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Can it be coincidence that Akin, perhaps the most acclaimed director to emerge from Europe in this decade, is an artist whose background spans the two cultures that lie closest to the gaping fault line separating the West and Islam?

Fatih Akin, the most exciting German (and Turkish) director of his time 

People of the book

click to enlarge Director Fatih Akin - PHOTO COURTESY OF STRAND RELEASING

The Edge of Heaven opens Friday in select theaters.

For anyone who considers bookstores—the real, independent kind, not the chains—as places with a very special magic and importance, there's a scene in Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven that will be immediately captivating.

Akin is the young German director of Turkish descent whose breakthrough film Head-On was an international hit three years ago. His latest success, a fascinating, brooding drama, also takes place partly in Germany, partly in Turkey. It's in the latter country's grand metropolis, Istanbul, that we encounter the bookstore.

The film's main character, Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak), is a 30-ish professor of German literature in Hamburg. When first glimpsed in his native habitat, he is lecturing on Goethe's negative view of revolution. Propelled back to Istanbul by a family crisis, he's walking the streets when he comes upon a bookstore with a sign in the window—"for sale."

It is, of all things, a German bookstore. When Nejat enters, Akin doesn't need more than moments and a few deft camera movements to convey the store's essence, since he can assume that most literate viewers will know its type in their blood: It's a handmade kind of place, a labor of love. A temple to one culture located deep in the heart of another, it evidently serves as a fervently appreciated intellectual oasis to a certain kind of customer.

Nejat smiles as he breathes in the shop's bookish aromas. Meeting the store's owner, a bespectacled German guy about his own age, he inquires about the "for sale" sign. The German guy pauses for a brief second, obviously surprised to encounter a Turk who speaks such elegant German. But he quickly sees that his visitor is serious, so he invites him to sit down and have tea.

Nejat asks why the store owner is selling. The German says that suddenly, after being in Istanbul for a decade, he finds himself missing Germany. He needs say no more. Nejat understands—not only the attraction of German culture, but also the pull of one's roots. Something of the sort is happening to him, in the opposite direction.

Even before they get down to details—Nejat will buy the bookstore, of course—both men are aware of the irony that connects them: A German living in Istanbul is about to sell his Turkish German bookstore to a Turkish professor of German lit from Germany.

Welcome to 21st-century Europe—and its shadow. Can it be coincidence that Akin, perhaps the most acclaimed director to emerge from Europe in this decade, is an artist whose background spans two cultures? And not just any two—the two that lie closest to the gaping fault line separating the West and Islam, site of this era's most challenging and crucial geopolitical drama.

But there's more than just irony to that bookstore scene, and more than just thematic resonance too. There's also a bit of self-reflexive commentary on the film's form. Far more than Head-On, with its ragged, punk-rock energy, The Edge of Heaven cleaves closely to European literary models. It is, without an apology or undue self-consciousness, the most novelistic of recent movies.

That quality is most easily seen in the many mirrorings that comprise an ongoing narrative device. Nejat and the bookstore owner mirror each other. One death in the story mirrors another, as do two love affairs. A younger generation mirrors its older counterpart. A ruptured father-son relationship mirrors an interrupted mother-daughter bond. And of course, Germany and the West mirror Turkey and the East.

These provocative oppositions naturally describe and set up tensions of various sorts, stresses that at times unavoidably lead toward conflict and tragedy. Yet the film ultimately points toward ways to bridge some of these divisions—much as Turkey itself literally bridges Europe and Asia, ancient Christendom and modern Islam.

click to enlarge Baki Davrak with the great Hanna Schygulla, best known for her work with Germany's 1970s superstar director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder - PHOTO COURTESY OF STRAND RELEASING
  • Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing
  • Baki Davrak with the great Hanna Schygulla, best known for her work with Germany's 1970s superstar director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The film's story unfolds in three parts, and I want to say something about each without revealing their most crucial events and story twists.

