Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven (2007) and the Hostipitality of Engagement
By Silvia Schultermandl and David Hucek
Internationally acclaimed writer/director Fatih Akin is a German-born filmmaker with Turkish roots whose movies deal with the divisions and similarities between the two cultures. By design, all of his movies thus have an international cast, often international production and, more recently, have also been met with international acclaim. The Edge of Heaven (2007) is no exception in this regard and therefore lends itself well to exploring themes of transnational lives and intercultural encounters as well as hospitality in all its forms and shapes. Being a story of diversity as well as fundamental and universal human traits, The Edge of Heaven attends to a key element in Akin’s films: the critique of essentialism (Landfester 2017, 81). Just as the protagonists do in Akin’s cinematographic worlds, he himself always walks the fine line between here and there, looking for the connections in between.
An ensemble piece, the film’s story unfolds between overlapping plot strands. Retiree Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz) invites the sex worker Yeter Öztürk (Nursel Köse) to live with him in exchange for money. When an argument arises over this living arrangement and Yeter threatens to leave, Ali accidentally kills her in the ensuing fight. Ali’s son Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak), a professor of German literature, subsequently breaks ties with his father and leaves for Turkey in order to inform Yeter’s daughter Ayten Öztürk (Nurgül Yesilçay) of her mother’s death. What Nejat does not know at this point, however, is that due to political persecution Ayten has previously fled to Germany. Ayten crosses the border with a fake passport and finds a hideout at the childhood home of university student Lotte Staub (Patrycia Ziolkowska). During a routine traffic check, Ayten’s cover is blown and she is taken into police custody. Her plea for asylum is rejected by the German state and she is transferred to a Turkish prison where she is indicted as an enemy of the state. Lotte follows her to Turkey with the aim to get her out of prison but thereby seals her own fate instead. When Ayten asks Lotte to deliver a gun to the remaining members of the resistance group, child pickpockets get hold of her belongings and accidentally shoot her dead when she tries to retrieve the firearm. Back in Germany, Lotte’s mother Susanne Staub (Hanna Schygulla) travels to Turkey in order to confirm her daughter’s death but decides to stay longer in order to revisit the places of her daughter’s final days. Incidentally, her landlord (previously Lotte’s landlord) is Nejat Aksu. Coming to a closure, Susanne makes peace with Ayten who is released from prison after she renounces the resistance group. Nejat too realizes that he has to eventually forgive his father and sets out to find him. It is anticipated that sooner or later Ayten and Nejat will also finally meet.
Be My Guest
Due to the setting of the film, with one half of the action taking place in Germany and the other in Turkey, the movie inevitably depicts a myriad of different versions of hospitality. Perhaps the most visible – because it is played out in a domestic setting – is Ayten’s relationship with Lotte’s mother Susanne. After Susanne takes Ayten in, it soon becomes clear to the viewer that there is a power dynamic in place between the two women which is constituted by definitive boundaries. This epitomizes in Susanne’s insistence on the right to her own home/space. As Jacques Derrida argues, the hosts are not only providers of shelter and good will towards the guest, they are also masters in their own home (cf. 2000, 4). Akin’s The Edge of Heaven expounds on this idea especially in its depiction of the relationship between Susanne and Ayten in the domestic space of Susanne’s home.
To be sure, the homeplace Akin creates in The Edge of Heaven is a place of international politics more than a place where gender divisions and the dichotomy between waged and reproductive labor become visible. Through the focus on the two female protagonists, Akin’s film resonates with recent work in transnational feminism which foregrounds the differently shaped access to power and privilege for women from different ethnic and national origins rather than the commonality of their experience of gender oppression. In their seminal study, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, for instance, define transnational feminist practices as comparative work free of “the relativistic linking of ‘differences’ undertaken by proponents of ‘global feminism’” (17). To this end, transnational feminism must engage in the comparison of multiple and overlapping oppressions without promoting a theory of “hegemonic oppression under a unified category of gender” (18). Akin’s depiction of the relationship between Susanne and Ayten, especially their different positionalities within the German host-country and the apparent difference in the feminist projects of Ayten’s political activism or Susanne’s quest for inter-generational feminist solidarity, both highlights their differences but also their rootedness in a similar feminist sensibility.
