A Hand That Links Germans and Turks
By NICHOLAS KULISH
Published: January 6, 2008
FATIH AKIN has earned the right to be a little exasperated about the constant focus on his Turkish-German identity.
“Imagine I’m a painter, and we speak more about the background of the paintings than the foreground of the paintings, or we speak about the framing but not about the painting,” said Mr. Akin, a German film director and the son of Turkish immigrants. “For sure this is frustrating, and for sure that’s why I will leave it behind sooner or later.”
But he has not yet abandoned the journeys between Germany and Istanbul that have stood at the center of several of his films — including the breakout success in Europe of his dark, violent love story, “Head-On.” With his latest feature, “The Edge of Heaven,” Mr. Akin has created another film of similar geography but with a very different emotional landscape. It is a movie as much about bridging the gap between generations — father and son, mother and daughter — as between nations and cultures. He has had success with this latest film, for which he was writer, director and a producer, despite enormous expectations at home after “Head-On,” not the least of which were his own.
The film has stood up to scrutiny. “The Edge of Heaven” won the screenwriting prize at Cannes, received critical acclaim in Germany and will represent the country in the competition to be nominated for best foreign-language film at the Academy Awards. The movie is scheduled to open in New York at Film Forum on May 21.
In the meantime Mr. Akin, 34, will travel to the United States this month for his first shoot there. “It makes no sense to love the cinema and not take the chance once you have the possibility to work there, to refuse it,” Mr. Akin said. “If you love the cinema, you have to love America.”
German directors have flocked to Hollywood in recent years — among them, Oliver Hirschbiegel, “The Invasion”; Robert Schwentke, “Flightplan”; and Mennan Yapo, “Premonition.” Though he has had offers, Mr. Akin has not succumbed — and says he will not — to the allure or the financial payoff of a big Hollywood production, as so many of his countrymen have.
“I come from this European auteur thing,” Mr. Akin said. “I’m producing the stuff I’m doing, I’m writing the stuff I’m doing, I’m directing the stuff I’m doing. In the end it’s me on the front line, you know?”
Instead of going to Hollywood, he is making a short film called “Chinatown” for “New York, I Love You,” a follow-up to “Paris, Je T’Aime,” the collection of 18 vignettes that opened in New York last year. “That the first thing I do is, like, a five-minute film on U.S. ground, that feels healthy in a way,” Mr. Akin said in an interview here at the office of his production company, Corazón International.
Beyond his experience as a director, Mr. Akin has worked as a producer, through Corazón, on the Turkish director Ozer Kiziltan’s film “Takva,” also providing technical support in sound and editing. Mr. Akin said he was moved by its story of a humble, religious Turk forced to confront the material world by his promotion to rent collector for his religious group’s properties.
“If Fatih wasn’t involved in the project, it wouldn’t be that successful on the international side,” Mr. Kiziltan said on a sunny afternoon in Istanbul, where he was filming a television show. “If you showed the film with the first script to producers here, they say you can’t find the financing. Now everybody is saying they wish it was their film.” In addition to Germany’s nod for “The Edge of Heaven,” Turkey chose “Takva” for the Oscar foreign-language competition, a double for Mr. Akin.
A gifted raconteur in German and English, Mr. Akin is energetic and quickly engaging. Past collaborators describe his ability to communicate as one of his greatest strengths as a director. Mr. Akin is still based here in Hamburg, where he was born. His offices are just off a stretch of waterfront where a seven-ton anchor stands as a monument to this northern port city’s lifeblood: shipping. On the block sit a string of Portuguese restaurants and a red-brick church built to minister to Scandinavian seafarers a hundred years ago.
It was here that Mr. Akin set his first feature-length movie, “Short Sharp Shock,” a “Mean Streets”-style look at three friends — one Turkish, one Greek and one Serbian — trying to get ahead, or at least survive. He was just 19 when he wrote the screenplay and brought it to the German independent production company Wüste Film, hoping for a movie he could star in. Mr. Akin had been taking small acting roles and was disappointed with the stereotypical hoodlums he was asked to portray. The producers were trying out another director and got the idea of putting Mr. Akin behind the camera.
He had been operating a boom at a test shooting at a beach, remembered Ralph Schwingel, a producer at Wüste. Mr. Schwingel said he asked Mr. Akin what he was doing. The young man answered that he was figuring out how he would shoot the scene if he were the director.
“He was drawing the characters in the sand and wondering where he would put the camera,” Mr. Schwingel said. Using his own money, Mr. Schwingel paid for Mr. Akin to write and direct a short film, so he could learn the craft and also convince potential financial backers that he could pull off a feature. The result was “Short Sharp Shock” in 1998.
