Perfect Disharmony

Photo: Yasamin Kiyisinda/courtesy of Strand Releasing

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.

The second adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia books, Prince Caspian, is such a clunkerama that it made me rethink all the nice things I wrote about its predecessor, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Could the same people have made both films? The first was a Lord of the Rings wannabe, a big-budget saga of wicked sorceresses and talking beavers and thunderous battles. But at its center was a more delicate notion: the way children transform terrible traumas (in that case the blitz of London and the loss of a home) into fantasies of transcendence and parables of faith. Just as weighty as the hordes with swords was the snowflake on a little girl’s eyelash when she entered the winter world of Narnia. No one could have mistaken the director, Andrew Adamson, for the next Spielberg or Peter Jackson, but he got the balance between the epic and the intimate right.

The balance of Prince Caspian is off from the first sequence, which isn’t the Pevensie children (Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Moseley, and Anna Popplewell) getting whisked back to Narnia but the birth of a male child, a lot of jumbled palace machinations among swarthy bearded look-alikes, and the breathless nocturnal escape of the title character (Ben Barnes) from his murderous uncle. C. S. Lewis wasn’t the world’s most limpid storyteller, but he knew enough to stick with his kid heroes’ perspective and fill in Caspian’s story later, in flashback. It’s not like Caspian makes such a fascinating protagonist. Barnes looks every bit the storybook prince—CGI could not have improved on that cleft chin—but he declaims like Keanu Reeves in Shakespeare. He’s Hamlet without the poetry.

At every turn, the filmmakers go for clutter and tumult where simplicity would do—and Adamson, to put it kindly, isn’t the fleetest of action directors. In one scene, our heroes (human, Narnian, and centaur) run from a bunch of Telmarine soldiers heading down a flight of stairs, and there’s a shot of the good guys trying to lift the heavy gate and then a shot of the soldiers on the stairs and then a shot of the gate beginning to budge and then a shot of the soldiers on the stairs and the heroes say “Hurry, hurry,” and the Telmarines—they’re still on the stairs. No army deserves to win that takes so long to go down stairs.

The CGI badger and swashbuckling mouse perk things up, Peter Dinklage has a moment or two as a humorless dwarf with an evil eye, and the kids are still likably nonactorish. But nothing has the centrifugal force of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, who pops up in a cameo that’s the movie’s best scene. Prince Caspian needed her brisk malevolence—to edit the script, if nothing else.

Though bus posters probably introduced you to the dark good looks of 26-year-old Ben Barnes, the new Prince Caspian is hardly a first-timer. In 2004, his boy band Hyrise competed to represent the U.K. in the massively popular Eurovision contest, which he followed up mostly with stage and television work. Disney scouts found Barnes onstage in The History Boys—in a role he ditched to join the Narnia franchise, earning testy words from the National Theatre: “Ben Barnes has decided to leave The History Boys early, before his contract is finished. It is something we are taking very seriously. He has accepted an offer to be in a children’s Disney film.”

The Edge of Heaven
Directed by Fatih Akin.
Strand Releasing. NR.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Directed by Andrew Adamson.
Disney. PG.


Perfect Disharmony