Within the homeplace of Susanne’s apartment—and homeplace here also serves as a “site of resistance” in the sense of bell hooks’ understanding of the domestic space as a location of subversive politics—Akin’s film also stages a conversation between Turkey and the EU. In this sense, Susanne and Ayten also function as stand-ins for the political entities under discussion, albeit in clearly gendered incarnations which conflates their womanhood and nationhood. It is worth mentioning at this point that transnational feminist theory has expounded on the conflation of these two identity markers and insists that female identity is located somewhere “between woman and nation” (14). Here, the film extends the question of private hospitality and the act of sharing one’s home into the realm of the kind of hospitality which would invite Turkey into the European Union. When the two women enter a discussion about human rights in Turkey, Susanne suggests that, “Maybe things will get better once you are in the European Union” to which Ayten replies in strong language that the big players in the EU consist of former colonial countries exclusively and proclaims “Fuck the European Union.” By consequence, Suanne tells her that she doesn’t want Ayten to talk like that in her house and suggests perhaps she can do that in her own house. The explicit display of who has the say in the home, who is master and who subordinate, plays out on different levels. The multiple layers of meaning are underlined by the visual subtext.
In cinematic terms, this is achieved mostly via staging. As soon as Ayten enters the kitchen the camera is locked off, there is no movement other than the two women’s actions, who are both visible at the same time. This conscious effort to foreground mis-en-scene is further heightened by the lack of cuts and the use of deep focus. For example, in the beginning of the scene, Ayten repeats Lotte’s homely activity of helping herself to some morning coffee (instead of being offered coffee like a guest would be) and she also smokes indoors (again, something a guest would never do unless explicitly allowed). The scene is arranged so that the viewer can observe Susanne’s facial expression very carefully and it is preconceived that by claiming a right to practices which belong to the host and master of the home, Ayten has overstayed her welcome even before the conversation really starts. The second layer of meaning concerns EU-Turkish relations. Ayten rightly implies that these negotiations are by no means conducted by equals, mirroring the power relation of the domestic level on the transnational level. Moreover, just as Ayten realizes that the welcome in Susanne’s home is temporary, she also starts to understand that her welcome in Germany is temporary. It is noteworthy that, at this point in the scene, cuts are re-introduced to the effect of stressing the growing antagonism between the two women – they don’t appear together in the frame anymore until the scene is over. It becomes clear that they both argue for positions which are ideologically – and by extension visually – irreconcilable.
Ayten’s request for asylum is ultimately rejected because of Turkey’s alleged closeness to the EU and its ‘almost’ membership status, a double irony indeed. For one because had she been an EU citizen she would have been allowed to stay in Germany anyway. On a much more cynical notion, human rights abuses are one major factor cited by the European institutions why Turkey is still not a member of the EU today – calling into question the EU’s own stance towards the subject. As Daniel Boffey writes in The Guardian, “Turkey’s accession talks with the EU began in 2005 but have barely progressed due to concerns over its human rights record and the reticence of some EU nations to include a majority Muslim country” (2017). Related questions of power and hospitality can be found at various other instances in the film, perhaps most notably in the relationship between two other main characters, Ali and Yeter.
On the Other Side
The film perfectly captures the complexities inherent in the concept of hospitality (cf. Derrida 2000, Dikeç 2002, Manzanas 2013), particularly the contradiction that one is always host and master, guest and intruder alike. As soon as hospitality is granted one has to wonder: who grants what to whom, and under which conditions? In this sense, the host, by granting hospitality also establishes the rule; the rule of the house, the family, the country. Guests, by extension, are only temporarily tolerated and as soon as they make a claim to rights on their own, become intruders. Only if they are beneficial to the host in some way is the hospitality extended. Isn’t it right then to call a hospitality which revolves around the net-benefit for the host rather than the guest a “commercial hospitality,” as Mareille Rosello does (2001, 34)? Hospitality is generally viewed as the ultimate altruistic endeavor but as Mustafa Dikeç rightly points out, “It is, perhaps, not always liberating and emancipatory, but, on the contrary, may conceal an oppressive aspect beneath its welcoming surface” (2002, 228). This is not to undermine the (hopefully) general consensus that a concept of hospitality is of vital importance to human interaction. On the contrary, these are some of the premises and difficulties which one has to be aware of when speaking about hospitality; they are at the core of what needs to be discussed in order to unpack such a monolithic concept. These are emotionally-charged terms and their inherent ambivalence is a fertile ground for populist rhetoric to engender dichotomies which separate “us” from “them.” As Sara Ahmed has convincingly demonstrated in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, nationalist discourses can successfully turn the positive affect of love into negative feelings of xenophobia (cf. 2).
