The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)
Directed by Fatih Akin
October 3-5, Bijou
There is an old poem by Horace that celebrates simple country living; its surprise ending is that the whole thing turns out to be the pitch of a city dweller trying to sell some rural property. During the Olympics, there was a series of ads—Go World—narrated by Morgan Freeman, which, but for their lack of irony, reminded me of that Horatian epode. If we reduce those stirring, kitschy ads to their true content, they read essentially thus: Forget your unique cultural textures, if indeed any still remain, and forget especially the nasty political regimes that regulate our ability to manipulate consumers and markets; focus just on your roles as passive spectators of action and potential runners-up of high-interest debt: We are all equal, we are all consumers. Go World! The ads, I believe, were for Visa.
Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven—the German title translates literally as “On the Other Side”—is a movie with a feel for what unique cultural textures and real national divisions still remain in our world, but it is equally alive to the genuine hopes and profound difficulties of universal justice. At the same time, the movie tells two interlocked tales about the love and struggle between parents and children. I say “at the same time,” because neither the political story nor the human story can be relegated to the backdrop.
The writer-director, Fatih Akin, was born in Germany of Turkish parentage, and the complex German-Turkish relationship is integrated into the generational drama. If you are unfamiliar with the German-Turkish situation, a good starting-point is to think about undocumented Mexicans in America. But the situation, unbelievably enough, is even more complicated than ours for two big reasons: (1) Turks are mostly Muslim, so the cultural divides with a secular German with Christian roots are deeper; and (2) there is the problem of the value of the European Union and of Turkey’s membership in it.
The initial plot is set in motion when two Turks in Germany meet up by chance: a retired widower, Ali, and a prostitute, Yeter. Ali falls for Yeter and offers to pay her regular salary if she lives and sleeps exclusively with him. (A German philosopher once defined marriage as a contract between two people for lifelong use of their sexual organs–he was unmarried.) Yeter does move in with Ali, at first to the chagrin of Nejat, Ali’s son and a professor of German literature. A separate plotline concerns Yeter’s estranged daughter, Ayten, a feisty young Turkish activist, and the trouble Ayten gets into with the Turkish government. The first plotline drifts from Germany to Turkey; the second drifts from Turkey to Germany and ends up involving yet one more parent-child relationship—between a German mother and her rebellious college-student Lotte.
It’s to the writer-director’s credit that these plotlines cross and overlap in important ways, but never quite as one expects. The story is told with terrific urgency. Few scenes are lingered on; there is so much to get to: murder, romance, crime, plot twists, and all the other good stuff of the movies. Yet there are a few crucial moments where the camera lingers and the story pauses, usually to take note of a character’s relationship to a room. The global world painted by the film is so dislocating and even random that homey rooms are needful stays against confusion. One of my favorite scenes, as a book lover myself, is of Nejat walking into a German bookstore in Turkey and simply savoring the walls of literature.
After their paths have tragically intersected, the German mother stands beside Nejat in Turkey and asks him what the Turks are being called to worship. He explains that it pertains to the story of Abraham and Isaac, a story that he was rightly horrified of as a child. She says, “We have the same story.” It is a wonderful fact—and I don’t mean this entirely ironically—that Christians and Muslims can find common ground in the story of a parent’s willingness to kill his child. The mother asks Nejat what his own father said to him about the story. Ali told his son that he would make God an enemy sooner than harming his boy. Go World.