Even The Familiar Can Be Foreign In Faith Akin's Compelling New Drama
In the moving and immensely watchable The Edge of Heaven Turkish-German director Fatih Akin spins a web of coincidental relationships between his very different characters in order to show a world where everyone is in search of national identity in an age when it is a devalued currency. On the surface it's a movie about borders and boundaries, but Heaven ends up pledging an allegiance to home while refusing to define it.
Turk Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak), a German professor at a university in Bremen, struggles to maintain a relationship with his aging and lonely father, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), who Nejat discovers has hired a Turkish prostitute to live with him. In a classically awkward dinner scene near Heaven's beginning, Nejat and Ali try to leave the table as often as possible in order to avoid talking to each other about the funny and difficult situation.
This prostitute, Yeter Öztürk (Nursel Köse), has a daughter whom she has not seen in several years, and Nejat, with murky romantic intentions, becomes interested in finding her. Meanwhile, the daughter, Ayten Öztürk (Nurgül Yesilçay), a member of a revolutionary group in Turkey, flees Istanbul after a protest goes awry and travels to Germany, where she decides to look for her mother. She meets another daughter-mother pair, Germans who have even more severe communication problems. Ayten falls in love with the daughter, Lotta Staube (Patrycia Ziolkowska), which sets off a series of events that brings the jagged, well-developed characters into unlikely situations.
Everyone in Heaven acts brashly and makes reckless decisions that they come to regret, even though they face the consequences of their actions with more temerity than they do the rest of their lives. With heartfelt but thoughtless politics, and thoughtful if heartless jobs, the three single parent/only child pairs drive a story marked by missteps that are unable to be righted by the law, which serves only to mercilessly punish the most minor of mistakes.
While Akin always has another deus ex machina up his sleeve, he plays down the arbitrariness of the story by telegraphing the resolution of the story's first two acts by announcing which character, one we have not even met yet, will die. Despite the schematic plot, the moments of coincidence are subtle, not forced. Eventually, most of the story's overlaps hinge on just two or three events, which makes it easier to forgive than movies such as Crash and Amores Perros, which constantly push the credibility of their plots
In Akin's previous Head-On, his 2004 movie that touched on many of the same themes here, he suggested that Germany, which until recently only granted citizenship to those with German blood, has never come to terms with its large Turkish underclass. In Head-On, a return to Istanbul was a rejection of the West in favor of a world that, while more dangerous, was also more free. In Heaven, home is dislocated from one's fatherland, so it's never clear to where one should return. For some of the characters, political concerns supercede allegiance to a country, while for others home is marked by a nostalgia that is as much about the past as it is about place. The fact that Akin has to explicitly mark which scenes are in Germany and which are in Istanbul suggests that, in a globalized world, even your own country can feel foreign.
Such overlapping story lines are immensely satisfying, in part because they reward close viewing without asking you to do much more than recognize the connections. But Heaven also provides a story that slows down when it needs to, giving the actors the opportunity to demonstrate that they are more than bit players.
Although the movie wears its politics on its sleeve, it is much more a story about the expectations we set for ourselves and others, and how often we fall short of meeting them, than a treatise of Turkish-German relations. The edge of heaven is not the shining city on a hill, the mountainous result of pious labor and spendthrift capitalism. Rather, it's the place of comfort where we can wait for our own demise and not have to worry about what's around the corner. We look out to sea, but it doesn't matter if our ship arrives. We're already home.