Incidentally, the crossing of borders and the blurring of seemingly rigid lines is one of the great strengths of Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven. The literal translation of the original German title Auf der anderen Seite is “On the Other Side,” and in many ways the film by and large offers perspectives from the other side of the fence. Forgiveness, acceptance and mutually shared cultural heritage are strong motifs which are omnipresent in the film. Vivien Silvey and Roger Hillman argue that, “The Edge of Heaven subverts the construction of Turkey as Other to Germany” (2010, 106). The decision to subvert the expectations of Germany-equals-center and Turkey-equals-periphery constitutes a rewriting of German culture itself. As Petra Fachinger states, “Such resistance manifests itself in a process of deconstructing the binary structure of center and margin, rather than replacing the center. Rewriting thus contains a constructive moment that stresses the importance of agency […]” (2001, xii). In cinematic terms, this is cleverly achieved by moving many major elements of the plot to Turkey; the crossing of mental and cultural borders is emphasized by the crossing of literal borders. Moreover, by following Nejat’s journey back to his childhood village and Susanne’s appreciation for Ayten and Turkey in general, Turkey is never felt as periphery in viewing the film. During half of the movie’s runtime Turkey is never experienced or pictured as the “exotic,” i.e., in essentialist terms as the antithesis to European modernity in the sense of Edward W. Said’s notion of orientalism.
Instead, the film is full of expatriates either finding their luck in their new home or returning back to the old. Both options seem possible in The Edge of Heaven and this fact is of major importance; because it defies a logic according to which a German or a Turk have to return to “their” respective home countries to find the right place for them. Therefore, not only is Turkey not represented as exotic; the Turkish nation-state is also not stylized as a sanctuary for all Turks or the epitome of Turkish identity. The sum of all these choices constitutes a strong argument against (nationalist) essentialism. As Kerry Dunne argues, “The complexity of identity in a transnational world is evident in Nejat, a second generation Turkish German. Nejat’s subject position challenges stereotypical views of a marked divide between ethnic Germans and Turkish Germans. He is middle class, educated, urban, and seemingly well integrated. He is just as at home in German culture as in his father’s. He is not unique in this respect; the film depicts a number of similar characters:” (2013, 41). In fact, even though the film is not particularly concerned with religious motifs, much less with religious conflicts, it makes a conscious effort to depict Istanbul as a multi-religious city. By showing Christian and Muslim houses of worship one after the other in a mini-montage (a quick succession of otherwise unrelated shots) as a forbearer to a conversation about similarities in the Abrahamic religions, commonalities are once again foregrounded. What is more, the conversation turns from discussing the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his children to Nejat and his father, who once told Nejat that he would rather pick a quarrel with God than sacrifice him. In a single dialogue the film manages to move from seeming antagonisms towards the motif of parental love as an all-encompassing power. When Nejat then finally realizes that he has to forgive his father just as Susanne forgives Ayten, the story comes to a closure.
Putting together all these pieces, the leitmotif of The Edge of Heaven is therefore that true hospitality has to necessarily be able to transcend borders – the borders of nations and cultures, but also the borders of the rule of law and the rule of religion. Made possible in part by specific decisions with regard to how the film was designed (employment of several different plot strands and central characters as well as the mixed-up locations and diversity of cast members), The Edge of Heaven allows for a differentiated and multi-layered look on the concept. What’s suggested is that perhaps hospitality is better thought of as “reverence for the stranger” Dikeç (2002, 237), rather than a right that is granted, because engagement is entirely different from merely tolerating something. Elaborating on an argument I made earlier, hospitality, when thought of as a mere right, cements the power of nation states which establish the conditions for such a law. Requirements which Dikeç rightly argues, “are conditioned abstractly by inter-states agreements, and concretely by the prejudices sustained by inter-states conditionalities” (2002, 235). Conversely, such a hospitality would also not require any engagement past the rule of law from the guest. In this sense, it stands in direct opposition to the end goal of mutual recognition. The Edge of Heaven offers numerous examples for what Dikeç calls, “Hospitality as engagement: not simply a duality of the guest and the host; the guest is as hospitable as the host in that he/she is in engagement with the host while the host recognizes the specificities of the guest” (2002, 236).
It is telling that while Ayten is in Germany, her discussions with Susanne revolve around legal status, rights, and geopolitical considerations. Ayten is still a radical activist and Susanne largely blind to Ayten’s precarious situation. It is only after Lotte dies that Ayten can see the damage she (involuntarily) has done and Susanne can finally see not only her daughter’s cause, but also Ayten’s struggle. As others have noted this reconciliation is visually emphasized by overlaying Ayten’s reflection with Susanne’s face in the prison visitor’s room, literally transcending concrete walls. For example, picking up on the motif of parental love, Kerry Dunne writes that, “Susanne responds maternally to Nejat’s distress and assumes a similar relationship with Ayten when she takes on Lotte’s wish to help Ayten. Superimposing Ayten’s reflected image on Susanne’s while they talk by intercom in the prison conveys this visually” (2013, 43).
