The Edge of Heaven
Starring: Nurgül Yesilçay, Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz, Hanna Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska and Nursel Köse. Directed by Fatih Akin. 122 min. Rating N/A.
Short Order
Starring: Emma de Caunes, Cosma Shiva Hagen, Rade Serbedzija, Jack Dee, John Hurt and Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Anthony Byrne. 100 min. Rating N/A.

Despite periods of intense activity, Turkish cinema is virtually unknown in America (unless you count the campy cult status of a few bizarre low-budget knockoffs, marketed under titles like The Turkish Wizard of Oz and The Turkish Star Wars). Young writer-director Fatih Akin broke through internationally with his 2004 Head-On, followed up with the music documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005), and is now back with the excellent The Edge of Heaven.

All of Akin’s features are German/Turkish co-productions — as is Akin himself. That is, his family moved to Germany before he was born, and his dual ethnic/national identity strongly informs his work.

The Edge of Heaven centers on three parent/child pairs. We first meet Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a retiree in Bremen, as he solicits the prostitute Yeter (Nursel Köse); after some time, she agrees to move in with him and meets his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), a literature professor from Hamburg. Yeter has been turning tricks to enable her daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), to attend college back in Turkey.

When tragedy strikes and Yeter dies — this is no spoiler, given that Akin labels the film’s first section “Yeter’s Death” — Najet becomes obsessed with locating Ayten, who believes her mother is a clerk in a shoe store. Likewise, Yeter had no idea that Ayten has become a political activist, involved with a violent group.
Ironically, just as Najet is heading for Istanbul, Ayten flees to Germany, where she is taken in by Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), to the dismay of the latter’s mother, Susanne (New German Cinema icon Hanna Schygulla).

Political concerns run throughout the movie, with scenes of demonstrations and frequent mention of Turkey’s possible entry into the European Union. The film’s conflicts might read as a metaphor for the tensions between predominant Christian Western Europe and Islamic Turkey. Indeed, although religion is not invoked very often, one of the final significant scenes involves the recognition of Christianity and Islam’s common Abrahamic roots.

Still, despite these political themes, Akin is more concerned with the personal. The movie’s real strength lies in its insight into the timeless struggles between parents and the children who need to establish their own identities.

Another German co-production film that opens this week, Irish director Anthony Byrne’s Short Order, has almost nothing in common with The Edge of Heaven, save the coincidence that both were shot in Hamburg.

The complete unreality of Short Order is announced in its opening visual, a nocturnal Parisian street set, designed almost entirely in rich primary colors. Without warning, Fiona (Emma de Caunes), our heroine, starts singing a brassy version of “You Are My Sunshine” (more or less to the tune of “One Mint Julep”), backed up by a chorus line that disappears as quickly as it arrived.

Fiona is famous in the local restaurant culture as a great culinary talent, yet she insists on working at Ismail’s, a street stall with a Moby Dick theme. She is constantly pursued by Felix (John Hurt), the manager of a real restaurant.

She is also berated by Paulo (Rade Serbedzija), the chef across the street, who once served Frank Sinatra and whose recent variation on osso bucco is all the rage. Unfortunately, his patrons don’t know what makes the dish so special: Instead of veal, Paulo uses fingers he chops from the hands of deadbeats; his greatest ambition is to someday catch the so-called Bill Dodger, a legend among restaurateurs throughout Europe, on whom he will perform a multiple digitectomy.

Taking place all in one night, in something close to real time, the film intercuts Fiona and Paulo with Fiona’s delivery girl Catherine (Cosma Shiva Hagen, daughter of Nina Hagen), as she drives around a Paris filled with eccentrics. Catherine may or may not be in love with Fiona, but she too takes her to task for being afraid to try being a real chef.

There’s a lot of charm on display in Short Order, but a number of attempts at charm fall flat. The Parisian night keeps offering up characters who mysteriously appear, relate some wise story, and promptly disappear after a single showcase scene. Notable among them is a woman played by Vanessa Redgrave, who delivers a not-that-clever tale about Van Gogh and the village fool as though it actually has great meaning.

Given the style and setting, it’s hard not to compare Short Order to some of the films of Jacques Demy, notably The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Byrne is going for the same sort of faux-Technicolor effect — reality heightened to surreality, a la the classic Hollywood musicals.

But Byrne’s screenplay keeps the movie from quite living up to that tradition. It presents banalities as profound, taking itself far more seriously than it merits.

There is pleasure to be had in the visual style and some of the performances, suggesting that Byrne the director has been ill served by Byrne the writer.