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Border Stories: Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven 

An interview with the German-Turkish director

Wednesday, Jun 4 2008
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Selected by Germany as its official foreign-language entry to this year’s Oscars, The Edge of Heaven is in fact as stateless as any of its border-crossing characters — which may explain why it failed to secure a nomination. Set between Germany and Turkey, directed by a German national born to Turkish parents and performed in three different languages, this jigsaw drama follows the parallel and sometimes intersecting destinies of a half-dozen major characters, including a Hamburg university professor; his widower father; a Turkish prostitute living in Bremen; her political-radical daughter, who flees Istanbul following a violent demonstration; and the idealistic German student who takes the homeless, penniless radical as her friend and eventually her lover. Yet, what might have easily been a Eurotrash Crash becomes, in the hands of writer-director Fatih Akin, a more resonant portrait of the peculiar geometry of the modern world. Borders disappear, identities blur, the seeds of extremism are sown, and lives are caught in the crosscurrents. For the 34-year-old Akin, who began directing feature films while still a film student in the late 1990s, The Edge of Heaven richly delivers on the promise of his international breakthrough, Head-On, which won the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival for its nerve-jangling depiction of l’amour fou between an alcoholic man and a suicidal young woman who meet in a hospital ward. With The Edge of Heaven, Akin has made a more expansive film on a similar subject — the eternal human struggle to connect. Earlier this year, I spoke with Akin as he passed through town to appear at awards-season screenings of the film, which opened last week in local theaters.

Kevin Scanlon

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON - World traveler Fatih Akin

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World traveler Fatih Akin

L.A. WEEKLY:Nominally, this is a film about a number of highly sensitive political issues — immigration, Muslim fundamentalism, political terrorism. But when you’re watching it, the characters and the human drama always come first, and the politics seem to grow organically out of that.

FATIH AKIN: I believe in the impact of political storytelling, like [Z director] Costa-Gavras. I think he’s the best when it comes to combining political issues with classical storytelling and entertaining the audience. I’m not a missionary. I don’t have some political ideal to share. I get bored when I see films by somebody who wants to be didactic. I try to be like a journalist, to have a neutral position, and whatever political thoughts come out of the film are created by the audience.

The film unfolds in three separate episodes, each of which offers a new piece of a very complex narrative puzzle. Was the script originally written that way?

The final structure of the film was done during the editing. The script was written very differently. I had three story lines, and I was switching back and forth, like Babel or 21 Grams. The film started with three First of May demonstrations, which were told parallel to each other. The whole film was told like that, which was confusing for the audience. First of all, it’s easy to write in a screenplay that this scene is in Hamburg, this scene is in Bremen, and this other one is in Istanbul. You know, as a reader, what is taking place where. But when you put that on the screen, it’s confusing. I didn’t want to use subtitles to say we’re here and now we’re there. I tried to solve these orientation problems visually. And the way the film was first edited, it wasn’t working at all. But there was another problem, which was a bigger problem: I couldn’t build up an emotional link to my audience, because once a character started to get close to the audience, I would jump away to another character, and that was frustrating for the audience. So we changed it.

I understand that you experienced a period of writer’s block following the release ofHead-On.

I was confused. Before I did Head-On, I always had the next film in my mind. After Head-On, for the first time, I had nothing. I had some financial problems, so I had to shoot something, so I did [the 2005 Turkish music documentary] Crossing the Bridge. Then, when I was working on Crossing the Bridge, I recognized the impact of Head-On, and then there was the big question of, “Okay, what next?” I had some ideas, but ... I wasn’t sure if I should do a very small film, or if I should do a very big film. How I did this film was inspired by the success of Head-On. I said to myself, “What­ever I do next, it has to be different — it has to look different, it has to feel different. Less music. Another structure.”

The Edge of Heaven deals explicitly with the relationships between parents and children, and you yourself became a father for the first time in 2005.

In a way, it helped me to sort things out. Suddenly, I recognized that there is something that is more important than influence. I relaxed. I realized it’s not important if I’m successful or not.

 Some critics have positioned you as part of a wave of emerging German directors, such as Hans-Christian Schmid (Requiem) and Christian Petzold (Yella), who are doing a lot to re-energize a dormant German cinema. Is there a reason this renaissance is happening now?

This is the third high time of German cinema, if you will. The first was in the 1920s — then the Nazis put a stop to that. Preminger, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang ... they had to come [to the U.S.], and that was the rise of Hollywood. Then there was another generation, the generation that was born toward the end of the war — people like Wenders and Schlöndorff and Fassbinder, who were reflecting the war, the sins of the parents. This reflection became the second high time of the German cinema, which lasted 10 or 15 years. Then there was nothing to reflect anymore. Then the wall fell down in ’89, and it took another seven or eight years to understand what happened, that Germany had become another country. And so we are now living in a third high time, reflecting this new culture.

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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