In the first section of Fatih Akin’s entrancing The Edge of Heaven, a coffin bearing a Turkish woman murdered in Germany is unloaded from a plane in Turkey; in the second section, a coffin bearing a German woman murdered in Turkey is unloaded from a plane in Germany. The killings are linked, in a roundabout way, but the mourners never grasp the pattern. The movie is like a Dickens novel with the ends of all the subplots lopped off: The related characters (six of them) who improbably stray across one another’s paths can’t see the connections, and the harmonious resolutions you’re expecting don’t arrive. Frustrating! And yet those frustrations pay off. The Edge of Heaven is powerfully unsettled—it comes together by not coming together.
Dislocation and disharmony are Akin’s themes. The director was born in Germany in 1973 of Turkish parents, and he remains a divided soul, raised in one country but with roots in another. His harsh, moody films (his last was the punk romance Head-On) are mixed-up dialogues between cultures that are themselves mixed-up, often violently. The movies, like the characters, have no center. Or maybe their center is a void. Identities disappear into it.
No one in The Edge of Heaven is on home turf, but no one escapes his or her legacy— certainly not the middle-aged Turkish prostitute Yeter (Nursel Köse) in the film’s first chapter, “Yeter’s Death.” She has no illusions, no expectations. She works on an open-air sex strip in Bremen—a permissive environment, until a couple of Turkish Muslims let her know they’ll kill her if she doesn’t close up shop. It’s the worst of both worlds: She’s isolated in a foreign land but bound by the restrictions of the old one. So she accepts the offer of a client, a lonely old Turkish widower (Tuncel Turkiz), to live with him and give him her favors exclusively; although he has a George Burns twinkle, he’s a drunk who regards her as his property. Before the old man’s assimilated son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), can intervene, the film makes good on the chapter’s title.
Akin is big on symmetry. Nejat is a professor of German, and when he travels, in his guilt, to Turkey to track down Yeter’s estranged daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay), he ends up switching places with the owner of a German bookstore who wants to return to Deutschland. The daughter, meanwhile, heads to Germany to find her mother; she’s a radical lefty activist on the lam. In the film’s second section, “Lotte’s Death,” she meets a shining-eyed idealistic student, Lotte, and they fall deeply, hungrily in love. Some good lesbian tongue action is undercut by Lotte’s mother, Hanna Schygulla, who looks on her daugther’s lover with mute disapproval.
The narrative is too twisty to summarize, yet Akin’s storytelling is masterly. He passes the point of view effortlessly among his protagonists. He alternates intimate close-ups and cool long shots; he brings you close to characters before he kills them off. He created Lotte’s mother, Susanne, for Schygulla, and even if you don’t know Schygulla’s history, if you never saw her in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s transgressive parables, you can feel something radioactive in her presence. She’s not demonic, she’s terrified—by her daughter’s sexuality, by Ayten’s angry, anti-colonialist rhetoric. Turkey will soon be in the European Union, she protests. Best not to fight but to wait. The Fassbinder mascot has aged into a Good German.
Akin’s Germany and Turkey seem like inversions of each other, the Germans outwardly liberal but tight, repressed, with a lurking reactionary strain, the Turks corrupt and repressive but with a passionate fullness. Despite similar views of each culture, The Edge of Heaven feels nothing like Head-On, which is a rough, bloody screwball tragedy in which the hero and heroine meet cute in a mental hospital after their respective suicide attempts. The new film is even and controlled, and in places it seems as if Akin was straitjacketed by his immaculate construction. Despite his inner tug-of-war, Nejat—probably a stand-in for the director—is disappointingly undemonstrative. (And why is he so sexless?) The reason for the Turkish mother and daughter’s estrangement is unclear. Ayten’s politics? There’s a moment when Nejat and the ghost of Yeter pass Ayten and Lotte that feels as if it belongs in another movie—it’s moth-eaten magical realism.
The actors keep the movie raw and alive, especially Ziolkowska, with her charming headlong ardor, and Schygulla, with her wails of grief that seem dredged up from a bottomless chasm—not from hell but endless purgatory. The movie might be overly determined, but Akin’s feelings aren’t. He’s trying to work out something he doesn’t entirely understand, dredging up pieces of his psyche and arranging them into ever-more-complicated patterns. In The Edge of Heaven, he finds a place for rage, for melancholy resignation, and even in the end, for hope. The void isn’t filled, but it isn’t unfillable.