The first section takes places in Germany. Nejat's father Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a crusty old widower who evidently emigrated from Turkey many years before, visits a prostitute one day in Bremen, where he lives, and discovers that she's also a transplanted Turk. Smitten with shapely Yeter (Nursel Köse), he offers to pay her to move in with him.

Nejat doesn't object to this relationship when he learns of it, though it obviously dismays him. Yeter seems like a good person, whose illicit earnings go toward her daughter's education. But he can't talk about the main factor anyway. When Ali brings up sex, specifically his son's sex life, Nejat says, "A gentleman doesn't discuss such things." He's a gentleman scholar, after all, not a randy laborer like his father. It's hard to tell which difference between father and son is most profound: age, culture or class.

There's also language. When Nejat is with Ali and Yeter, they mostly speak to each other and to him in Turkish. He usually responds or speaks to them in German. (In the film's next section, English dominates as a common tongue for Germans and Turks who don't speak each other's language. This linguistic motif is one of the film's most intriguing—and, of course, most literary—aspects.)

The story's second section begins in Istanbul, where Yeter's daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), a political radical in a group hunted by police, escapes a roundup, hides a gun and then flees to Germany. At the Hamburg university where Nejat teaches, she takes up with Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a blond, idealistic student of English and Spanish. Smitten, Lotte takes Ayten home and announces to her mother Susanne (R.W. Fassbinder's great star Hanna Schygulla) that the refugee will live with them.

The conflict between Lotte and her hausfrau mom is portrayed with a particularly droll pungency. "Oh mother, that's so German," the student exclaims in exasperation when reminded of the house rules. Needless to say, Lotte herself is no less German, possessed of a cosmopolitan naivete that offers little protection when the truly dangerous world that Ayten represents comes lunging at her.

In the film's final section, all of the characters have ended up in Turkey, but Akin pays closest attention to two. With Nejat now estranged from his father, and Susanne sundered from her daughter, these awkwardly bereft, wayward Germans find solace in each other. Nejat's new bookstore offers them both an ideal refuge.

Though The Edge of Heaven's story contains elements that might be seen as melodramatic or contrived, they come across neither as heavy-handed or nor archly literary (cf., the dizzy mirrorings of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire), in part because Akin's handling of them is so skilled and subtle, in part because plot is not the most important thing here.

In effect, the story allows us to contemplate various cultural differences and frictions that play out through its individual characters. Interestingly, Nejat appears in this narrative less as protagonist than as chief contemplator—and a very memorable one he is.

"I think intelligence is sexy," Akin has said, "so I made the character of Nejat a professor." Intelligence as sexy is a keen idea, especially in our current Obama moment, and, thanks in large part to Baki Davrak's coolly charismatic performance, Nejat is the very archetype of the young intellectual as rumpled, soulful postmodern seeker.

German critics have compared Akin to Fassbinder, largely, I think, because the latter was Germany's last cinematic superstar. Resisting the comparison, Akin has located his own artistic ancestry in the Turkish master Yilmaz Güney, director of Yol. In terms of style, this is certainly correct: Akin is more a poetic, hard-edged, unshowy realist, not a flamboyant expressionist like Fassbinder. But there's a more important difference.

Fassbinder, a romantic pessimist in the Schopenhauer mold, marked both a crescendo and an endpoint, a collapse, in his era of German culture, which he saw as poisoned from within. Akin, a determined optimist and reformer, represents the renewal of that same culture, invigorated by fresh cultural streams from without.

Yet he stands not as a Turk lecturing and leading Germans, but just the opposite—an exemplar, no less than his alter ego Nejat, of the European learning that many young intellectuals see as necessary for the reformation of the Islamic world.

"Education Can Save the World" cries a headline in his film's press kit. Akin elaborates, saying, "Literacy, education, plays a profound role in The Edge of Heaven.... [In the film] the key element is about reading. Reading stands for education. And education is the only thing that can save the world."

That's an extraordinary—and, in its own way, very daring—statement coming from a young artist in a milieu where cynicism and nihilism still hold plenty of sway. Its visionary audacity alone marks Akin as a filmmaker of unusual promise, one whose career seems still to be in its earliest stages.

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