An Eye for an Eye
For a film like Akin’s there is a lot at stake in terms of the efforts to de-essentialize cultural difference: one the one hand, it is important to address the specific cultural and political situation of the Turkish nation-state on its citizens—both domestic and diasporic—in order to yield insights into the societal push factors for migration, asylum, and exile; on the other hand, the rise of Islamophobic discourses in what is generally termed “the West” creates a need to foreground cultural similarities rather than differences. Akin’s film exemplifies that underlining commonalities and celebrating unity does not mean to deny difference. In other words, it does not mean indifference in any way. Fatih Akin also strives for what border crossers like himself are perhaps predestined to do: to point out not only similarities but also faults in each perspective sphere. Akin makes a point of stressing different problems in the various situations against the canvas of shared social beliefs and values. For instance, Susanne’s problem is her colonial attitude towards foreign affairs and Turkish – EU relations, Lotte’s fault is her naiveté, Ayten’s her radicalism; the German state’s injustice is its dealing with refugees and the Turkish state’s its dealing with protesters. Additionally, some of the film’s conflicts stem from Akin’s first hand experiences as a Turkish/German filmmaker. For example, he claims in the audio commentary for the film that the two men harassing Yeter on the subway are a response to comments he received from parts of the Turkish community concerning his previous film Head-On (2004). The commentators were appalled by the depiction of the “Turkish woman” in the film. Similarly, he was criticized for having portrayed the women’s penitentiary in The Edge of Heaven as “too nice” by other commentators, despite the fact that these scenes where shot on location in an actual women’s prison in Istanbul. There are two issues to be addressed here. The first concerns claims to authenticity in filmmaking. The director’s cultural background is mistaken as a responsibility and authority to depict the “real,” even though it is perfectly clear that the film is a fictional text. What’s more, even if there were any claims to realism to be found, what a director decides to show or not show (documentary or feature film alike), is always a production of representations as much as it is a description. What Akin chose to show is part of his negotiation with the two cultures, and the film goes to great lengths to avoid unidimensional representations. As Dunne states, “The Edge of Heaven does not reify these cultures as fundamentally alien and mutually exclusive, but instead contests essentialist constructions of difference” (2013, 34). One could even argue that the many techniques that were discussed in this article to achieve this goal are in this sense, a hospitality of engagement on the cross-cultural level.
Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge.
Akin, Fatih, Director. 2004. Head-On [film]. Universal Pictures.
Akin, Fatih, Director. 2007. The Edge of Heaven [film]. Pandora Filmproduktion.
Alarcón, Norma, Caren Kaplan, and Minoo Moallem. 1999. “Introduction: Between Woman and Nation.” Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Durham: Duke University Press. 1-16.
Boffey, Daniel. 2017. “EU leaders urge Erdoğan to show restraint after referendum victory”. The Guardian. [online]. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/17/eu-leaders-urge-erdogan-to-show-restraint-after-referendum-victory [March 04, 2019].
Derrida, Jacques. 2000. “Hospitality”. Trans. Barry Stocker with Forbes Morlock. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 5.3: 3–18.
Diçek, Mustafa. 2002. “Pera Peras Poros: Longings for Spaces of Hospitality.” Theory, Culture & Society 19: 227–247.
Dunne, Kerry. 2013. “Side by Side: Depicting Semblance and Difference in Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite [The Edge of Heaven]. Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 60(1): 34-48.
Fachinger, Petra. 2001. Rewriting Germany from the Margins: “Other” German Literature of the 1980s and 1990s. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan, eds. 1994. “Introduction: Transnational Feminist Practices and Questions of Postmodernity.” Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1-36.
hooks, bell. 1999. “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Chicago: South End Press. 41 – 50.
Landfester, Petra. 2017. “Local and Transnational Claims in the Films of Fatih Akin: Recognition and the Gaze at the Body in Akin and Fassbinder’s Films.” Monatshefte Vol. 109, No. 1: 81-99.
Manzanas Calvo, Ana Maria. 2013. “Junot Díaz’s ‘Otravida, Otravez’ and Hospitalia: The Workings of Hostile Hospitality.” Journal of Modern Literature Volume 37, No.1: 107-123.
Rosello, Mireille. 2001. Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Said, Edward. W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Silvey, Vivien and Roger Hillman. 2010. “Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven) and the Widening Periphery.” GFL No. 3: 99-116.