German Joys Review: On the Other Side

Auf der anderen Seite (literally translated, "On the Other Side"; English title "The Edge of Heaven") is the new movie by Fatih Akin, who made Head-On in 2004.  It’s one minute longer, less confrontational, and more reflective than his earlier effort.

46ad2228500deAkin’s screenplay is a pretty routine variant of "seemingly unconnected strangers whose fates pass like ships in the night."  The debt owed to movies like Short Cuts and Amores Perros is in the five figures.  Here, the passing ships include Ayten Öztürk (Nurgül Yesilçay, pictured at left), a gun-wielding young member of a "resistance group" in Turkey.  We’re never told the name of the group, and the word "Kurd" is never mentioned, but her group chants solidarity with Abdullah Öcalan during a demonstration in Istanbul.  Ayten is almost arrested during this demonstration and flees to Germany under a pseudonym.

There, she tries to locate her long-departed mother Yeter (Nursel Köse) who, unbeknownst to her, now works in Bremen’s red-light district.  Yeter, for her part, meets Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a lonely old man seeking companionship and a bit more, and his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a professor of German studies at a German university.  Ayten (remember her?), in turn, gets to know a young German student, Lotte Staub (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who’s also looking for companionship and a bit more.  After a dispute with her underground comrades in Germany, Ayten is left homeless and moves in with Patrycia and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).

Lots of complications ensue.  About half the movie takes place in Germany and half in Turkey, and much of the dialogue is in either Turkish or English.*  Characters move back and forth between the two countries both willingly and unwillingly (deportation), and the transitions are managed well.  As in Amores Perros, the different strands of the story don’t take place simultaneously, a fact which is made clear to the viewer in nicely-done, understated scenes that show characters whom we’ve already seen die or be deported in one time-phase pass directly by their own loved ones without making eye contact in another.  The coincidences don’t feel contrived, and the performances — especially from the smolderingly rebellious Yeşilçay and the forlorn Koese, are quite good. 

Now to the weak points.  First, the structure is hardly original.  That doesn’t concern me too much, though — genre movies can innovate and entertain even without being particularly original, and this one does.  The bigger problem is that it’s tough to give the characters enough depth in these jam-packed, plot-driven, asynchronous movies.  Akin comes close, but doesn’t quite pull it off, especially as to the university professor Nejat and the German student Lotte.  They make some dramatic and seemingly bizarre decisions during this movie, but we don’t know enough about their motives to understand these decisions.  When the characters do explain themselves (later), it sounds forced because it doesn’t fit into a recognizable character structure.  Akin tells us, for example, that Lotte felt constricted by her routine middle-class existence and needed a dramatic (and practically suicidal) existential wager to feel alive again, rather than showing us this.

This flaw, though, is redeemed by so much else: original conceits and interesting characters, heartfelt moments, some genuine suspense, amusing and harrowing moments of cultural misunderstanding, and a pleasantly inconclusive ending.  Akin is prodigiously talented, and I look forward to his next feature film.**

* I note gratefully that the English and Turkish in this movie is subtitled in German, not dubbed.

** Which will be shot in New York and called "New York, I Love You".  New York, by the way, is located in the USA, a country which, in Akin’s youthfully exuberant opinion, is run by fascists.  "He who f**ks nuns…"

[picture from Zelluloid.de]