Tuesday, December 25, 2007

BERLIN & BEYOND 2008—The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite / Yasamin kiyisinda)

Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven was not originally slated to open next month's Berlin & Beyond—Yella reserved that honor—but, once Ingrid Eggers, Program Coordinator for the Goethe-institut, learned Strand Releasing had picked up Akin's latest, she pitched her woo and secured the film for opening night. It's unfortunate that Akin will not be accompanying the film to San Francisco to give opening night an added wollop. The film will have to stand on its own, which—despite some reservations on my part—it assuredly does. Countless synopses have been written on The Edge of Heaven so I will focus instead on the film's critical reception and sift out themes that interest me rather than recounting the film's plot.

The second entry in an intended trilogy "Liebe, Tod und Teufel" ("Love, Death and the Devil")—of which Akin's acclaimed Head-On was the first installment—The Edge of Heaven was received at its Cannes premiere by critical fanfare, predominantly positive, though edged with some skeptical dissent. Variety's Derek Elley beamed that "The point at which a good director crosses the career bridge to become a substantial international talent is vividly clear in The Edge of Heaven, an utterly assured, profoundly moving fifth feature by Fatih Akin."

The Edge of Heaven won the Prix du Scenario Award at Cannes and is Germany's entry for this year's Academy Awards. Never one to mince words, Robert Koehler—guest writing for Doug Cummings' site Film Journey—opines: "[H]anding Fatih Akin … the screenplay prize for the wretchedly structured narrative of The Edge of Heaven is flatly an insult to screenwriting."

More recently, Greencine's Dave Hudson concurs, though with considerable more tact: "Fatih Akin's been named 'European Screenwriter 2007,' a repeat of the Cannes jury's bizarre choice. Bizarre not because Akin isn't a vital and vivacious filmmaker—he is—but because he and editor Andrew Bird freely admit to completely overhauling the structure of The Edge of Heaven at the editing table. Not that it's helped, I'm sorry to report to my fellow Akin fans. Despite occasional, almost erratic surges of energy here and there, I'm afraid we'll have to count Heaven among his weakest works yet."

Yet—despite my own reservations, which I will detail shortly—I can hardly describe The Edge of Heaven as "weak" and I found myself fully absorbed by (and in support of) the film's thematic and political intentions. Above all, it has a compelling story, no matter how you fall regarding how that story is told. Though I'm quite intrigued by Hudson's intimation that it is somehow inappropriate to bestow a screenwriting honor on a script structured in the editing room.

Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for The Telegraph, admires how The Edge of Heaven "tackles, without ever simplifying or trying to resolve too neatly, issues of diaspora and cross-generational kinship."

Mike D'Angelo, dispatching to The Screengrab, notes: "The Edge of Heaven (which sounds like a Majid Majidi film; the German title translates as From the Other Side) is an assured and disarmingly inquisitive picture, creating a mosaic of unsettled lives in which the pieces never fit quite where you expect them to."

Boyd Von Hoeij, writing for European-films.net; translates the film's title alternately as "On the Other Side" and qualifies that the film's original German title carries "an even stronger sense of continuity after death" and "also points more strongly to the theme of incomprehension that the Germans and Turks have of each other and the preconceived ideas they have of the other party; the whole idea of having sides seems to conveniently overlook the fact they are all humans."

Jonny Cooper writes at No Tofu: "The Edge of Heaven is a falsely grandiose title. It has been translated from the more interrogative From the Other Side, which better conveys the issues at stake here of borders and landmasses, identification and fervor. Nonetheless, both demark a here and there and an us and them, which is precisely the uneducated dichotomy the film laments."

After we watched the film, my compatriot Frako Loden wondered what the film's title meant. Stranded in translation, and perhaps even strangled by language, it could (and most likely does) mean all of the above: diasporic tension, intergenerational kinship, geographic demarcation, and a philosophical thirst for a fixed, clear identity. For me, the film's (English) title clings to the film's closing image: the shoreline. A man waiting in the sand looking out at the cleanest line of nature: the sky meeting the sea. A man at the edge, contemplating the abyss. I took this as a metaphor for the death horizon; that liminal space that draws those who have survived death as surely as flame confuses the moth. Death confuses language. To set things right, one has to sit and articulate the alphabet of the human heart and the grammar of grief all over again. I know this from personal experience, from having weathered the death of loved ones too often too soon. I sometimes wonder if I shall ever pull out of the orbit of the death horizon? If I shall ever see the world again, or more correctly life, as I once did? Then again, should I want to? Joseph Campbell taught me in my youth that death adds resonance to life, and life has steadily proven death's effect. Over time I have come to respect and honor the death horizon as a field of resonance, a gravitational pull, that solicits contemplation. This is the cradle of philosophy, I imagine, and the image of a man sitting by the edge of the sea, waiting for a conversation with his father, seems as close to the edge of heaven as one can hope for.

