The Edge of Heaven disembarks stateside still flush from an award-reaping Eurasian tour. That the European Film Awards tossed Fatih Akin's intercontinental, cross-cultural ensemble piece a Best Screenplay statuette makes perfect sense — it isn't brilliant, but it wears current events on its sleeve, feeling out the state of German-Turkish relationships as the former Ottomans clean house for E.U. membership and the demographic earthquake of 70 million Muslims waits at Europe's door.
Examining a Europe whose increasingly porous borders have drastically undermined a longstanding homogeneity is very much at the center of excellent recent work by such divergent sensibilities as Austria's Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export) and Britain's Shane Meadows (Somers Town). Both films still await a proper U.S. release date, while writer-director Akin once again secures distribution (as he did for his punk-posturing 2004 Head-On) with pseudoprovocations and a superficially deceptive simulacra of Art. Edge of Heaven ups the ambition — its screenplay is a Dickensian network of happenstance, serving to intertwine six characters of different ages, nationalities, and castes (the original title, On the Other Side, was more apt than the Sirkian Edge of Heaven, which seems chosen to trigger "the next Fassbinder" comparisons among dumbfucks).
Nejat (Baki Davrak) was born of Turkish stock, but is otherwise completely assimilated into German culture (the character's background echoes the director's). By dint of education — he lectures on Goethe at a Hamburg university — he has become alienated from his working-class father, Ali (Tunçel Kurtiz), a pensioner who arrived with an earlier wave of Gastarbeiter immigrants. Now comfortably indoctrinated in the get-pants-pissing-drunk leisure life of Deutschland's underclass, Ali gets the generation gap gaping by introducing his son to his new fortysomething girlfriend, Yeter (Nursel Köse), a practitioner from the red-light district dad has hired as a live-in screw.
The Other Side is Istanbul, where the daughter whom Yeter has been hooking to support is a collegiate Commie. Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) is introduced running from the cops during the fallout of a turbulent May Day demonstration. On the lam, Ayten makes it to Hamburg on a fake passport; trying to hustle a cheap meal at the campus commissary there, she latches onto Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who, as it happens, is a sucker for renegade romance, and Ayten gladly slips into love with her protectress. All this to the (barely) choked-back chagrin of Lotte's single mother (Antitheater vet Hanna Schygulla), who has to turn her suburban home into a safe house for her daughter's human-rights project/girlfriend.
Juggling the cast, Akin manufactures suspense by teasing close-call missed connections and foretelling the deaths of key characters with on-screen chapter titles. Scenes are identifiably counterbalanced, and this emphasizing of parallels makes the movie superficially impressive. Lesser matters — say, the grunt work inside of scenes and the individual performances — don't get the same attention. With Akin's attention on narrative architecture, the actors get little help in asserting their human specificity over their diagrammatic function as "types," especially Schygulla, who is here solely to bring the heft of her artistic history to her generational-placeholder part. (Now a stern hausfrau, Lotte's mom was once a freewheeling child of the '60s, wouldn't you know.)
The lighting is harsh and unseductive; along with the tons of scenes staged on public transit, this signifies "realism." The schematic, pick-a-frame-and-stick-with-it style that has become the fallback technique for highbrow Euro imports comprises much of the film. When two countrymen accost Yeter on a bus, threatening her for her transgressions, there's no attempt to bring out the sense of physical imposition. And when Schygulla goes on a hotel-room bender, the abject force of her grief might threaten to tear open Akin's delicate construction — so we're kept at a safe distance, observing the action from an on-high security-camera angle. There's nothing inherently wrong with detachment, but these gestures seem arbitrary, especially as the film progresses and its pretense of rigor disappears to make room for a humanistic foot rub.
After swatting at and then maneuvering the plot past some real issues relating to Turkey's E.U. application — the German legal system's treatment of political exiles, Turkish repression of dissent, revolutionary irresponsibility — it's time to let the healing begin. Three parent-child sets fracture, then reconcile and/or recombine. This expression of growth-through-trauma mostly involves actors hugging and making wistful "older and wiser" expressions while looking into the middle distance. (Everyone gets along. That the Turks believe in a different God than the Germans, and actually believe at that, is apparently not a pressing concern.) If the united Europe aspires to compete with America globally, this is good news — they've found their own multiculti Paul Haggis.
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