Monday, March 03, 2008

Review - The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)

Anyone expecting Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven to run along the same lines as his last film is likely to be disappointed. Head-On was one of 2004's most exhilarating and satisfying surprises, an uncompromisingly aggressive love story driven by raw passions and complex emotions; but while everything in that picture was turned up to 11, his new film is something else entirely. The Edge of Heaven is calmer and more contemplative, with deliberate pacing and down-to-earth performances, but the two films share similar thematic concerns, and after a stumbling start it grows into something just as impressive as Akin's breakthrough feature. The Edge of Heaven might not have the ability to grab your emotions and deliver a gut-punch in the manner of Head-On, but in many ways it does indicate a fascinating progression from this young director.

Like Head-On, The Edge of Heaven is a film in which the action moves between Turkey and Germany, opening with an encounter between an old Turkish man and middle-aged prostitute in Bremen. Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) is quite taken with the stern-faced Yeter (Nursel Köse), so much so that he asks her to move in with him and allow him to become her client exclusively. Enticed by the prospect of some stability, Yeter accepts the offer, and after some initial friction she even develops a close friendship with Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak). In fact, their relationship is a little too cosy for Ali's liking, and after drinking heavily one night he fights with Yeter and accidentally kills her. Don't worry, that revelation is not a spoiler, as Akin has taken the curious step of opening this segment of the film with the title card "Yeter's Death", and later in the film he gives us "Lotte's Death", alerting us to the fact that the engaging German student we have just been introduced to will not survive the movie. It's an odd move, but perhaps a wise one, as the cruel and abrupt nature of their deaths might have been too difficult to take had they occurred without our foreknowledge.

In any case, this film is less about death and more about how people deal its aftermath, with Akin suggesting that death often offers us a second chance at life, if only we are brave enough to grab it. After Yeter's passing, Nejat travels to Turkey to track down the daughter she had spoken of but had lost contact with; but as he's going in that direction, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) is travelling the other way. She's fleeing the authorities after acts of political activism and heading for Germany, hoping to find the mother whom she believes to be alive and working in a shoe shop. Fatih Akin's screenplay for The Edge of Heaven has picked up accolades from Cannes and The European Film Awards, and yet the screenplay is perhaps the film's least impressive facet. Akin is often unconvincing in the ways he cross-cuts his parallel storylines – on two occasions Ayten finds herself just feet away from Nejat, not knowing that he holds the information she desires – and Lotte's later encounter with Nejat can't feel like anything other than a screenwriter's conceit, a pitfall that afflicts so many "we are all connected" pictures. Akin, for all of his gifts, lacks the kind of Kieslowskian light touch that can make us believers in such cosmic coincidences, and much of his storytelling is frustratingly clunky as a result.

About halfway through the picture, however, something clicks with The Edge of Heaven, and the rest of the film just works. I found myself being drawn completely into the journeys undertaken by Nejat, Ayten and Lotte, as Akin focuses less on the contrivances bringing his characters together, and instead explores the emotions his story throws up. The performances, across the board, are excellent. Davrak is perhaps a rather bland lead, but Nurgül Yesilçay and Patrycia Ziolkowska (the ill-fated Lotte) are wonderful, and Hanna Schygulla's moving reaction to her daughter's untimely death gives some of the later scenes an extraordinary emotional punch. The Edge of Heaven tightens its grip as it progresses – making it the inverse of Head-On, a film that struggled to sustain its ferocious momentum in the final third – and the haunting final image he settles on is one of the best closing scenes of the year. Akin is a filmmaker fascinated by the boundaries of contemporary Europe and the way different cultures relate to each other, but most of all his films are built upon human emotions; both Head-On and The Edge of Heaven are primarily films about love and loss, and those themes resonate across all borders.

As a final thought, it's worth noting the way The Edge of Heaven is being released in the UK, with the film being made available to view on television, through Sky Box Office, on the same day as its theatrical release. This is a interesting move, one which might have a lasting impact on the way foreign-language films are seen in this country, and it certainly has been heartening to see a Turkish/German production being advertised so heavily on the major Sky channels (although they're still pulling that infuriating trick of only including English lines of dialogue in the trailers. Really, who are they trying to kid?). The major benefit will probably be for viewers living outside of major cities who would otherwise have no chance of seeing a film like this on its initial run in cinemas, and hopefully those who just can't be bothered to make the trip to their nearest art-house cinema will also be willing to give it a try. Anything that makes foreign-language films more accessible to a wider audience must be encouraged, and this feels like a good start.