Akin pushes experiences to ‘The Edge of Heaven’
August 9, 2008
Fatih Akin was born in Germany to Turkish parents, a mixed heritage he explored in the 2004 film “Head-On.” The overall themes were predictable, as the characters found themselves pulled on one side by the ways of their parents and the old country, and on the other by the freedoms offered by the Western world. But Akin, who wrote and directed “Head-On,” executed his story with precision, humanity and a vicious energy, and the film was universally acclaimed, earning numerous awards including the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
The 35-year-old Akin has not finished digging around in his personal background. “The Edge of Heaven,” the follow-up to “Head-On,” again straddles the experience of Turkish immigrants in Germany. But the latest film hardly feels repetitious; it does not, in fact, even seem autobiographical, merely set in a world the filmmaker knows well. And he feels passionately about the issues lurking in that community; the vitality and creativity in “The Edge of Heaven” makes you believe that Akin could dwell in this small neighborhood of the world for several more movies without running out of ideas.
One of the ways that “The Edge of Heaven” expands on “Head-On” is by stretching out territorially. The first segment of the movie is set in Germany. But when the narrative moves to Istanbul, Akin raises his game on the visual side, exploring the chaotic, gritty, massive city with palpable fascination. There also is a metaphysical component wedged comfortably into the latest film, with the various characters and plot lines intersecting, or sometimes coming tantalizingly close to barreling into one another, in meaningful, tense ways. Consider a cousin of “Babel,” with parallel stories spread out over space. But Akin does a better job of integrating the elements.
“The Edge of Heaven” begins with a pair of Turks living in the German city of Bremen: the elderly man Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), and Yeter (Nursel Köse), a prostitute. Ali offers Yeter a new life ” as his personal, live-in prostitute, essentially ” and she accepts, not so much to escape her life, but to create a somewhat more pleasant picture for her daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilcay). The reality of her new existence isn’t any better than working the streets; Ali is a drunk and a bully, and in an eye-blink accident, he kills Yeter.
Enter the next set of characters: Ali’s son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), a professor of the German language; Yeter’s daughter, Ayten, who takes an active role in the youth rebellion against the Turkish government; and Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a German woman just back in her home country after traveling in India. The setting moves from Istanbul, where Ayten finds herself on the run from the police; to Germany, where she seeks political asylum and kindles a heated romance with Lotte; and back to Turkey, where Nejat hopes to find Ayten, and make what amends he can for his father’s treatment of her mother.
Not only is the globe-hopping seamless, but Akin uses every opportunity and every character ” Lotte’s worried, conservative mother; a German-born bookshop owner in Istanbul ” to rack up observations about politics, family, immigrant life. He also draws magnificent performances out of his entire cast. The energy in the affair between Ayten and Lotte is explosive, fueled by politics, youth, hormones and sexual discovery. Baki Davrak brings a whole other sensibility to Nejat: subdued, fretting, a bit lost in the world.
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An even more apt comparison for “The Edge of Heaven” than “Babel” is “Dirty Pretty Things,” director Stephen Frears’ 2002 story of London immigrant life that takes place nearly underground. Both films are primarily concerned with the fragile existence of the immigrant: One misstep, get noticed by the wrong person, and your life is upended. But in “The Edge of Heaven,” the immigrants are closer to the surface, the state is breathing harder down their backs, and the geographical terrain is wider.
“Dirty Pretty Things” was disturbing and touching on the level of human emotions, and revealing about the current world we live in. It ranks with my favorite films of the last decade; several months ago, I watched it again and found it every bit as profound and satisfying as the first time. I expect I will watch “The Edge of Heaven” some years on, and have a similar experience.