is followed by another, a lesbian love-at-first-sight story between the blond German Lotte (Patricia Ziolkowska) and the dark Turkish Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), who find everything they need in each other and then lose it. In this story Ayten’s mother—Yeter from the first story—is working in Hamburg as a prostitute and earning money to send Ayten to college in Istanbul. Ayten believes her mother is working in a shoe store and has not told her mother that she has dropped out of college to join a radical, underground anti-government group in Istanbul. Akin has suggested in interviews that Yeter and Ayten were meant to be Kurds, but this critical detail is never revealed in the film. By leaving out the Kurdish identity of Yeter the prostitute and Ayten the revolutionary, he has diminished the scope of their characters and the political depth of his film. Regardless, both women give stunning performances.
The third story involves the divorced, middle-class German mother Susanne Staub, who worries about Lotte, her only child and the center of her life. For this role Hanna Schygulla, the great actress of Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Berlin, Alexanderplatz, returns to the screen after a long absence. In a magical performance, the once fiery and passionate leading lady, is now a matronly figure. In her youth, Susanne was a hippie, even hitchhiking to India. Now she wants Lotte to lead a conventional life. Her grief when a boy hopped-up on glue kills Lotte in Istanbul is heartbreaking.
As the trajectories of these characters’ lives intersect, they make several other stories, all of them engrossing. But I did not fully grasp the interlocking meanings of Akin’s stories as I watched the film. Only sitting in my office twenty-four hours later did I realize I had seen a truly impressive work of art. The key is in the film’s opening sequence, before we learn the story of Ali and Yeter, and its significance will likely pass most American viewers by, as it did most reviewers.
The Edge of Heaven opens in the glare of sunlight as Nejat drives his car along a seacoast road into a gasoline station. The attendant greets him with the salutation translated in the subtitles as “Happy Bayram.” There are “Happy Bayrams” all around as he enters the station’s convenience store, orders his snack, and pays his bill. For those familiar with Turkey and its culture, the scene, time, and mood are set. To the rest of us who may not even realize we are in Turkey, the scene remains mysterious, but somehow the amiable exchanges and Nejat’s pensive countenance create an air of expectation. A song is playing on the radio, and when Nejat asks who wrote it, he is told the songwriter’s name and that he was very popular, “a young man like you who recently died of cancer.” For those of us unfamiliar with Turkish culture this throwaway line is the only hint that the film will be about death in the same way Head-On was about love. Nejat drives out of the gas station, the screen goes dark, and the words “The Death of Yeter” appear. Those words mystify the audience. We have not met Yeter. Her death will come suddenly and unexpectedly despite this warning.
What about that “Happy Bayram”? Later, Nejat will explain to Susanne, who is in Istanbul trying to reconcile herself to Lotte’s death, that all the men she sees going to the mosque to pray that morning are on their way to Bayram services. The Kurban Bayram, he explains, is a religious festival celebrating the story of Ibrahim and his son. She replies “we have the same story.” But in the Judeo-Christian tradition it has a different meaning. The story of Abraham and Isaac is for western audiences the paradigm of the first man of faith, willing to sacrifice his only son as in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. We wonder at a God who would put his only true believer to this test and we ask ourselves how Abraham could have been willing to obey such a command, even though the son is spared. In Akin’s Turkish tradition, the emphasis is on God sending down the sacrificial sheep and sparing the son. The three-day celebration involves the slaughter of a sheep, a feast, expressions of family solidarity, visits to grandparents; sons traditionally kiss their fathers’ hands. And Muslims are expected to celebrate their neighbors’ Bayrams, as well as their own.
Those who understand this realize what a marvelous introduction Akin and Bird have given us. They see at once the moral of the story in Bayram. The Edge of Heaven is not only about conflict across generations and unnecessary and unexpected death, but also sacrifice and forgiveness, and the possibility of reconciliation.
One can only hope that Akin is as Der Spiegel proclaims him, the new face of the German film industry, and that there will be more extraordinary films like The Edge of Heaven that look into the human soul and show us that goodwill is possible.