Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Film: The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)

Warning: the following post contains spoliers.

Fatih Akin's German-Turkish co-production The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite), from a script by the director, received a well-deserved best screenplay citation at last year's Cannes international film festival - well-deserved not simply for the impressive acrobatics of its plot, but by virtue of the fact that Akin's writing does the majority of the work in The Edge of Heaven. Following a short, geographically and temporally undefined prologue that will be repeated later in the work, Akin introduces the first section, stipulating the death of someone named Yeter, whom we soon learn is a Turkish prostitute in Germany (played by Nursel Köse). After a couple of meetings, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) invites Yeter to live with him, to which she consents after being menaced by a pair of Turkish men on the train. (The disquieting subtext, surely, is the spectre of the possible future establishment of sharia law in Europe.) Following Yeter's death, Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak) returns to his and Yeter's native Turkey in search of the latter's estranged daughter.

Part two commences with a similar title reading "Lotte's death." Following the same pattern, we are shortly introduced to the namesake of this second title (with Patrycia Ziolkowska in the role). Yet her presence in the narrative is preceded by the introduction of Yeter's aforementioned daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay). The latter comes into contact with Lotte only after she is forced to flee Turkey following the compromise of her radical identity to the state's police. In Germany her initial search for her mother proves unsuccessful, though she does move in with Lotte and the latter's mother (Rainer Werner Fassbinder's axiom Hanna Schygulla). Here, the two young women sleep together before the latter is deported following a traffic stop. This incident prompts Lotte to travel to Turkey to seek the now imprisoned Ayten's release. However, before she can complete the task, the film's second intertitle is fulfilled.

The third and final part, introduced with the film's title, witnesses Schygulla's trip to Istanbul following her daughter's death. In this section we have the further convergence of the two plots, which have already coincided not only in the identities of the characters, but even in a single shot featuring mother and daughter unwittingly and unknowingly within the same frame. Hence, part two does not follow the first chronologically, as it at first seems, but rather overlaps, positioning the film within the tradition of European master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Indeed, like many films in the Polish director's corpus - from Blind Chance (1981) through The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the 'Three Colors' trilogy (1993-4) - chance encounters and near misses structure Akin's narrative.

Unlike Kieslowski's baroque cinema, however, Akin's mise-en-scène does not find (or even search for) a visual metaphor for its thematic content. Rather, The Edge of Heaven systematically utilizes wide-angle lenses, staging in depth and longer than average takes to record the film's script. Admittedly, this visual rhetoric can itself be defined as baroque - in the fashion of post-Toland Hollywood filmmaking - as can the picture's relatively circular structure and its open ending. (Perhaps the film's most visually distinct moment - and its most pronounced break from the prior matrix - is likely a series of overhead framings that render Schygulla in the process of grief; though somewhat novel, this passage may be among the film's weakest moments given its award-pandering foregrounding of performance.)

Still it is less Kieslowski who serves as the principle inspiration for The Edge of Heaven than it is Akin's European countryman R. W. Fassbinder. Indeed, each of the film's two parts decisively reference the director's well-known 1970s corpus, as does obviously Schygulla's presence. In part one, and to some extent in part three, Fear Eats the Soul (1973) provides the primary referent - each contains a Muslim immigrant named Ali in a relationship with a woman. Unlike Fassbinder's film however, where it is a German woman and the racial other, The Edge of Heaven represents a Germany that is increasingly defined by its Islamic minority. In the case of part two, on the other hand, the clearest point of reference seems the director's lesbian themed The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) with its blonde (Schygulla) and brunette leads - and a third party, which in this case is filled by Fassbinder's frequent performer.

Once again, it should be repeated, Fassbinder's inspiration finds its expression less in the film's visuals, as striking as the late director's mise-en-scène often is, than it procures a template for the picture's narrative, which again is the picture's greatest strength. Surely, like The Lives of Others from the previous year (which as with The Edge of Heaven was chosen as Germany's entry for the Academy's best foreign language prize), Akin's film represents high-level mainstream art filmmaking, manifesting high production values, exceptional performances and a strong script. While it may not be the equal of the best German productions of the past couple of years - namely Valeska Grisebach's Longing , Stefan Krohmer's Summer '04 (both 2006) and even Christian Petzold's Yella (2007; in its case less for its writing than for the Petzold's "slow-burn" direction) - The Edge of Heaven remains noteworthy cinema nonetheless, which is no small feat given its essentially middle-brow ethos.

In sum, The Edge of Heaven marks a respectable mainstream art cinema to parallel Germany's rich independent (or if not independent at least smaller scale) vein of filmmaking; there really seems to be a "new wave" here.

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