The 34 year-old director Fatih Akin was born in Germany of Turkish ancestry, a ready-made outsider. But the most remarkable thing about his films is that while they acknowledge his cross-cultural divide, they don't necessarily deal with the issue of trying to fit in with a satisfying click on one side or another. Rather, this acknowledgment simply adds layers of color and nuance, dissolving borders rather than reinforcing them. His films have done nothing but improve: his 2000 romantic comedy In July was a delightful summer road movie with a fairly predictable conclusion. His 2005 film Head-On started out like a similar situation romance, but suddenly switched to something more dire and engaging. And now The Edge of Heaven is his most accomplished film yet. It was also another in a series of superb submissions for last year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that the Academy chose not to nominate.
The story plays out like a complex novel clearly adapted to the screen, and yet it's an original screenplay. We meet six main characters, some of which never cross paths, but all of whom are connected. Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) is a Turkish-born widower living in Germany, who likes to visit prostitutes. One day he discovers Yeter (Nursel Köse), a blond-wigged item who calls herself "Jesse," and is also of Turkish descent. He feels a connection toward her and tries to buy her out, to pay her prostitute's wages if she'll come live with him and provide her services exclusively for him. After a pair of Turkish fundamentalist thugs threatens her, she agrees. Yeter has a daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay, who looks a tad like the Czech supermodel Veronika Zemanova), who is involved with a militant group in Istanbul. She escapes the police, winds up in Germany and begins searching for her mother, who she believes works in a shoe shop. A German student, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), with curly blonde hair, helps the penniless Ayten and the two begin a love affair. Lotte's mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) quietly disapproves.
Meanwhile, Yeter's new job with Ali has turned sour. Ali drinks too much and begins to treat Yeter as a servant, as an inferior. As foreshadowed by the film's chapter cards, Yeter meets with a terrible fate. So Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a professor of German, comes into the picture. He had been getting along well with Yeter and feels he owes a debt to her, so he tries to locate Ayten with the intention of funding her education. While looking, he buys a German-language bookstore in Istanbul, perhaps hoping to find Ayten while staying in one place (and not knowing that Ayten is no longer in Istanbul). A gun comes into the picture, characters die, there is political intrigue, and Akin winds up the climax using techniques straight out of Griffith, but with a skill all his own. Best of all is the film's final image, which gives us a kind of conclusion, but refuses to be nailed down or labeled.
Jumping around between characters, nationalities and countries, and even repeating images, Akin nonetheless achieves a workmanlike functionality; the film feels lean and economic with a perfect pace and clarity. But the most notable thing here is Akin's handling of the different cultures and places. At first it may seem as if he has given more weight and attention to his four Turkish characters than his two German characters. Lotte at first seems naïve and privileged compared to Ayten's dangerous, angry, politically-charged existence, but as the film goes on, Lotte's eyes begin to open. Akin encourages her learning, rather than condemning her ignorance. Likewise, Ms. Schygulla initially comes across as a worried, out-of-touch parent, but Akin slowly allows her to unravel a measure of worldly wisdom. Schygulla is a veteran of many Rainer Werner Fassbinder films; she was once one of the great beautiful faces in German cinema, and now that beauty has slowed down and solidified into something deeper and more expressive.
One of the film's lynchpins is the proprietor Markus, played by Lars Rudolph, who sells the bookshop to Nejat. Rudolph has a vividly German face (with a strong chin), although he has appeared in many international films, German (Run Lola Run), American (Buffalo Soldiers) and even Hungarian (Werckmeister Harmonies). Markus explains that although he's surrounded by German literature, the German language, he misses it. Then we have Nejat, a teacher of German in Germany, who winds up running a German bookshop in Turkey, a double-twisted irony, not lost on Markus. However, if Markus wishes to return to a Germany occupied only by Germans who speak only German, he has a rude awakening coming (and, of course, we never see him again). The Germany Akin shows us, is almost interchangeable with his Turkey, a huge melting pot wherein the common language is English (the film's languages are divided up roughly between English, Turkish and German). The (non-traditional) lesbian relationship between Ayten and Lotte further closes the circle. Most Hollywood films would work to re-establish and solidify borders, lines and order, but Akin happily lets them disappear.