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The Transnational Cinema of Fatih Akin

Fatih Akin is a German filmmaker of Turkish descent who has earned his auteur status with his eccentric films that feature music, quick shots, sporadic transitions and a loose, non-linear narrative structure that is tied up seamlessly in the end.
As opposed to Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s more patient and minimalist approach of using long static shots and lengthy dialogue to explore in-depth moral and philosophical discussions — Akin’s style is more immediate and his films take place in various locations and time frames.

Akin examines complex human relationships along Turkish and German cross-cultural lines. Specifically, Akin goes beyond the notion of “existence” between cultures — therefore incorporating progressive ideas about urban spaces, music, creativity, and multi ethnic neighborhoods [1].

Moreover, Akin explores Turkish traditions apropos toxic masculinity, sexual frustration and dogmatic religious norms,while simultaneously examining the psychological impact of bilingual characters having to choose between kinship or assimilating to a modern western society. This leads to extraordinary psychological violence for Akin’s characters — and this is best seen in his 2004 and 2007 film’s Head On and The Edge Of Heaven.

Akin’s 2007 film The Edge of Heaven features many echoes of Rainer Wiesner Fassbinder’s 1974 film: Ali Fear Eats the Soul. Both of these films examine cross cultural, sexual taboos and unconventional interracial relationships —along with the loneliness the immigrant experience brings.

Akin’s film’s deal with the fundamental struggle of finding one’s roots in a modern society and how this search can be a transcendent emotional and moral experience. For instance, in The Edge of Heaven, it is through a tremendous act of violence that Nejat (Baki Davrak) decides to detach himself from western modernity to reconnect with his oriental roots and take on a heavy moral obligation.

Nejat’s moral obligation entails funding the education of Ayten (Nurgül Yeşilçay), the daughter of Yetar (Nursel Köse), a prostitute that Nejat’s father, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) killed.

Nejat had an intimate bond with Yetar when his father Ali was in the hospital. When Ali returns home, he is suspicious of the bond and suddenly strikes Yetar to death. After this incident, Ali is put in prison and Nejat moves to Turkey to find Ayten so as to fund her education.

Through acts of violence and oppression — Akin explores how our common tragedies can lead to cross cultural empathy. It is as if the tragedies in Akin’s films enable characters to be at their most vulnerable and desperate — therefore, they are open, loving and tender. For instance, In The Edge of Heaven, Ayten is a member of a resistance group in Turkey.

When Ayten illegally escapes to Germany to flee political persecution — she falls in love with a lonely German girl named Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska). Their tender and intimate bond encourages Lotte to protect her lover from political persecution both in Germany and in Turkey. Lotte is killed in Turkey when she tries to save Ayten from political persecution after she was deported back to Turkey.

The mother of Lotte, Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) then goes to Istanbul to reconnect with Lotte’s spirit and finish her noble pursuit for justice. When in Istanbul, she connects with Nejat about the notion of sacrifice in the context of the prophet Abraham.

Thomas Elsaesser of Film Comment wonderfully analyzes how Akin uses these rich philosophical discourses to illustrate cross cultural tolerance and bridge-building between Turks and German’s — and Akin achieves this by exploring the nature of Turkey’s secular constitution, the shared beliefs of the three “religions of the book,” the modernizing prospect of Turkey’s possible, but doubtful admission to the European Union and the shadow of sharia law on Western democracy [2].

Similar to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Babel — The Edge of Heaven is nonlinear in the sense that it tells multiple stories and ties them together in the end. Indeed, the film uses dense plotting to convey parallels, coincidences, improbabilities, and dramatic ironies as opposed to Hollywood’s generic linear narrative template.

Akin provokes traditional Hollywood narratives by refusing to resolve plot points — therefore, leaving a space for ambiguity and analysis. Akin’s meticulous screenplay provides us with complex stories and coincidences that are sewed together seamlessly. Nothing is artificial, random or engineered.

Akin manipulates the chronology of the film by using a nonlinear narrative structure to tie up complex narratives in different time frames and cities. To achieve this, Akin essentially divides the film into two different sections, and employs techniques such as flashbacks and flashforwards.

Akin uses a long shot, then later a flashback of Ayten falling asleep in Nejat’s university class in Germany, therefore emphasizing that Ayten is the objet petit a that ties the characters together. Akin uses a flashforward technique in the beginning of the film of Nejat shopping in a small Turkish supermarket — and thenrepeats the scene when the narrative duration nears its end.

Akin connects the two sections of the film by using parallel plotting — which refers to the implied simultaneity or connection between two different plot lines, usually with their intersection at one or more points [3].

Akin immerses the audience in multiple narrations, so as to craft multiple narrative perspectives — while simultaneously allowing for a cause and effect relationship between characters, cultures and metaphysical phenomenon. Multiple narrations tie together different stories from around the world, coincidentally linked by major events in the characters’ lives.

This approach to filmmaking shows the audience the richness of the human experience and is less about one character than it is about the larger socio-political, economic and psychological themes the film presents.

