The Greatest of These Is Love
2007 // Germany - Turkey - Italy // Fatih Akin // August 30, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - With The Edge of Heaven, Turkish-German director Fatih Akin offers a mournful, penetrating exhale of affecting cinema, a Shakespearean tragedy for a modern, multi-cultural Europe. Two violent deaths haunt this film, looming calamities that Akin bluntly telegraphs with title cards. (There Will Be Blood, indeed.) Catastrophe awaits us, not to mention the poor souls that populate Akin's Bremen and Istanbul, gritty landscapes of crumbling buildings and fragile humanity. In more ways than the survivors will comprehend, these deaths will emerge as transforming phenomena, their bright and black ripples reaching far-flung shores and lives. With six gently compelling characters and an exultant soundtrack, Akin has crafted a meditation on human connection more profound and emotionally persuasive than any recent convoluted ensemble behemoth. Despite its grim—and at times bitterly amused—sensibility, The Edge of Heaven is far from a morbid work. This is awestruck human spectacle at its most unexpected and redemptive, and one of the best films of 2008.
Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) is a Turkish widower dwelling in Germany, where he spends his days watering his tomato plants in between drinking too much, gambling too much, and visiting Yeter (Nursel Köse), a prostitute of the same Anatolian origin. Ali and his adult son, Nejat (Baki Davrak), who teaches German at the local university, have an affectionate but taciturn relationship. They enjoy each other's company, but have little to discuss and less in common. Yeter, meanwhile, has a daughter in Turkey that she supports, a student who does not know her mother's real profession. Perhaps wishing to hold the loneliness of his remaining years at bay, Ali offers to pay Yeter the same rate as her brothel if she will live with him as a kept whore. For pragmatic yet proud Yeter, it's a more temping proposition than it sounds, partly due to the menacing Muslim fanatics that have been harassing her of late. Naturally, there are complications and crises, the nature of which you will need to experience for yourself.
After a time, the film departs Ali's tale to rendezvous with Yeter's daughter, Ayten (the gorgeous Nurgül Yesilçay). Pursued by the Turkish police for her participation in a radical communist street protest that turned violent, Ayten travels to Germany with false papers. She has a fiery temper and a longing to see her mother, which contribute to her falling out with her revolutionary comrades. She crashes on a university campus, with its cheap food and abundant spots for a homeless fugitive to sleep. When she begs linguistics student Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) for money, the German woman offers a meal and a kind ear. Intrigued and touched by Ayten's plight, Lotte brings her home to stay in her mother's tidy bungalow. The mother, Susanne (Hanna Schygulla), is a quiet, conservative divorcée whose patience is sorely tested by the arrival of this brash, radical foreigner. Roughly when it becomes apparent that political idealism is not the only thing that attracts Lotte to Ayten, their sketchy ambitions begin to unravel and relationships of all kinds are put to the test.
Three sets of parents and children: two mothers, two daughters, one father, one son. Each set is afflicted with tribulations that rend them apart, some deeply personal and some agonizingly beyond their power to control. How The Edge of Heaven approaches these characters, and the places it eventually takes them, is what makes the film such a marvelously humane achievement. Each of the six principals is conventional in their way, even tiresome. Yet each brims with unexpected and obscured qualities, some deeply touching and others disturbing. Akin's storytelling has a determined gradualism, one that eschews sudden revelatory jolts for an intensifying awareness of each character's motives and essence. This graceful approach ensures that the plot's abundant reversals and serendipities rarely appear dubious. Akin's aims are denser and more sobering than facile "We Are All Connected" platitudes. In a lesser film, the threads that link the film's German and Turkish locales would merely be the components of a gaudy cat's-cradle, a magic trick sans purpose. Here they serve as a means to tenderly convey the echoes and contrasts in the film's entwined storylines.
There are films where the criss-crossing paths of the characters eventually meet in a rush of revelations. This is not that sort of film. Revealingly, Akin denies the viewer the satisfaction of narrative release as well as a sense of cosmic mercy. He offers moments of tingling anticipation capped only with deflating disappointment. He also plays with cruel, agonizing turns of fate. If only Ayten hadn't dropped her cell phone; if only Nejat had left the sign on the bulletin board; if only Lotte had turned left instead of right. If only, if only, if only... Akin warmly but firmly urges us to let go of our instinct to game the past or second-guess what is beyond our control. The thematic currents that coarse through The Edge of Heaven are multitude, but the film-maker's essential message is unambiguous: forgiveness and compassion are the paths to liberation, whether from shame, hatred, or grief.
The actors all deliver captivating portrayals, particularly Yesilçay and Schygulla, who coax tremendous pathos from characters that are fundamentally unpleasant in some respects. Schygulla, a frequent collaborator with the late German director Werner Fassbinder, claims the film's most stunningly memorable role. Her plump hausfrau journeys through comfort, bitterness, agony, and eventually to a kind of peace, leading us every step of the way. Equally triumphant is the film's music, an energetic score featuring DJ Shantel's Balkan gypsy beats and the late Turkish folk-rock singer Kâzım Koyuncu. The lush vocals and rhythms splendidly evoke the film's aura of Old World heartache and hope. That same mood is embodied in the film's final, iconic image. Nejat sits passively on a Black Sea beach, waiting for his father to return from a fishing trip, savoring the expectation of a reunion that rage and stubbornness have averted for too long. Human drama simply doesn't come much better than this.