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A Family Affair

Fans of Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu or Krzysztof Kieslowski will likely be drawn to Fatih Akins The Edge of Heaven. Born in Hamburg but raised in Turkish, Akin is a poster boy for the kinder, gentler -- read: less blatantly xenophobic -- Germany, and his fifth feature vividly evokes the tense relationship between the Fatherland and its largest single minority. The intricate, lively story slips and slides between countries, languages, and ethnicities, fragmenting along temporal lines in the manner of Gonzlez Irritus Amores Perros and superimposing various characters story lines a la Kieslowskis Three Colors. In the end, however, everything comes together -- narratively, at least, although closure for the various surviving characters remains somewhat more evanescent. To call them surviving doesnt give away anything, since the first two of the movies three titled sections are labeled Yeters Death and Lottes Death. This isnt a movie about surprises, in other words, but about fate, and the inextricable if often invisible ties binding individuals and families and ethnicities. Ali, a retired widower born in Trabzon but living in Bremen, invites a 40-something Turkish prostitute named Yeter to live with him. Yeter develops a surprising closeness with Alis grown son, Nejat -- so close that Ali comes to believe his son is sleeping with the woman he pays for sex. He smacks Yeter, who hits her head against a bed frame and dies; with his father imprisoned, it falls to Nejat to bring Yeters body back to Turkey. Though Nejat is the ultimate integrated immigrant -- he teaches German literature in a Hamburg university to a room of bored or sleeping students -- he ends up staying in Istanbul, where he buys a German-language bookstore and attempts to find Yeters daughter, Ayten, who seems to have vanished. In fact, Ayten has joined a violent if nebulously defined (pro-democracy, anti-E.U.?) revolutionary organization. After botching an assassination attempt, Ayten is spirited to Germany, where she immediately begins looking for her mother. Knowing Yeter is already dead, the viewer thinks this quest is doomed -- only to find out that Ayten is one of the sleeping students wed seen during Nejats lecture early in the film. The temporal and physical shift has the viewer hoping, perhaps sentimentally, that Ayten and Nejat will come together, symbolically healing the wounds of their ancestors. But Ayten turns out to be a lesbian (you were wondering why you were reading this review in Out, no?) and soon enough ends up with Lotte -- whose encroaching death, remember, has already been predicted. We are now just shy of the movies halfway mark. On the one hand, this busy plot serves to counteract the single-camera, long-take flatness that turns so many independent films into dull, earnest treatises. But Akins fast-moving, ever-tightening narrative also works to translate the subject of his movie from the sociological to the symbolic -- theres simply not enough time for a variety of fair or balanced points of view on issues as diverse and complex as sex and family and murder, emigration, revolution, justice. The primary appeal is to the emotions rather than the intellect; empathy (or its lack) will trump ethical judgment. This comes to be borne out in the story itself: After Lotte is duly murdered, her mother, Susanne, travels to Turkey in an attempt to help Ayten, who has been deported by German authorities and is now in a Turkish prison. Though Aytens reckless disregard for Lottes safety led to her death, Susanne feels its more important to heal the rift between herself and her daughters lover than allow a legal system to proffer its own version of justice. Susanne shares this epiphany with Nejat, with whom she is staying in Istanbul (Lotte had stayed there first, having met Nejat through the German-language bookstore). Susanne awakens one morning to the call of the muezzins; hundreds of Turkish men are headed to mosque for the Feast of Bayram, which honors Ibrahims willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at Allahs command, and Allahs mercy in blunting the blade before it pierces the boys flesh. Susanne points out that we (Germans, Christians, Europeans -- the pronoun is as vague as the politics of Aytens revolutionary group) share this story as well, and she asks Nejat who told it to him. His father, Nejat confesses. Nejat recalls asking Ali if he would sacrifice him, to which his father had replied that he would make God his enemy to protect his son. Until that point Nejat had rejected all contact with his murderer father (who, like Ayten, has been deported to Turkey), but the telling of this story awakens something in him. The movie closes with him setting off on the thousand-mile journey from Istanbul to Trabzon to seek rapprochement. The theme would seem to be clear: Politics and family are messy, but only the latter offers any hope for peace, which is achieved by rejecting an ethical notion of justice for the emotional ideal of forgiveness. A bold statement, but one that is unsettlingly complicated, perhaps even contradicted, by the movies narrative subtexts. Akins Germans are selfless angels -- willing in Lottes case to be martyred for another persons cause and in Susannes to forgive the death of her daughter for the sake of making peace with her ghost. The Turks, by contrast, are bullies, whores, and murderers. Only Nejat, intellectually civilized by German literature and emotionally healed by Susannes touch, rises above the rabble (the fact that Susanne is played by Hanna Schygulla, the muse of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, makes the healing touch of German civilization that much more uncanny). Akins film is undoubtedly a powerful and moving testament to the uneasy cultural interactions of an ever-shrinking world, but its also suffused with a strange, almost apologetic nostalgia for something that looks suspiciously like the white mans burden. Modern Turkey, with its antidemocratic government policies on the one hand and rising Islamic fundamentalism on the other, is hardly a paradise, but the Europeanization seems a somewhat radical solution. Istanbul was Constantinople, after all, and before that it was the great city of Byzantium -- all this at a time when the Aryans only contact with civilization was the tip of a gladiators sword in the Roman arena. Though Akins call for compassion is both urgent and vital, one wishes his eloquence could have been as substantive as it is heartfelt. Turkey needs more than a hug from Lili Marleen, after all, and the last time I checked German civilization had a dark side of its own. Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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