Since 1996 the Goethe-Institut's annual Berlin and Beyond Film Festival has been bringing German-language cinema from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to the Europhiles of San Francisco. As 2008 marks the festival's 13th year which signals a transition toward maturity in many cultures it's perhaps appropriate that several offerings come from directors who have already brought their first or second films here. One example is Robert Thalheim, winner of the fest's 2005 Best First Feature Award for Netto, who returns with his fictional account of a young German's experience of working in Auschwitz today, And Along Come Tourists. But perhaps no triumphal return is more anticipated than that of Fatih Akin, whose The Edge of Heaven comes to San Francisco after garnering multiple awards on the festival circuit, including best screenplay honors last spring in Cannes.
Akin is a director much concerned with connection. After exploring the tenuous alliances of family and homeland in 2002's Solino and the complex, at times violent bonds of love in 2004's Head-On, he meditates on death's unanticipated capacity to unite the living in his newest film. The slow pace and nonlinear construction of his latest offering might initially surprise audiences looking for the visceral force of his previous movies, but it's a surprise worth following to the film's introspective conclusion.
Heaven begins by focusing on characters of Turkish descent living in Germany, a diaspora of more than two million people. When aging pensioner Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) seeks comfort in the arms of middle-aged prostitute Yeter (Nursel Köse), it is their common language, not just the blow job, that excites him. Ali also speaks Turkish to his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a fastidious intellectual, but divines that otherwise their relationship lacks closeness. Nejat and Yeter quietly ally after she reveals she is prostituting herself in order to put her daughter through school in Istanbul, and when an act of unexpected violence shatters their fledgling harmony, he resolves to find Yeter's daughter and finance her studies himself.
At this point Heaven breaks away from simple narrative to trace the intricately entwined paths of three strong-willed women. Yeter's daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), is not a student after all, but a revolutionary and a freedom fighter. Following a police raid on her flat, she comes to Germany to find her mother. Instead, she finds Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a headstrong German girl who offers her a place to stay. Soon they embark on an almost gratuitous (yet earnestly portrayed) lesbian relationship. Former Rainer Werner Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla's nuanced performance as Susanne, Lotte's disapproving mother, is one of the film's strongest. Struggling to relate to her stubborn daughter, she adds a necessary ballast of reason, even as Lotte abruptly leaves home to follow Ayten, who's been deported to Turkey and jailed.
Another death is all it takes to draw the survivors together, discovering in one another and themselves the attributes they thought were lost with the deceased. Susanne and Nejat in particular find solace in their unifying memories, creating a link that, though forged from tragedy, speaks more to life. Leaving all final reconciliation offscreen, Akin deftly ends his film on a note of pensive ambiguity, a restraint that befits his rising reputation as a director entering his prime.
Another Berlin and Beyond alum, Christian Petzold, delivers a film that though it couldn't be more texturally different from Akin's is strangely complementary to Heaven. Disassociation, not connection, is the overriding theme of Yella, propelling the titular protagonist from East to West, desperation to determination, the bottom of a river to the head of a boardroom.