Transcending Prejudice and Ideology
There are plenty of directors who prefer to take a break after a major success. James Cameron for example, the most successful film director of all time, didn't make a single film for ten years after his gigantic blockbuster "Titanic".
Admittedly, Akin's previous film "Head-On" wasn't in quite the same box-office league, but the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the German and European Film Awards weren't a bad result for Fatih.
But instead of getting caught up in escapades and self-doubt, Akin, a staunch Hamburg fan, made "Crossing the Bridge", a documentary about the music scene of Istanbul – promptly launching an avalanche of hype that has seen German club-goers winding and grinding at "Bosporus Beats Nights" ever since. And his latest offering has already picked up the best screenplay award at Cannes.
Facing up to flight and death
His new film "The Edge of Heaven" features episodes from the lives of six people: Ali, the guest worker, falls in love with the Turkish prostitute Yeter, who is paying her daughter's way through university. An accident occurs – and Ali's son Nejat, increasingly distanced from his father, goes to Turkey to find Ayten.
But Ayten has fled to Germany as a political refugee, falls in love with the student Lotte, and is deported again. Another accident happens – and Lotte's mother Susanne makes her way to Turkey…
Similar in structure to Alejandro González Iñárritu masterpiece "Babel" yet bearing his own inimitable signature, Akin's film follows one story for a while before suddenly cutting to an entirely different location, where another thread is picked up and continued.
Some of the plot strands intermesh, while others never cross; some of the characters miss one another, others die suddenly, and others come together surprisingly.
This element of coincidence or fate, erasing and creating lives, is familiar from the great films of Kieslowski, for example. That's the second big name – and by no means the last – that Akin's new oeuvre conjures up, truly earning "The Edge of Heaven" the accolade of "European cinema".
Close to political reality
But because it's a Fatih Akin film, and because the media now define "Turkish-German cinema" in terms of his work, there is no avoiding the question of how far this latest film picks up on "representative issues", whether it addresses the debate over Turkish EU membership and how it deals with stereotypes of migrants.
In this respect, there is no cause for concern: political discourses, the Germans, the Turks and their mutual relationship – it's all in there, and more. Just that you don't always notice it…
Yeter is threatened by Islamist bad-guys in the middle of Hamburg because of her "dishonourable" behaviour, Lotte is an incredibly naïve human rights activist, Nejat lives a successful, "integrated" but unfulfilled life as a professor of literature… It is these and other scenes that pick up on topical discussions.
German migrant cinema highlighted similar themes for decades – often banging its drum with black-and-white, wooden and didactic moralising. There was no other choice; the time wasn't ripe for anything else.
Atmospheric cinema, captivating narration
Now Fatih Akin has shown us how to do it right: he inserts his themes so artfully into the narrative structure that the audience never loses tension, interest and curiosity. Between them he places breathtakingly atmospheric cinematic images, suddenly giving way to a new shock, a new twist in the tale – and all along, his characters are so genuine that one is overcome by the feeling of watching real life on screen.
Life is more than the sum of ideas, though there is one that stands out nevertheless. The naïve Lotte, the activist Ayten and the intellectual Nejat are balanced by Ali and Susanne, representatives of an older generation that experienced much of what moves the young people in this mobile and warring age, under similar circumstances: the military putsch, the threat of terror, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis and migration, to name but a few.
The fact that the older characters are played by the Fassbinder icon Hanna Schygulla and the Yilmaz Güney star Tuncel Kurtiz, to a certain extent two leading lights of left-wing author cinema, is an inspired choice.
And the film opens in Germany just at a time when the Germans are looking back on the bloody history of the country's radical left, and Turkey is questioning its old political structures on a broad basis. Pure coincidence?
Plea for shades of colour
At a time when re-emerging black-and-white categorisations threaten to dominate thinking between East and West, Akin makes a plea for nuances and shades of colour in between.
For example Ayten: the way the police hound her may well be a realistic picture of Turkey's treatment of minorities, and her deportation may be an effective denunciation of Germany's thoroughly bureaucratic asylum policy. But her activist friends with their strictly hierarchical structure, for whom human lives take second place to the cause, are not one bit more likeable. The film's German title hints that Ayten's role might be elsewhere:
Auf der anderen Seite – on the other side – transcending all prejudice, ideologies and self-consciousness, towards friends, strangers, countries and cultures. The English title positions the film on the edge of heaven, the edge of death, but the film is not bleak. It is that closeness to death which grants life all the more depth and prompts those who live on to give their lives a purpose.
By the end of the film, the characters who survive have found out more about themselves and about the others. And that's what the audience takes away with them, making "Edge of Heaven" a very extraordinary film.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire