At this juncture, if you’re going to fashion a movie out of interwoven narrative strands à la Crash or Babel, it’s a good idea to make sure there’s something truly new and distinctive about your subject matter — because the device itself is getting old. Fortunately, director Fatih Akin has that covered. His new film The Edge of Heaven may be a blizzard of coincidence, but it is a blizzard of coincidence that explores the state of German-Turkish relations. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been there or done that in a lifetime of movie-going.
The first of our interlocking lives belongs to an elderly Turkish gentlemen (Tuncel Kurtiz), who has settled in the northern German city of Bremen. His name is Ali, and, as the movie begins, he is walking from window to window in the town’s red light district. The second story strand starts with the woman (Nursel Kose) at whose window he stops. She is a middle-aged prostitute named Yeter, also Turkish. After the two complete their transaction, Ali offers a different sort of business proposition: He’ll pay her to move in with him. Though Yeter agrees, we have a sneaking suspicion the two are not destined to live happily ever after. The film is divided into three chapters, and the title of this one is “Yeter’s Death.”
Before she exits, we learn that Yeter has a daughter in Turkey with whom she’s lost touch. We also meet Ali’s son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), who teaches at a German university. After his father is jailed for his role in the prostitute’s accidental demise, the young man travels to Istanbul in the hope of finding her long-lost daughter and making amends. A cousin with whom he stays has a great line: “Sure, in a city of 20 million people, you’re bound to run into her.”
In a movie like this, the fact is that you are; you just won’t realize it when it happens. Nejat and the young woman (Nurgul Yesilcay), whose name is Ayten, cross paths more than once, even though she’s a militant who’s wanted by Turkish authorities and flees to Germany to seek asylum. Just when you think Akin’s script couldn’t possibly accommodate another plot development, Ayten befriends Lotte, a sad-eyed college student, and falls head over heels into a passionate love affair with her. Unfortunately for them — the title of this chapter? “Lotte’s Death.”
Following which, Lotte’s mother travels to Istanbul to find closure in the place where her daughter spent her final moments on earth. Her name is Susanne, and she is played by Hanna Schygulla, the German actress famous for the films she made in the ’70s with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Her performance gives the picture its emotional center: It’s a moving and mesmerizing piece of work.
Did I mention that by this point Ayten is doing time in a Turkish women’s prison? Because Lotte was murdered while running a dangerous errand at her request, she is both devastated and wracked with guilt. When she’s informed she has a visitor, the last person she expects to see is this grieving woman. And when Ayten begs for forgiveness, the last thing she expects is for Susanne to extend it — but the older woman does, along with her friendship.
While Akin’s latest offers further coincidences, near misses and crossed paths, I’m not sure there’s anything that better suggests the spirit of the film than that moment of grace. Born in Germany to Turkish parents in 1973, the writer-director has the dance between these cultures down cold. It’s clear he possesses deep insight into and empathy for both. He’s not trying to make any sort of grand statement with his film, but simply to offer a snapshot of life as it is lived today by two different peoples. In the process, he shows us the ways they intersect, the ways they never can, and how the worlds both know are vanishing, even as they flee to them seeking safe haven. It’s a quietly powerful picture, rescued from gimmickry by fine writing, restrained direction and a cast capable of bringing to life characters you’ll not only care about, but find yourself thinking about long after the closing credits have rolled.