The film could have disappeared in the sea of Quentin Tarantino-inspired movie violence produced in the late ’90s, but quiet moments between the Turkish father and his troubled son stand out as more powerful than any spurts of blood in the finale.
“That he was unusually talented was clear very quickly,” said Mr. Schwingel’s partner, Stefan Schubert. The movie was a typical debut, well received but hardly a hit, Mr. Schubert said. In his eyes what set Mr. Akin apart from other German directors was that “he is not afraid to put feelings up on the screen.”
Mr. Akin demonstrated that clearly (if not completely successfully) in his second full-length film, “In July,” a romantic comedy about a German man following a Turkish woman from Hamburg to Istanbul. In his review in The New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Akin pursues his happy, silly love story without embarrassment, and ‘In July’ is ultimately more endearing than irritating.” But it hardly seemed to herald the arrival of a great director. Neither did the follow-up, “Solino,” about a family of Italian immigrants in Germany.
Then came the surprise triumph of “Head-On,” which won the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the Berlin International Film Festival. Mr. Akin was unprepared for the celebrity it brought him in Germany as well as in Turkey. He was instantly seen as a cultural spokesman, far beyond his role as a filmmaker, to a large extent because of his Turkish roots, at a time when Germans were re-examining their complex relationship with their country’s large Muslim minority. About 2.7 million people of Turkish descent live in Germany today.
Speaking of “Head-On” and the Golden Bear, Dieter Kosslick, director of the Berlin International Film Festival, said, “In a way it was the perfect award because it shows a little bit also the change of our country and the change of our people’s mood about people who have come from different countries.”
Brought over as so-called guest workers decades ago, most of the Turkish migrants never went home. But as a group they have not been embraced by mainstream German society.
For Mr. Akin, who was 30 when he won the Golden Bear, it was hard enough to be the pride of one nation; he had to learn to thrive under the pressure of two and at the same time try to avoid the position of spokesman that had been thrust upon him.
Slouching on a sofa in his office, swaddled in youthful, baggy clothes and tired from the hectic schedule of the international rollout for “The Edge of Heaven,” Mr. Akin seemed far less like a man taking a victory lap than one relieved of a burden but still exhausted from it.
“Until ‘Head-On’ I exactly knew what I was going to do next,” he said. “I’m working on a film, and during the work on that film I knew what would be the next film. But with ‘Head-On’ it was not like that.”
“The more success the film had, the more nervous I became.”
He dealt with the problem in part by making his well-received documentary about music in Istanbul, ”Crossing the Bridge,” instead of beginning another feature.
Ultimately, though, he started to work on “The Edge of Heaven.” In the film a young Turkish-German man goes to Istanbul to find a murdered woman’s daughter, only to decide to stay in Turkey, his father’s homeland, and run a German bookstore in the city. In another strand of the story, a young German woman travels to Istanbul after her lover, a Turkish woman rejected for asylum by Germany and forced to serve prison time.
The film is marked by sudden, unexpected deaths. When tragedy befalls one of the young women, the German girl’s mother, played by the German actress Hanna Schygulla, travels to Istanbul also. Often called Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s muse, Ms. Schygulla, according to many critics, turned in the most affecting performance in the movie.
“It’s a very mature script,” Ms. Schygulla said by telephone from Paris. “I was amazed about that.”
Speaking of Mr. Akin, she said: “He’s a very natural boy. He’s not a boy; he’s a man. But he still has kept something of a boy.” It is a feeling she wants him to hold onto. “I hope he doesn’t get deformed by his success, that he stays the authentic boy he is,” she added.
“The Edge of Heaven” has its similarities in theme and some settings to “Head-On,” but it also reflects a more mature approach. The focus on parents and children may stem from Mr. Akin’s experience of becoming a father in 2005, when he and his wife had a son.
Still, “The Edge of Heaven” takes up the subject of cultural conflict for Turkish migrants that played to such powerful effect in “Head-On.” Those conflicts are universal, Mr. Akin insisted, rather than specific to the two countries. Mr. Akin, whose wife is of Mexican heritage, said that he feels great kinship with the Mexican filmmakers Guillermo Arriaga and Alfonso Cuarón.
“What I’m always trying to say is, this Turkish-German gap, you know, or this connecting element of the two nations, or systems, or worlds — you can change that and put other things instead,” Mr. Akin said. “Mexico and the U.S., same thing.”