Possibly my favorite write-up on The Edge of Heaven is Katja Nicodemus's essay for Die Zeit (translated by Meredith Dale), wherein she sensitively notes, "The Edge of Heaven is, like almost all Fatih Akin's films, an essay on the forms, gestures and temperaments of love."

Which leads me to consider that what I found to be one of the most invigorating aspects of The Edge of Heaven was its fair articulation of lesbian love. The lack of lesbian visibility in film is a theme consistently pounced upon by queer theorists—in contrast to the all-too-gratuitous portrayals of male gay visibility caricatured or commodified beyond recognition, let alone identification—and what I appreciate in Akin's gesture is that he—in some ways—speaks out of both sides of his mouth, satisfying the more customary appetite of male voyeurism with one of the steamiest on-screen kisses in recent memory but, more importantly, crafting lesbian chracters of heroic depth, strength and integrity. To others it might be nothing more than an incidental gesture; but, for me it is important and appreciated.

Now to my reservations, which are purely structural and stylistic. Cineuropa's Giovannella Rendi succinctly writes that The Edge of Heaven exhibits a "non-progressive, non-linear structure … divided into three parts: the first two are specular and the third a kind of summation in which all of the pieces of the mosaic fall into place."

Mike D'Angelo further observes that—within Akin's tripartite division—two of the chapters "sport titles that announce the impending death of a major character ('Yeter's Death' and 'Lotte's Death)"; "a structural device that lends even ostensibly mundane scenes a certain uneasy tension." Ray Bennett at The Hollywood Reporter considers that "[i]t may not be a wise thing to label the major chapters announcing the deaths of key characters" but excuses the choice because Akin "tells their stories with flair and compassion."

The Edge of Heaven's chapter headings remind Rob Daniel (Sky.Movies) of Pulp Fiction. He adds: "Akin navigates his players through disparate stories with the deft hand of a grandmaster, teasing out the ties that bind them and perfectly playing various near misses and chance encounters." But even more than its coincidental and consequential contrivances, what intrigues me about Akin's scriptural device is that its narrative thrust focuses less on the foretold deaths of Yeter and Lotte and circumambulates around the response of their survivors, or—as Gautaman Bhaskaran cogently argues in his dispatch to The Lumière Reader from the Telecom 2007 New Zealand International Film Festival—"Akin spins his plot around tragedies to strengthen his characters' resilience for views that may seem far removed than their own." At his site Lessons From the School of Inattention, Oggs Cruz likewise admires how The Edge of Heaven "subtly dissects the destructive and redemptory powers of death."

How is the arc of loss and redemption to be narrated? Akin foists an answer that, though of interest, is a bit too self-referential for my tastes, hazardously thwarting its own traction like throwing sand on the landing. Fortunately, the genuine heart of this film counters its intellectual contrivances. Variety (Elley) agrees: "Akin doesn't try to hide the plot's coincidences or Swiss watch-like precision, which is given human resonance by the flawless playing of the six leads." Likewise, The Hollywood Reporter (Bennett) notes: "[Akin] has time-shifted certain scenes, and he makes observant sense about the fragility of human connections." Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw's take is that The Edge of Heaven is "an intriguing parallel-life drama of co-incidence and happenstance: the near-misses and near-hits of human contact." Conceding that the plot contrivances are elaborate, Bradshaw agrees with Elley that it is "the heartfelt compassion and intelligence of the direction" that counts.

But not all critics are as forgiving in their allowances. Anthony Kaufmann, dispatching to indieWire, is less generous: "[W]hile Akin's heartfelt political intentions are laudable," he writes, "the under-developed characters seem to be more at the service of the intricate plot, rather than the other way around. The film is well told, with strong performances across the board, but the story's coincidences and constructions feel too neat to ring true."

And then the comparisons begin. Already it's been noted that the chapter headings of The Edge of Heaven hint at Pulp Fiction. Alan Bacchus, writing for Daily Film Dose, observes that Akin "channels the themes and characters of Kieslowski's accomplished oeuvre." The Edge of Heaven's religious themes remind Bacchus of Kieslowski's Decalogue, and Akin's plot structure and characters remind him of Red, White and Blue.

Boyd Von Hoeij likewise notes the presence of Kieslowski, though more favorably: "Akin's work is so serene, contemplative and yet so complex that it bypasses any simple comparisons to recent convoluted choral works such as Crash and Babel and offers pleasing touches of Kieslowskian non-coincidences, though Akin is certainly not on the same level as the legendary Polish director of the Decalogue and the Three Colors Trilogy—at least, not yet."

IFC's Dennis Lim counters, however, that The Edge of Heaven is "visually flat and overly neat", complaining that the film's "crisscrossing premise" is padded "with more pseudo-cosmic coincidences tha[n] even Kieslowski would have tolerated." He concludes that The Edge of Heaven "forces its largely believable and sympathetic characters into an increasingly ludicrous web of contrivances."

