Dir. Fatih Akin
(NR) ★ ★ ★ ★
The Edge of Heaven is the movie Babel was trying to be. It’s one of those intersecting-stories dramas contingent on coincidences and the hidden connections of its characters. Done well, such a narrative is more than contrivance; it can express an idea of human existence, about how we do not exist in a vacuum and may touch other lives in ways imperceptible to us. Babel’s aim was more specific: It wanted to show us the effects of global culture and tried to shoehorn its stories to fit the theme, but the stories didn’t jibe. Compare that to Heaven, which in two simple, paralleled images says more about the consequences of globalization than all of Babel: the image of a casket being exported from Germany to Turkey, and later another, being exported from Turkey back to Germany — exchanging death across borders.
But it is not a cynical film. Also exchanged across the borders are compassion and forgiveness. Writer-director Fatih Akin, a German-born filmmaker of Turkish descent, is tough but tender in considering his subject, observing that the culturally intermingled world is rife with conflict, but also contains the potential for reconciliation.
The stories are set into motion by two characters, a mother and daughter who do not know the life the other leads. The mother is Yeter (Nursel Köse), a prostitute in Germany whose daughter thinks she works in a shoe shop. The daughter is Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), a political radical in Turkey whose mother thinks she is a student.
The film is divided into three sections. The first tells Yeter’s story. An old man hires her for the night and would like to hire her permanently, offering to match her monthly earnings if she will live with him and service him exclusively. It is an advantageous offer for Yeter, a woman of Turkish descent who one day is threatened by two fellow Turks if she does not repent for her sins. The old man, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), is a heavy drinker with a lust for life and the father of a college professor, Nejat (Baki Davrak), who does not approve of him. It is not a spoiler to reveal that this story ends in Yeter’s death; the film announces it in the title of the first act. How she dies you should see for yourself.
The second act begins with Ayten. After escaping arrest in Turkey, she travels to Germany illegally and searches for her mother. Along the way she is taken in by Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), whose generosity seems unusual at first, and naive, but then we recognize their mutual attraction; they become lovers. This story too will end in tragedy.
I hesitate to reveal more, not because the film deals in fancy plot mechanics but because it develops in ways you don’t expect and it should be experienced, not summarized. What matters are the characters, whom we observe through the eye of God, knowing better than they do the fateful symmetry of their relationships.
There is a sixth character, Lotte’s mother Susanne, who disapproves of Lotte’s relationship, not because of her daughter’s sexuality, but because she puts herself at risk for someone she barely knows. In the third act, which deals with the consequences of the first two, Susanne becomes a key figure; played by Hanna Schygulla in the film’s most affecting performance, she unites the story’s disparate elements and provides an emotional center. In her face Schygulla articulates ideas about grace and redemption. In her decisions we are surprised. In the connections she makes we are uplifted. All roads converge here, at a place where despair turns to understanding. The film ends with a beautifully composed shot overlooking the ocean; there is such hope in it.