The Kindness of Strangersby Lu Chen
The Edge of Heaven (2007), Dir. Fatih Akin, Now Playing
“People disappear every day.” “Every time they leave the room.” The exchange of lines in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) applies well to Fatih Akin’s recent The Edge of Heaven. Across two nations and three families, people may appear as main characters but disappear for most part of the film; two die suddenly and shortly (in cinematic time) after they meet other characters and start new storylines. People are separated by geographical distance or emotional turmoil, imprisonment or death, misunderstanding or simply what passes as fate. They search for each other, a daughter for a mother, a son for a father, a lover for the beloved, or for someone they barely heard of, but seldom—find each other—at least not in the film’s running time.
An overwhelming sense of strangeness also haunts the relationship between the two cultures the film attempts to bridge: Turkish and German. In The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature (2005), Leslie Adelson mentions that although Turks comprise the largest national/ethnic minority in the Federal Republic of Germany, their public perception represents self-evident categories of “cultural difference, social unassimilability, or incommensurable strangeness”. The country’s leading weekly news magazine Spiegel once captured this tendency by characterizing German Turks as “icons of the foreign”. In the film, Turkey’s prospect of joining the European Union does not make it any closer to the traditional “European” world, but ironically serves as the reason for the German government to deny an activist-in-exile’s application for asylum. A surreal scene where a Turkish-German woman encounters two fundamentalist countrymen demanding her to “repent” for her prostitution takes place appropriately on the bus, for she is not only in between places, but in between cultures and moralities as well.
The Edge of Heaven goes beyond the anger and anguish of exile, and also beyond Akin’s Golden Bear-winning Head-On’s (2004) focus on the Turkish problem. Unlike many other recent films concerning immigration, it does not focus on the dynamics of a particular ethnic group (as in Brick Lane) or the interactions between “hosts” and “visitors” (as in The Visitor). Nor does it depict the social problems laid bare by immigration (as in Frozen River). Instead, it reflects on cultural clashes in the age of—in Adelson’s words—“disorientation,” where the boundaries between East and West, natives and foreigners, home and exile, here and elsewhere break down. What remains are images brimming over with detail: dictionaries, maps, mispronounced place names, the choice between çay and mocha, the safety brought to a foreigner by a bookstore of her mother tongue, the tears at the ripened tomatoes in another’s yard. A recurrent motif is the announcement, “This is your room,” but the rooms—prison cells, shelter houses, crash pads, hotels in strange lands—witness the collapse of stable homes and fixed national identity. In Adelson’s study, the literature of Turkish migration peaked in Germany in the 1990s—an epoch of categorical disorientation and historical reorientation shared by Germans, Turks, and many others too. Affected by the great turn in history, as the film depicts, everyone—Turks, Germans, in-betweens and total Ausländers—has to tread strange lands and depend on the kindness of strangers. Occasionally they see themselves in the strangers. The Turkish son Nejat has been comfortable with his work as a professor of German literature as well as his uncanny fluency in another’s language until he meets his “mirror image”—the owner of a German-language bookstore in his lost fatherland Istanbul. In a word no other character dares to name, his mirror guardian of language reveals to Nejat what he never suspects: that beneath the books and literature lies “homesickness.”
The film also presents all the characters as strangers to us. It seldom uses subjective, point-of-view shots that allow us identification with some specific character and the comfort of some stable identity. Instead, an omniscient camera forces us out of the characters’-and our-partial view, and challenges the boundaries between seen and unseen, between center and margin. Sequences in a new location typically start with wide shots of the place before focusing on the characters, who often live at the margins of the landscape. We see them seeking, but never finding, one another. The first two of three chapters tell parallel stories overlapping in time but set in different contexts. A sleepy student appears in Nejat’s class in both chapters, but the starving and exhausted student never suspects that a man lecturing in an unknown tongue shares the same roof with her mother; nor does the committed (and a little bored) professor expect someone at the back of the classroom to be the cause of a journey that will change his life. In another long take, mother and daughter ride on different sides of the same road, looking for, but oblivious of, each other. Only the camera looks long and wide enough to see.
Despite the constant presentation of their partial views, however, the film feels for its characters in their limitation and vulnerability. The omniscient camera presents abundant parallels among seemingly disparate episodes and distant people, bridging their gaps in a compassionate, tender manner. Coffins travel at the same airport in the aftermath of two deaths, traveling in opposite directions between Germany and Turkey. Characters take the same buses, airplanes and ships, and enter the same doors. Retrieving her daughter’s belongings in Istanbul, a German mother finds herself walking on a path forgotten for thirty years. Sleeping in her daughter’s rented room and saying hello to the same unknown neighbors as her daughter once did, she sees herself in her estranged daughter, and accepts the strangers around her as her own.
For in strangers we see ourselves; what separates us are the walls in our own minds. The parallels reach their climax with the travelers’ question “What is Bayram?” In a breathtaking sequence, we hear the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as if for the first time, not only because it’s retold from the Qur’an with different names. As Nejat recalls his childhood terror at the fate of Isaac, the themes-father and son, exile and the promised land, faith and fear-suddenly all fall into place. The film ends in forgiveness and reconciliation, or on the edge of them as the characters remain confined in their limitations. The two protagonists miss each other once again; he hasn’t found his father yet, she has lost her mother forever, but both face the same Black Sea and the same horizon on the same summer morning. The barriers between nations, cultures and generations become insignificant as the characters—and we with them—travel to the edge of transcendence.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.