Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Missed opportunities: The Edge of Heaven skates along the edge of excess

At the start of two of it’s three chapters, Fatih Akin’s
The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite) does a couple of very curious things, each highly emblematic of the movie’s underlying spirit. Firstly, with, happily, no ‘spoiler alert’ warning anywhere in sight, the chapters in question are titled so as to unambiguously announce the climactic death of a central character. Secondly, they depict the arrival by plane of a coffin from another land. In one coffin lies the remains of a Turk killed in Germany, in the other a German killed in Turkey. As the stories of the coffin’s contents are revealed, this morbid foreign exchange program proves to be riddled with potent themes of dislocation and misunderstanding, intolerance and intergenerational breakdown.

There is certainly no mistaking the ambitions toward profundity and timeliness invested here. Neither can one say that intense emotions have not been shaken to life to make it all happen. Yet as I watched The Edge of Heaven I could never quite shake off the sense that no single pursuit was being served so arduously as that of what is finally kind of a cheap and, these days, over-extended device: dramatic irony, that indispensable tool for many an ostensibly important, dramaturgically overcooked movie of our new century. From Crash (2004) to Babel (06) our most literal-minded liberal filmmakers have been trying to show us how, in the age of globalization, everything is connected, and they convey this by, well, literally connecting everybody in their movies, as though the audience is entirely incapable of making such connections on their own. Akin’s latest isn’t quite as overbearing in its approach as the above high-profile examples, as he endowing certain scenes with a genuinely affecting level of intimacy. But it’s this very intimacy that instills our viewing experience with that much deeper a sense of betrayal once the writer/director’s heavy hand enters the frame.

In one strand of The Edge of Heaven we see Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a retired widower, fall in serious like with Yeter (Nursel Köse), a spunky 40ish prostitute. Both are Turks living in Germany, their common national heritage filling in a few of the gaps in their very different backgrounds and sensibilities. Ali convinces Yeter to quit the racket and come live with him as a kept woman he can screw whenever the wind’s in his sails. She’s got a daughter back home to support. She surely doesn’t get off on hooking and probably wouldn’t mind escaping the muttered threats of the neighbourhood fundamentalist Muslims who broodingly disapprove of the work. So she agrees. But things, as they will, get more complicated.

In another strand Yeter’s daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), a young, aggressive political activist, flees Turkey, hoping to find her mom in Germany. She finds instead Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a student who becomes smitten by this rough-edged foundling and takes her in—even if Lotte’s mom Susanne (Fassbinder veteran Hanna Schygulla) isn’t all that cool with the interracial panty party going on under her roof. Yet Susanne’s wishes for Ayten’s expulsion come alarmingly true once Ayten’s sent back to Turkey and imprisoned, followed by lovestruck and hell-bent-on-justice Lotte.

The third chapter wrangles both threads together, thanks in part to the very handy link of Nejat (Baki Davrat), Ali’s son, who over the course of the film gives up his academic career in Germany to rediscover his ethnic roots, taking over a German bookstore in Istanbul. The Edge of Heaven slips in these shots here and there to provide a few big a-ha! moments of missed opportunity, before finally building up to the climax where solace is to be found in the knowledge that in the end, tragedies at least have some meaning once their trajectories are unearthed.

But in the search for solace, here too Akin, for my taste at least, tries a little too hard than is strictly necessary to generate catharsis, with scenes of prolonged, agonized weeping one might characterize as the pornography of the middlebrow moviegoer. There’s a point where emoting transcends empathy and becomes simply alienating, and Akin crosses it and some. I know of course that some people really go for that stuff, which may go some way to explain the film’s avalanche of awards. But such accolades may also partly result from a collective desire to see a dream come to life, one where even the most oppositional hostile forces might unite into a patchwork brotherhood, a united Europe founded, as is often the case, in bloodshed.

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