In just a couple of movies, 34-year-old Fatih Akin has become the most exciting of Europe's young directors, reinvigorating the melodrama with a furious kind of identity politics. Like "Head-On," his 2004 wrecking-ball romance, Akin's new "The Edge of Heaven" is perched along the fault line of the current Turkish-German situation. And the more determined he is here to examine the chasm between the two sides, the wider and deeper the movie gets.
Germany at the moment is home to about 2.7 million people of Turkish citizenship or heritage , making Turks the nation's largest and most fraught minority. Turkey, meanwhile, is exasperatingly close to European Union membership and yet at odds with itself over how European, Muslim, and Middle Eastern it is and wants to be.
Tensions between the two nationalities got a workout the other night in a wild Euro 2008 semifinal between Turkey and Germany, which might have been a real headache for a young German Turk trying to choose a side. In "Edge of Heaven," the dilemma of nationality is a backdrop for familial skirmishes carried out between generations.
It may do no good to rehash the story, since some of its magnificence stems from detours down surprising alleys of plot. Akin shuffles the chronology and tells you what's coming in two of his bluntly titled chapters (the death of so-and-so). But he's both architect and construction worker - head in the sky, feet on the ground. Still, it probably helps to have a sense of the souls who inhabit a building as big and vibrant as life.
The movie and its intense performances get underway when Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a retired Turkish widower, wanders into the sex den of a seasoned-looking Hamburg hooker named Jessy (Nursel Köse). He discovers she's Turkish, too, and, embarrassed, starts to change his mind. They talk, and soon he consents to regular trysts, one of which is captured in a comic series of shots of the knickknacks in Jessy's apartment. We hear what they're up to but don't really see it.
Soon after that he wants her under exclusive contract. He'll pay her $3,000 to be his companion. She bristles at the proposal until two strangers shame her into feeling like a bad Muslim. She takes the job, which affords her a scene or two with Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a university professor currently teaching a lesson about Goethe. He's a model of assimilation, teaching the classics, comfortable with his Turkishness, but too bourgeois to make any political waves.
The film's revolutionary wing belongs to Gül (Nurgül Yesilçay), a roughneck Turkish insurgent who escapes a police roundup and flees to Germany where she falls in with the two gentlemen who challenged Jessy's values. Broke and homeless, she winds up, through the convenience of movie magic, being taken in by Charlotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a university student with wide eyes and an apparent appetite for girls. The relationship between these two heats up in a club, a setting where, in an Akin movie, hormones are likely to spray hellishly loose like a hydrant that thinks it's a volcano. Charlotte still lives with her mother, Susanne (Hanna Schygulla), a patient, middle-class woman loosely clinging to the conventional German wisdom.
Akin writes an electric scene between her and Gül, situated in the older woman's kitchen. The younger woman is helping herself to what's in Susanne's fridge while Susanne sits at a table pitting cherries. We're meant to see a contrast between an uncouth girl and a refined woman. But their dialogue is too topically charged to be a mere contrast in demeanor.
Susanne, whose tough but regal carriage smacks of Chancellor Angela Merkel, tells Gül things will be better when Turkey joins the EU. Gül hits the roof and curses the Union. All the while, Susanne insists that the young woman have some class while a guest in her home. And there you have Europe's Turkey problem and Turkey's Europe problem shrewdly distilled to a problem of etiquette.
The literal translation of the movie's German title is "on the other side." That's a title fit for a movie where the characters seem to travel between two countries with amazing ease. So do their caskets. That literal translation also gets at the changes in perspective these men and women undergo. The film plays out as clash between folkways and between generations. And Akin's skill as a storyteller and as a filmmaker resides in the way he makes you aware of the difference in the nature of these conflicts.
"Head-On" was about the violence of romantic collision. The new movie calmly takes up the knotty stress of intersection - and the rules that dictate it. This, I think, is the trickier task for a filmmaker: to create a small, interlaced world that's full of air and life and death. Given dramatic weight, the coincidences expand into tragic ironies.
Movie melodrama thrives in just this sort of unhappy galaxy, and it's thrilling to see a director earnestly embrace its cause. Akin's most obvious forebear is his late countryman, the miserable tragedian Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Akin has the director's eruptive style, his penchant for characters that drink from the glass half-empty, and, in the terrific Hanna Schygulla, his most luminous actor.
Akin also seems as severely devoted as Fassbinder to exploring the social and political possibilities of the genre. Fassbinder was more interested in subversion. He liked suspending the movies in a kind of psychological ice - their frozen qualities allowed enough time to admire the dour detailing. Akin is a much bigger fan of singeing emotional heat.
Really, though, "The Edge of Heaven" is a concentrated cosmic cousin of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, White, and Blue trilogy. In a single two-hour film, Akin strikes the notes of emotional distress, geographical dissonance, generational discord, and nearly divine convergence that Kieslowski orchestrated over nearly six hours. "The Edge of Heaven" is obviously the more modest undertaking, but a tremendous, risky human vision is in evidence. With impeccable skill, Akin has made a film roiling with cruelty but guided by tough political optimism. No, we can't all get along, but some us of are trying.