On the Road to Tribeca: Fatih Akin's Films

As I mentioned previously here on the Huffington Post, I am looking forward to seeing Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's new movie, Soul Kitchen, at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. I so enjoyed two of his previous films that I decided to watch them again. Both of these movies, which can be viewed on Netflix Instant Watching, deal with Turkish expatriates living in Germany who are inextricably drawn back to their mother country.

Head-On (German title, Gegen die Wand, released in 2004) is a tragic love story about a 42-year-old drunken Turkish vagabond named Cahit (played by Birol Unel) who stumbles into the neurotic world of beautiful 23-year-old Sibel (Sibel Kekilli). One day, shortly after a desperate yet half-hearted attempt at offing himself by driving his car into a concrete wall, Cahit is accosted in the hallway of a German hospital by Sibel, who also has been exhibiting suicidal tendencies. She begs Cahit to marry her. He thinks she's nuts and tells her to get lost, but she persists because she is determined to escape the stifling domination of her old-world Turkish parents. He eventually understands her plight, but asks her why she wants to marry a bum. She responds that her parents will accept him because he is Turkish. That remark says volumes about the cultural values that shackle her and prevent her from being a "modern woman." The irony, of course, is that she wants to get married to pursue the sexual liberation that she thinks she wants and deserves.

Akin elicits a very believable, multi-faceted performance from Birol Unel. Cahit's alcoholic eyes convey pain one minute and rage the next. He's a tightened spring with a madman's finger on the catch. As we watch him earn a few bucks in a local bar by picking up empty bottles from under the tables, he has "loser" written all over him. Since his beloved wife Katherina died, he's been completely alone in the world except for his sex buddy, a hard-looking female hairdresser named Maren. But after witnessing their relationship, sexual and otherwise, we realize that Cahit's being with Maren only enhances his loneliness. Then Sibel appears as a devastating angel, a sublime beauty harboring a sexy beast seething to claw its way out. Her coy smile can't quite conceal a tempting warning: Play with me, and play with fire. At first Cahit won't play, but then he falls hard into the delicious flames.

Sibel Kekilli's performance matches Unel's step for step on their characters' twin roads skirting disaster. She is simply captivating. We sense her ambivalence about the wicked game she's playing with Cahit, who sees their sexless, arranged marriage as some sort of aberration. Then things go very wrong, and after Cahit is incarcerated, we feel the tarnishing guilt emanating like heatwaves from Sibel as she travels a dangerous route, both physically and emotionally, toward redemption. Of course the two meet again, and what happens when they do might at first strike us as surprising. But Akin is a master at pacing, and the movie flows with an internal logic toward a conclusion that we come to see as inevitable.

One way Akin evokes the contrasts between the traditional Turkish world and the modern German one is through music: In several anomalous scenes shot in front of a river flowing past a town with several minarets, plaintive traditional Turkish songs of unrequited and lost love are performed by a small orchestra. In contrast, much of the rest of the soundtrack is loaded with loud rock music, an obvious symbol of freedom, independence, and risk-taking. At one point, a beleaguered psychiatrist advises Cahit by quoting the 80s rock band The The: "If you can't change the world, change your world."

There is not one false note or clumsy misstep in this film. Simply put, it is a thoroughly satisfying example of good, mature cinema.

Akin's other magnificent film, The Edge of Heaven (German title, Auf der anderen Seite, released in 2007) follows the fortunes of Ayten (played by Nurgul Yesilcay, another Turkish beauty) and Nejat (Baki Davrak), a scholarly young man with serious father issues. Dad has brought home a prostitute named Yeter and has made arrangements with her to live with him as his concubine of sorts. They eventually have a serious quarrel that turns violent, and Dad gets put in prison for manslaughter. Nejat then travels from Germany to Turkey in hope of tracking down the woman's 27-year-old daughter, Ayten, to in some way make amends for his father's crime.

Meanwhile, Ayten--a political refugee who is out of touch with her family--has traveled to Germany in search of her mother. But she gets sidetracked in her quest by an ill-fated relationship with a young German woman named Lotte. Complications ensue through which Akin explores the depths of desperation, longing, and loss. As Yeter tells Nejat's father early in the film, "Only God is entitled to solitude." In the context of the film, that statement is profound.

Akin carefully and artfully sets up the relationship between Nejat and his father--and perhaps even more deftly the growing connection between Nejat and Yeter--so the son's taking on the guilt of the father comes across as something as natural, yet ambivalently complicated, as filial piety. As with Head-On, Akin brings out the best in his actors. Every emotional note is just right.

A real treat is seeing veteran German actress Hanna Schygulla in the role of Lotte's mother. In my favorite of her scenes, one long camera shot angled from above in a Turkish hotel room, Schygulla wordlessly takes us on an whirlwind tour of the human psyche. As her part in the film develops, she blossoms from a overly cautious matron to a catalyst for hope.

The Edge of Heaven probes the perils of trying to balance personal commitment and political involvement, and it explores the duties of parents to children and vice versa, but it is ultimately about forgiveness--that's what makes it a truly great film.

Fatih Akin has established himself as one of the best directors working anywhere today. If Soul Kitchen is anywhere near as good as the two films I have just described, it just might be the highlight of my trip to Tribeca.