by HELEN GEIB
The superb new film by German writer-director Fatih Akin, The Edge of Heaven tells one story about six people in three acts. Its subject is the relationships between parents and their adult sons and daughters. Its mood is a sustained and subtle emotional intensity.
The first act, called “Yeter’s Death,” is set mostly in Germany and follows Nejat, his father Ali, and Yeter. Ali and Yeter are Turkish, but have lived in Germany for many years; Nejat is effectively bi-cultural. After Yeter’s death, Nejat travels to Turkey to find her daughter Ayten. The second act, called “Lotte’s Death,” shifts the story’s focus to Ayten, Charlotte, and Charlotte’s mother Susanna. It begins and concludes in Turkey with an intervening segment in Germany, where Ayten and Charlotte meet. The two strands of the story converge in the third act, set in Istanbul.
The Edge of Heaven has an absorbing story and rich characterizations. The prefatory cards to the first two acts instantly draw the viewer into the story, creating suspense about how these vigorous and sympathetic women will meet their deaths. There is shock at the moments of death and pathos in the survivors’ expressions of grief. The shifting fortunes of the actual and surrogate parent-child relationships that underpin the story – Ali and Nejat; Nejat and Yeter; Yeter and Ayten; Susanna and Charlotte; Nejat and Susanna; Ayten and Susanna – are dramatic and compelling. There are lighter touches, too, in the interactions between father and son, Ayten and Charlotte’s romance, and incidental moments throughout the story.
All of the characters seek greater intimacy and understanding within the confines of a story that continually places a mix of ordinary and extraordinary obstacles in their paths. Yeter disrupts the close relationship between Ali and Nejat just as Ayten disrupts the close relationship between Susanna and Charlotte. The women’s entrances into the parent-child relationships are by happenstance; the destabilization they cause is essentially an unintended byproduct of the acquaintance, but no less profound for that. Missed connections between people who are actively looking for each other are a recurrent motif. The Germany-Turkey border is a physical barrier and language, culture, and religion are barriers to communication. Some relationships are brutally terminated by death.
Acts one and two are on concurrent timelines and the film could have been told by intercutting between the two storylines instead of by separating them into distinct acts. The film’s deliberate and absolute structural division of the related Nejat-Ali-Yeter and Ayten-Charlotte-Susanna storylines is another powerful expression of the barriers keeping the characters apart.
Yet for all this, the film is essentially and deeply hopeful. All of the obstacles and divisions are traversed or ameliorated or survived. There are un-looked for meetings. The national border is porous and frequently crossed. The characters always find a common language; if a couple doesn’t speak German or Turkish, there’s English to fall back on. Death is the only impermeable barrier, and even death gives rise to circumstances that create, in actuality or possibility, new connections or change and renewal. The characters never close in on themselves, and the two parts of the story come together in the end.