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Love and two coffins

Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven" is an optimistic requiem full of little utopias. By Katja Nicodemus

Sometimes a film is just a mood to start with. Or maybe a silence. In Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven" we encounter the strange silence that arises when a loved one has died. The world keeps turning, cars drive, flies buzz, people go to work, everything seems at once familiar and distant, clear yet muted. For a while existence moves into a different mode, the mode of disappearance and transience that bathes everything in an entrancing light and suddenly shows how precious and fragile life is.

Nurgül Yesilcay (Ayten Öztürk), All images © Kerstin Stelter / corazón international

"The Edge of Heaven" begins with a prologue that will also be the film's end. So death and loss, pain and overcoming pain are all actually over and done with before the story is told for us. That explains the detached – one is almost tempted to say wise – standpoint of this film. A film that is not going to be taken unawares by any turn of events.

"Yeter's death" and "Lotte's death" are the titles of the first two sections. At the end of each a coffin rolls off a plane onto a runway, once in Istanbul, once in Hamburg. Two coffins, two deaths, two stories, that is the symmetry of "The Edge of Heaven". And in retrospect Akin's film really does resemble a set of scales, keeping the different narrative densities in perfect equilibrium: the sad and the light, moving moments and amusing ones.

Nurgül Yesilçay (Ayten Öztürk) and Patrycia Ziolkowska (Lotte Staub)

"Yeter's death" is about an old Turkish man in Bremen, his son, a German Studies professor, and a Turkish prostitute named Yeter. The old man "buys" the woman, pays her to live with him. In a moment of drunken anger he hits her; she falls badly and dies. In "Lotte's death" Ayten, a Turkish political activist, flees from Istanbul to Bremen, where she is taken in by Lotte, a student, and Lotte's mother. The two young women fall in love. When Ayten is deported to Turkey, Lotte follows her to Istanbul – where she is accidentally shot dead by a street urchin.

Director Fatih Akin

Here and there we hear Fatih Akin's script groaning as the fatal, fateful moments are wedged into the plot. And coincidence is hard at work too. But the film really does need the two deaths to get to the theme at its heart. Because "The Edge of Heaven" quite simply asks what is left. With its characters it follows the plans and sentiments, the thoughts and desires, the loves and the severed threads of destiny that a person leaves behind. A woman and a man travel to Istanbul to search for them.

Kids in Istanbul

Hanna Schygulla plays Lotte's mother, who gets closer to her daughter in death than she ever did in life. Until this point she has played the role she had fallen into, of the educated middle class suburban sourpuss, who could have gone on forever pushing cherries into the cake base with a supercilious expression on her face. How cleverly Akin allows this actress's natural languidness to flow into the frustration of her film character. And how he makes a little generational study of her somnambulant self-absorption. In Istanbul the mother's post-hippie paralysis will gradually dissolve, when she rediscovers the lost feelings of her youth and finds new hope after moving into her dead daughter's half-furnished room.

Hanna Schygulla (Susanne Staub)

Nejat Aksu comes to Istanbul too, looking for traces of the woman who lived with his father. This German Studies professor explains to his students in Germany why Goethe did not like roses in winter and therefore did not like revolutions either, but will turn his life on its head and take over a German bookshop in the city by the Bosporus.

Akin relates the encounters of these literally shaken people with great discretion and sensitivity. His brightly lit shots bring us close to the character, because the lens opens up space for their sadness, even their forlornness. When Schygulla is crying alone in her hotel room, the camera retreats to a corner by the ceiling, as if to make room for the pain. Again and again in "The Edge of Heaven" we encounter this aesthetic of silent empathy. For example when Fatih Akin leaves the overhang of a scene to his characters. These are seconds where the dialogue has ended, but by no means everything has been said. In one of these moments Nejat sits in the garden in Bremen beside his father's paid companion. She says little more than that she misses her daughter in Turkey. But the way the pair simply continuesittng there together in silence, in the presence of the camera, suggests there is more going on than we are being told.

Nurgül Yesilcay (Ayten Öztürk)

And of course "The Edge of Heaven" is, like almost all Fatih Akin's films, an essay on the forms, gestures and temperaments of love. One only has to recall the sheer endless series of embraces and kisses exchanged by the heroes of his first film, "Short Sharp Shock" – three petty criminals from Hamburg-Altona. The tenderness with which Akin films the friendship between a Greek, a Serb and a Turk conjures up a panorama of brotherly love stretching back to early childhood brawls. His road movie "In July" explores love as a great romantic idea, while "Head On" treats it as melodramatic excess and emotional roller coaster. "The Edge of Heaven" speaks more quietly, even when talking of love. A dance at a disco is enough to show the attraction between the Turk Ayten and the German Lotte. This time he defines the emotion more broadly: as love between parents and children, between the living and the dead, or as unexpected intimacy between people who are actually strangers. And not least, as critical love for one's homeland.

Tuncel Kurtiz (Ali Aksu) and Nursel Köse (Yeter Öztürk)

This latter love also encompasses Istanbul as a real city and as a place of dreams. As the scene of death and catharsis, as the interface of two cultures, but also as a completely normal everyday environment, where we see the inhabitants playing and stealing, demonstrating, reading and working. It is to Fatih Akin's credit that he is willing to view this love of homeland through spectacles that are not always rose-tinted. In Istanbul he films the many flags of the nationalist revival and the brutal treatment of anyone who stands in its way. He casts a glance into overcrowded women's prisons and a Kafkaesque legal system that has little to do with rule of law. In Germany he describes the hypocrisy of conservative compatriots who harass a Turkish prostitute but not her Turkish customers. At the same time, "The Edge of Heaven" delivers a neat little comment on the integration debate, when Nejat – a German Studies professor with all the best cards in the immigration game – suddenly discovers a feeling of belonging and wants to stay in Istanbul.

Tuncel Kurtiz (Ali Aksu),

It is astonishing how all these heavy themes in no way weigh down the film. On the contrary, as it proceeds in its slow rhythm, picking up more characters, places and fates, it seems to become lighter and lighter. An optimistic requiem full of little utopias.

So "The Edge of Heaven" is fundamentally an optimistic film. Because it shows that life is a great muddle of near-misses where sometimes the right people actually do meet up. Or that a homeland can be a feeling of belonging that is less about flags than about a place where at the end of his life an old man can go fishing once again. And because it shows that death is not the final frontier. At least not in a film where the dead so beautifully revive the living.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit on September 27, 2007.

Katja Nicodemus is the film critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: Meredith Dale - let's talk european