With a handful of strong releases under his belt (1998’s Short Sharp Shock, 2004’s Head-On), German-born Turkish writer/producer/director/actor Fatih Akin has built his rep as an uncompromising, forthright filmmaker. Head-On packed an indelible punch, not because it provided a litany of graphic sex, violence, drug use and suicidal behavior, but because it presented its subjects in such an unvarnished, matter-of-fact manner.
Continuing the tradition with his latest, somewhat tamer offering, The Edge of Heaven, Akin creates a drama that is—in its own unique way—doggedly undramatic. Akin’s films are the polar opposite of melodramatic. There are no tinkling piano notes, no intimate close-ups, no obvious buildup to signal the approach of emotional content. When bad things (or on rare occasion, good things) happen in one of Akin’s films, they just ... happen. Often, it isn’t until a scene has passed that viewers realize how significant it was. Akin’s work is like whiplash--the full force doesn’t hit you until later.
With The Edge of Heaven, Akin hands his audiences a rattling box full of loose puzzle pieces and leaves them to assemble it. Initially, it’s difficult to tell where the film is going and how the characters relate to one another. But when the major puzzle pieces start snapping into place, audiences will practically gasp at the sad, symmetrical beauty of it all.
The film presents us with three separate story segments. Further cementing his blunt style, Akin introduces each segment with a title. The first segment is called “The Death of Yeter”—a spoiler if there ever was one. In Bremen, Germany, we meet Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz), a lonely widower transplanted from Turkey. One fateful afternoon, he meets a Turkish prostitute by the name of Yeter (Nursel Köse) and proposes a business arrangement. For the same money she makes at the brothel, she will serve as Ali’s live-in companion. A decade or two past her prime, but still holding her own, Yeter takes Ali up on his offer. Given the title of this segment, we can assume things don’t turn out so well. Following the titular promise, Ali ends up in prison and his son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), travels to Istanbul to hunt down Yeter’s long-lost daughter in a fit of familial guilt.
Several other characters are introduced along the way, including an aimless German student (Patrycia Ziolkowska) whose fate is sealed by the second story title, a rebellious Turkish girl (Nurgül Yesilçay) who connects all the characters together and a grief-stricken mother (Hanna Schygulla) who can’t figure out where it all went so wrong. Paths are crossed and recrossed, opportunities are missed and characters plug on in their own blinkered story lines, oblivious as to what’s happening next to them.
Everyone here is rootless—trying to will their way into happiness, but uncomfortable in any ground. German-born Turks long for their ancestral soil. Turkish-born Germans do the same. Character lines go back and forth between each nation, but neither place provides the solace for which these people yearn.
Strand by strand, Akin weaves a rich tapestry. When the film’s final segment arrives on a delicate grace note, tightening the threads that have tied these characters to one another, we’re left with the saddest of realizations: Only the audience can pick out the overall pattern that this story has taken. The characters are still stuck in their own melancholy worlds, unable to see the big picture. Borders, languages, religions: These are artificial constructions that keep us from realizing we are all flawed creatures, struggling to do our best and frequently succeeding in doing our worst. Akin, at least, gives us his best.