Writer-director Fatih Akin first explored the theme of personal turmoil across the borders of the new Europe in his harsh, violent 2004 film “Head-On,” and he returns to it here. In this case, however, though the narrative arc is no less tragic, the approach is more restrained, practically elegiac; even the most terrible events are portrayed in a matter-of-fact, understated fashion that paradoxically increases their dramatic power. And more than in the earlier film, the close brings a sort of apotheosis, a healing of wounds, that’s deeply moving in human terms. “The Edge of Heaven” doesn’t say that the world its characters inhabit is a paradise—far from it. But it does suggest that they can attain a sort of reconciliation with the misfortunes it inevitably brings, which is a kind of muted bliss.
The film deals with death, and survival in the face of it, through the stories of six interrelated figures, four of them Turks with strong ties to Germany. One is Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak), a quiet, somber university professor of German literature in Hamburg. His elderly father Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) lives in Bremen, where he frequents brothels to satisfy his still-considerable needs. It’s there that he meets Yeter (Nursel Kose), another Turkish expatriate. She’s being threatened by a couple of thuggish countrymen to give up her loose lifestyle or suffer the consequences, so when Ali offers to support her if she comes to live with him, she agrees. Unfortunately, the old man soon suffers a heart attack, and in an irascible and jealous state during recovery, he strikes her dead (no grave spoiler here, as the episode is preceded by a simple card titled “Yeter’s Death”). Ali is convicted of the crime and imprisoned, and as another title card (“Lotte’s Death”) intervenes, the action changes to Istanbul.
Nejat has gone there to search for Yeter’s daughter Ayten, but in the process stumbles on a German-language bookstore, which he promptly purchases and settles down to run. What he doesn’t know is that Ayten (Nurgul Yesilgay) is a member of a violent political group treated by the government as terrorists, and after a botched mission is forced to flee Turkey for Germany under the pseudonym Gul Korkmaz. She finds her way to Hamburg, where she’s taken in by a radical student, Lotte (Patriycia Ziolkowska), whose mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) is hardly pleased by the girl’s surly ways and strong opinions but agrees to let her stay with them. An encounter with the police, however, leads to Ayten’s deportation to a Turkish prison. Lotte follows her, with a tragic result that persuades Ayten to reconsider her activism and brings Susanne to Istanbul. There she takes the room with Nejat that her daughter had rented from him. After his release from prison, Ali returns to Turkey as well, though his son remains estranged from him.
Though there is some tinkering with chronology in his script—including a satisfying symmetry at beginning and close—and a good deal of coincidence to link the second half of the story to the first, Akin’s confident, unexaggerated treatment of the material makes the narrative sleights of hand easy to accept, even admire. Only rarely does his control slip a bit and allow the picture to grow a mite strident—in Ayten’s confrontation with the German police, or her final face-off with a comrade in the Turkish jail, for instance. His reticence pays off especially in the two death scenes, which are staged with an economy that’s almost breathtakingly serene, yet enormously powerful.
The acting is excellent across the board, with Schygulla and Kose beautifully conveying, in different ways, the experience of age and the maternal instinct, while Yesilgay and Ziolkowska are rightly more passionate and overtly emotional as their children. On the male side, the gruffness of Kurtiz and Davrak’s calm make for a similar contrast. As with Akin’s direction, Rainer Klausmann’s cinematography avoids frills and flourishes, but is quietly effective in evoking the differences in locale.
Intricate emotionally as well as in narrative terms, poignant but not mawkish, and told in an austerely compelling style, this is a wise and absorbing drama of cross-cultural and cross-generational rifts and reconciliations.