Using multiple narratives is the best possible technique to achieve truly cosmopolitan cinema. For instance, films like Babel and The Edge of Heaven provide us with a third person point of view that will lead us to understand each other’s suffering through common tragedies in varying social and political climates.

Furthermore, motifs and symbols provide the audience with new information about German-Turkish cross-cultural relations. Motifs and symbols are used to illustrate cultural, social, psychological and metaphysical realities.

For instance, a common motif in Akin’s films has been the role of Coke-a-Cola in bringing people together and preventing loneliness — andthis motif is both in Head On and In The Edge of Heaven.

Wine is used repeatedly to symbolize bonding and love between people. Akin uses this unique opportunity to empathize the rich Turkish-Sufi tradition of wine and the deliciousness of Turkish cuisine. For instance, Susanne has Turkish cuisine with Nejat and is captivated and euphoric even amid tragedy. This paradigm underlines the importance of cross-cultural curiosity.

Another recurring theme in the film is human sexuality as a form of violence. Sexuality in the film leads to violence, usually due to cultural or political circumstances. Akin often critiques the objectification of women as a commodity and the oppression of them by hypocritical sexually frustrated males. For instance, a reoccurring theme in both Head on and The Edge of Heaven is men from the local Turkish community telling Turkish women what to do with their bodies.

Another political and cultural dimension of sexuality as violence in The Edge of Heaven is the interracial relationship between Ayten and Lotte. This sexual relationship ends in violence and separation due to political circumstances, wither it be Turkey’s persecution of its LGBTQ community or Germany’s naive, opportunistic decision of deporting Ayten back to Turkey, due to its possible membership into the E.U.

The most central and reoccurring theme in this film is violence itself. It is one severe act of violence that connects all the plot points together. Death itself is a reoccurring theme and motif throughout the film, often connecting characters and coincidences together.

For instance, the corpses of Yetar and later Lotte are shown being put on to a Turkish airlines plane. The motif of the corpse signifies death as a reoccurring theme — and that when one dies, they are always buried in their home country. Both Yetar and Lotte’s corpse’s being moved on to a Turkish airline’s aircraft signifies that we all face the same tragedies no matter what our culture.

The scene of Yetar’s actual death and the scene of the two corpses are especially emphasized throughout the film. These moments of violence are the narrative frequency in the film — which determines the meaning and value of these events within a narrative.

French New Wave Filmmaker Eric Rohmer uses a similar technique in his 1970’s film Claire’s Knee, in which the whole film is about a man’s infatuation with a younger girl. Since he cannot obtain her, the main character caresses and rubs her knee for a long period of time.

Akin uses technical aspects such as sound to advance his narrative and themes. Specifically, Akin uses motivated relationships — which refers to the images that are motivated by sound effects.

Akin achieves this vis-à-vis wine and coke bottles opening, violence and caskets being put on planes. Each sound is linked to and in exchange with the film’s narrative and image — as Akin uses dialogues, voiceover narration, and diegetic/non diegetic music as sound bridges to create a sensation of continuity from one shot to the other [4].

The Edge of Heaven ends on an ambiguous note — with Nejat waiting on the Black Sea for his father, Ali. The Black Sea serves as a symbol for cleansing the soul and returning one to his roots. It is a symbol of love and reconciliation, which are two important themes in the film.

The waves of this sea are unpredictable, just like life itself. Akin, who challenges traditional Hollywood narrative at every turn, usually leaves his film’s ambiguous and unsolved to make room for more poetic themes and interpretations of his films. Akin begs the questions, what happened when we return to our roots? What happens when we forgive?

A sense of closure — which refers to the sense of finality with which a piece of music, a poem, or a story concludes is an uninspired approach for Akin’s complex and nuanced films [5].

With such rich and complex moral and philosophical discussions, its best to be vague and ambiguous in the conclusion, so as to let the audience carefully analyze each situation and discuss it after the film. Similarly, without closure, the audience have a unique opportunity to imagine the outcomes of complex narratives.

In the final analysis, The Edge of Heaven tackles complex cultural and psychological issues in a unique and ambitious non-linear narrative format. This is the work of a provocateur and an auteur. Akin is paying tribute to auteurs before him like Akira Kurosawa, who’s film Rashomon made film not just a form of entertainment, but instead, an art form that triggers complex discussion.


[1] Cormican, Muriel. “Masculinity and Transnational Paradigms: The Cinema of Fatih Akin.” Colloquia Germanica, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 21–46).

[2] Elsaesser, Thomas, Ethical Calculus, The Edge Of Heaven, Film Comment, May/June 2008 Issue)

[3] Corrigan, Timothy, The Film Experience, Chapter 6, Pg. 234

[4] Gueneli, Berna. “The Sound of Fatih Akın's Cinema: Polyphony and the Aesthetics of Heterogeneity in The Edge of Heaven.” Oral History Review, Oxford University Press, 4 June 2014).

[5] Carroll, Noël. “Narrative Closure.” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, vol. 135, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–15. JSTOR).


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