The Edge of Heaven is 35-year-old German filmmaker Fatih Akin’s fifth feature, although by his own admission the breakout success of his last one, 2003’s Golden Bear winner Head-On, made the process this time an uncharacteristically slow and difficult one. With The Edge of Heaven, however, Akin confirms his place as an important new voice in German cinema. The film weaves two stories together across geopolitical, cultural and, generational lines: a German university professor, estranged from his Turkish immigrant father after the accidental death of a prostitute named Yeter, who leaves Germany and takes up work in a German bookshop in Istanbul; and a German woman whose relationship with her own mother is strained when she follows to Istanbul her deported Turkish girlfriend, an incarcerated political activist whose mother is the very same prostitute Yeter. (The film took the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes in 2007 and is Germany’s official entry for Best Foreign Film in the 2008 Academy Awards.) Although he himself was born and raised in Hamburg, Akin’s work draws on a cross-cultural perspective born of his Turkish roots, and indeed the German-Turkish experience plays a significant role in both Head-On and Edge. Between those two features he made a documentary on music in Istanbul called Crossing the Bridge (2005). Most recently, Akin was in New York to film a segment for the up-coming multi-director project, New York, I Love You. SF360.org spoke by phone with Akin from his home in Hamburg ahead of The Edge of Heaven’s Bay Area premiere.
SF360.org: The Edge of Heaven deals with characters whose lives become entwined with larger political problems and themes, having to do with the effects of illegal migration and so-called globalization on ordinary people as well as the political struggles internal to Turkey. Were these issues you wanted to tackle from the outset as you developed the story?
Fatih Akin: I’m a personal filmmaker, a traditional or classical auteur, but in my mind there are a lot of [characters] who reflect or try to reflect what’s going on. All these discussions about my motherland and joining the European Union or not—and all the racists who use the differences, religious conflicts, to divide people from each other—are dealing with my personal feeling of justice, yes. They can end up [in my work], as in this case.
SF360: How did this particular story develop for you?
Akin: Different from Head-On. Head-On was a pure gift. With Head-On the thought came into my mind like a present in the mail. One, two, three and the plot was there. The Edge of Heaven was like a puzzle. I didn’t know exactly what sort of a film I wanted to do next after the success of Head-On. I wanted to repeat the success but I didn’t want to repeat the film. So I had many ideas for several films. And when you see the film today, the aspects it has—the father and son story, the mother and daughter story, the father and son almost falling in love with the same girl—a lot of this stuff is in the film. There was a lot that I wanted to tell. What I did was collect ideas. I tried to find a way to put all the ideas together.
SF360: The role of coincidence obviously helps link some parts of the story yet it seems to have a deeper significance. What does the part played by coincidence in the story mean to you?
Akin: I personally don’t believe in coincidence. I think you would agree that life is much more [complex]. I mean, I meet people I haven’t seen in ten years, from another part of the world, and they’re there in the street and maybe I just thought about them. [Coincidence] helps, in the scriptwriting. You know: How can I get them to meet? Fuck it, they just meet. [Laughs.] So it’s a kind of shortcut. But life is more crazy. More weird. And you cannot explain it. In a way, this film is the most spiritual film I ever did. The most mythic film. Like What the Bleep Do We Know?, you know?
SF360: The story of Abraham and Isaac—introduced near the end in a conversation between Lotte’s mother (played by Hanna Schygulla) and Ali’s son, the professor (played by Baki Davrak), which is sparked by a public holiday procession they see in the street—acts in this way it seems, deepening the emotional truth of the story.
Akin: Yes, in fact, it’s kind of like the moral of the story. [Even if] the daughter doesn’t see the mother and the mother doesn’t see the daughter, we as the audience see. We know more than the characters. We’re on the edge as the audience. I believe life is full of [such connections], but we don’t know it because we just have our own perspective. We sit in an airplane or in an airport with thousands of people crossing us. Maybe there are certain humans who we are connected to, but we never find out. Films offer the possibility to open a philosophical window. The idea was to open the mythic [dimension] of life, a different perspective. And in the very end, with the Abraham and Isaac story—it’s not my idea, it’s based upon Lessing, who wrote Nathan the Wise. The story compares the rings [in Nathan’s ring parable]. There was a father who had three children and each of the children got their own ring, which [corresponded to] the Muslim, the Christian and the Jewish [religions]. And they all share this Abraham story. They all have it. What he’s trying to say, what I’m trying to say, is we’re all the same. We have the same heritage as human beings. If you’re religious, non-religious, agnostic, we’re all the same. You might say because my hero is a professor of German literature, and Lessing is German literature, I tried to bring in Lessing—that was the [intention].
SF360: The universal or cross-cultural theme you describe seems to be literally underscored by the eclectic musical score in the film. Your last film was a documentary about music. How do you integrate and think about music in your fiction films?
Akin: It helps me a lot. Music is the best language to reach people on the international level. We all listen to Bob Marley. OK, we speak English, we understand the lyrics, but even people who don’t speak English would maybe feel the same tension, the same emotion. Often it’s like a key for a certain emotion. In the film Head-On I had a song and I wrote a scene to go with that song. In this film also. There was a song, which is the song in the fuel station at the very beginning of the film, which then appears again at the end of the film, by the [Turkish folk-rock] singer-songwriter Kazim Koyuncu, who died of cancer [in 2005]. I discovered the track and wanted to put the track into a film without knowing which film. I just tried to write a scene, a storyline. Often enough, and I’m very thankful this happens, I have a song that serves a certain emotion. Film is like a two-dimensional art form, up-and-down and left-and-right. You can create depth with focus, but in the end it’s two dimensions. But if you put music in you can get a third dimension, or a fourth dimension, or even a fifth dimension, through a certain emotion.
SF360: You got some exceptional performances from your cast. You must have spent considerable time and care with this aspect as well. What’s your approach to working with actors?
Akin: I love to work with actors. I think it’s one of the parts of filmmaking I love the most. I love to work with the camera too, but with actors it’s different. Many times they help me to create the film. I write for a certain character. They’re like notes. But when an actor comes into it, it just gives the whole thing soul and body. So the character you wrote on paper becomes physical—somehow you feel like the father, or the mother, or both. You create something. I cannot make love to them, you know? It doesn’t work somehow. But instead of that I can film them. In a way, like sex. [Laughs] I’m a faithful husband and stuff, and I don’t want to destroy my work atmosphere by having physical sex with them. But I can film them, and I really enjoy it.
SF360: While many of your characters are migrants spanning different countries, you’ve actually lived in Hamburg your whole life.
Akin: Yeah, I live today in the radius of a couple of kilometers from where I was born. I love to travel. Traveling is great. But thank god I had no need to move away, on the one hand, and I feel myself comfortable here somehow. I always did. I just spent a month in New York and many people were asking me, You don’t want to move here? But I’m a very lazy person at the same time. I cannot start my life at zero. I know which restaurants to go to here, and which not. I know where to find my vegetables and where not. I know which bars play which music. I don’t have to find it out again. I know the shortcut from A to B here. Plus my parents live here and my friends live here and my child was born here. And I can work here. Very easily. So I have everything I need here. Thank god I don’t have to move away. If I had to move away, I could start somewhere else. I think I could. But there is no need to do that.