Katja Nicodemus levies the same criticism. "Here and there," she writes, "we hear Fatih Akin's script groaning as the fatal, fateful moments are wedged into the plot. And coincidence is hard at work too." Yet her summation of the film is, perhaps, the most fair of all I've read: "So The Edge of Heaven is fundamentally an optimistic film. Because it shows that life is a great muddle of near-misses where sometimes the right people actually do meet up. Or that a homeland can be a feeling of belonging that is less about flags than about a place where at the end of his life an old man can go fishing once again. And because it shows that death is not the final frontier. At least not in a film where the dead so beautifully revive the living."

No Tofu's Jonny Cooper writes that The Edge of Heaven takes its cue "from the Iñárritu school of tangled web filmmaking" and that "Akin entwines three narratives like a triplet of contortionists folding themselves into a bewilderingly small box."

"What differentiates The Edge of Heaven to Haggis or Iñarritu's sprawling mini-epics of mankind's chronic inability to live with each other," Oggs Cruz discerns; "is that Akin values intimacy and control."

Admitting that on its face The Edge of Heaven "sounds like the Magnolia/Babel school of 'we are all connected, let's hold hands' filmmaking", Exclaim!'s Travis Mackenzie Hoover insists Akin "turns the model on its head." He writes: "Instead of disparate people made tenuously and spuriously coherent, this film misleads people intimately linked into losing relationships they need to be whole."

When asked by Cineuropa's Boyd Von Hoeij to describe his narrative technique, Akin freely admitted, "Well, the fact that it starts in the middle and then goes back, I guess that it [is] really something modern, like the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga." But he alludes to further influences: "The fact that the architecture of the script is modern initially inspired me to make a modern film, with a lot of handheld camerawork and things like that, but then I discovered Eastern cinema and Persian cinema and the way they slow things down and let the audience breathe, so then my approach changed."

I guess I bring up the subject of influences on narrative strategies because I question just how "modern" a device this is, especially since—preparing for my Val Lewton blogathon—I was struck by a comment made by William Friedkin in his DVD commentary for The Leopard Man where he asserts that films like Pulp Fiction owe direct allegiance to Lewton's (at-the-time) innovative usage of overlapping, transferred narrative trajectories. It is, therefore, not a strategy without precedent, and critical skepticism to The Edge of Heaven approximates the skepticism met by The Leopard Man when it first came out. I presume that—just as The Leopard Man has passed the test of time—so will The Edge of Heaven.

Finally, some word on the film's casting and performances. In the Cineuropa interview mentioned above, Akin explains: "For some time, I've had this image of a German mother coming to Istanbul to search for her missing daughter. For me, this image had always been connected with Hanna Schygulla. I met her in 2004 in Belgrade and was simply enchanted by her. I was also curious, because some people have compared my films to those from Fassbinder—an opinion I do not necessarily share. It's funny because in Turkey they compare my films to those from Yilmaz Güney, something I'm also ambiguous about, because if you follow in someone else's footsteps, how will you leave your own trace? I did use Tuncel Kurtiz, one of Güney's regular actors. It just felt right. The whole cast works as a cast, not as a homage or a reference to something else, so it was fine."

Despite his disallowances, even Hannah Schygulla likens Akin to Fassbinder. I didn't recognize her at first but found myself instantly enamored with her character. Boyd Von Hoeij (European-films.net) writes: " Hanna Schygulla gives one of her most riveting performances in years, while the Turkish ensemble is excellent all-round, with Baki Davrak—on whom the film opens and closes—arguably the lead, though he carries it off with a light grace that belies his character's inner trouble."

SignandSight's Michael Althen considers Fassbinder legend Hanna Schygulla the film's "real attraction" and highlights the scene where Schygulla—having moved to Istanbul to occupy the former rented room of her daughter—leaves the house and walks down the street, saying hello to two chess players she passes, "unwittingly repeat[ing] her daughter's very gesture." Althen asserts: "It's not possible to tell in a more beautiful way the inner connection between mother and daughter."

Yet more praise from Variety (Elley): "Schygulla's low-key perf grows more slowly, bringing a reconciliatory glow to the final reels." Rob Daniel at Sky.Movies considers Schygulla's contribution "a standout performance of dignity and grief."

Cross-published on Twitch.


Anonymous said...

Hey Michael,

In short; Thanks for a great post!

I've followed your blog for a long time, and continuously appreciated it a lot. Now, I don't want to lift this one post up compared to all your other brilliant work - but since Akin and his films has a special place in my heart, I just have to say thank you for putting together such a well-written and thorough critical overview concerning "Auf der anderen seite". Eventhough I already had read most of the reviews you cited, the larger picture (thanks to your intervowing of quotes) gave them all new aspects.

Personally I love the film immensely and I'll have my own take on it up at Subtitles to Cinema following my second viewing at its Norwegian premiere on 4th of January.

Can't wait for your Lewton-blogathon.

Michael Guillen said...

And I'll look forward to reading your take on Subtitles! Thank you so much, Karsten, for your kind, encouraging words. I'm glad that you appreciate, as I do, the synergy that develops from interweaving reviews.