Much as the quirky indie film has induced irreparable rot into independent cinema, the hyperlink movie has become the go-to framework for overwrought drama for auteurs lacking ingenuity in an increasingly sparse creative landscape. You see, in a hyperlink movie like Syriana or Babel, the world is a giant organic being and we are all, like, connected by a mystical force that causes us all to emote wildly and meet repeatedly and exert an extraordinary effect on a planet populated by billions. By harnessing the average moviegoer’s vague sense that they will never understand labyrinthine plots, this genre has metastasized into a guaranteed Oscar magnet, and likely will remain so despite the feeble Crash being placed in a floodlight for all to see its nausea-inducing flaws.
It is with a great deal of relief that Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven is not that sort of film, though it has the structure. There are lives that do interconnect, but in sensible ways that do not suggest a spiritual draw. Ali is an old man in Germany who peruses a brothel to pick up a prostitute, and then offers to pay her to live with him. His son, Nejat, is a professor in Germany who longs to return to Turkey for vague reasons. Ali accidentally kills the prostitute (Yeter), and goes to jail, while his son ventures to Turkey to seek out Yeter’s estranged daughter, Ayten. Ayten is involved with a partisan group and wanted by the authorities, and so she flees to Germany and falls in love with a university student, who later follows her back to Turkey when she is imprisoned. This is already sounding familiar, but unlike a standard hyperlink film, which is driven by plot to the detriment of its characters and logic in general, Edge of Heaven cares only for its characters, and follows them to the end of their actions with little concern for whether it ends in a meaningful cross linking crescendo. And here is where the film shows its hand, for Akin appears to be making a comment on these films, and film in general, and that commentary is most welcome. The lives are connected, just as are any of us who do not live in our parents’ basement, but that is all. The interactions are random, unguided by a supreme being (or an overly ambitious director) imparting a message, and utterly lacking any intrinsic redemption for those life connections. The characters here are vulnerable, and all too fragile in the brutal world that Akin focuses upon, where death comes by unavoidable means, leaving behind shattered families with no actual reason for the death, or life lesson to learn from it. When one of the characters is killed in the streets of Istanbul, one could say it was due to her blind love for her girlfriend that drove her to run an errand in a city she does not understand. In reality, though, such things happen, and for no particular reason.
The film is rife with examples that demonstrate this point, that life need not be so connected or predictable, and that just because one seeks redemption, it will not necessarily be forthcoming. Though the director has great affection for his characters, and provides them with subtle shading throughout, he has the restraint required to allow events to transpire in an unsentimental fashion. Ali is a friendly sort who approaches prostitutes with a refreshing lack of self-righteousness and hypocritical guilt, although later he becomes jealous and all too aware of his own mortality. Nejat is curiously distanced, rarely allowing overt emotion to command his actions, until his father is jailed for murder and he can no longer help but pass judgment. Lotte is a German university student who falls in love with Ayten, a dissident who is wanted in Turkey for her involvement with a partisan group; Lotte is willing to fight for Ayten’s freedom even though she alienates herself from her mother. Her mother is played by the legendary Hanna Schygulla, whose pain bleeds off the screen in a way only a veteran like her can portray. Ayten is played by Nurgul Yesilcay in a revelatory performance that captures blind rebellion with the authority of a far more experienced actress. Such perfection in acting serves to make the viewer feel that these lives are quite real, and hence the tragedies they experience more intense since there does not appear to be a moral to the story. Though Lotte’s mother attempts to pick up the pieces after her daughter’s death by helping Ayten, this is not a plot resolution as much as the very human impulse to find meaning in a meaningless catastrophe.
Political strife is nearly always in the background, just as cultural incongruity is present as a silent character. Akin appears to be wary of the concept of a cultural melting pot, just as he is of the sanctity of human connections. In Edge of Heaven, calamity befalls characters when they stray from their roots, which happens often in a film that occurs along the axis of Germany and Turkey and live and dead bodies cross uneasy borders. The director is no xenophobe, however. His greatest suspicion is upon the customs and background that make us comfortable, as there is no safety in this world, only the illusion of same. Ayten accidently betrays her comrades in the partisan group; she is in turn threatened by and treated with contempt by her friends; Yeter is threatened by Turkish men who think she is a Muslim and demands she repent. People think of culture as a touchstone, or a warming blanket, but it can just as easily smother. Interestingly, stepping outside of these comfortable confines can easily expose one to the fickle hand of fortune, but this is often for the best, as it is that randomness and our ability to adapt to it and fight to overcome adversity that makes us human. That we often do not succeed is beside the point.
Religion is viewed with as much cynicism as culture here. The Muslim men who threaten to murder the prostitute unless she repents are not essential to the story (nobody here is essential as there is no plot to drive the events), but underscore just how dangerous it is to live how one wishes. Lotte’s mother discusses religion with Nejat, who relates the biblical story of Ibrahim. Ibrahim was ordered by God to sacrifice his only son, and he prepared to do so on a mountaintop. As he drove the knife into his son, it went blunt, and God expressed his satisfaction that Ibrahim was willing to murder his son, and let him know that a sheep would do just fine. Apart from illustrating that God is a cunt of an asshole who demands fealty or will murder you in gleefully creative ways, Nejat used this to note that his father would have refused such an action and would renounce any God who made the demand.
This scene brings us to the final shot of the film, where Nejat ventures to a seaside town to find his father who has just been released from jail. He is hoping to reestablish the bond between them and take back the hatred he once expressed for his father for being capable of killing a woman. This setup for a touching moment of redemption becomes Akin’s final twist of the knife, as Nejat sits on a beach to wait for his father to return from fishing. And keeps waiting. The credits roll and a smile will cross your face as it becomes clear that redemption, comfort, and anything you assume life has in store for you are anything but promised. Perhaps his father is dead, maybe he will come back for a tearful reunion, or he will tell his son to take a piss – none of these outcomes are within Nejat’s hands. Part of being human is experiencing disappointment and tragedy to go with our triumphs. In the end, we only get to glimpse the edge of heaven, because absolutely nothing is our due apart from death.