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Good solid cinephilia

Daniel Kothenschulte writes about his favourites at the Cannes Film Festival: Fatih Akin and Quentin Tarantino are out in front

"This film rocks." So went the memorable verdict passed by Berlinale juror Frances McDormand in favour of Fatih Akin's "Gegen die Wand - Head On" winning the Golden Bear in 2003. His new film "The Edge of Heaven", which premiered at Cannes yesterday as the only German competition entry, could also be compared with an old jukebox single. But played at 33 rpm.

Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven." All photos courtesy the Cannes Film Festival

It is a full forty minutes before the film reaches its thematic core, and by the time the drama has unfolded, ninety are up. But Akin has very deliberately chosen this unnervingly slow rhythm: he even precedes each of first two chapters of the three-part film with titles that outline what follows. Namely the violent deaths of two women, who, in the final section of the film, lead a successful German-Turk to "the edge of Heaven", a place beyond a simple cultural identity. And to an acceptance of death as part of a conscious life.

Nejat, who has made it as a German Studies professor in Hamburg, suddenly throws in the towel. When his father accidentally kills a prostitute whom he paid to come to his house, Nejat goes in search of his daughter in Istanbul. Here he takes over a German bookshop which functions more like a little Goethe institute, a contact point in the inter-cultural diaspora, and it is here that he is discovered by Lotte, a young German woman who not for nothing bears the name of Goethe's intellectual beloved.

"The Edge of Heaven"

Unbeknown to Nejat she is a friend of the daughter he's trying to track down, a militant regime critic who is sitting in a Turkish prison. Like a moth, Lotte soon gets burnt by her innocent love for the revolutionary, and hers is the second death in this complex web of symbolic destinies.

A film critic must refrain from recounting these, whereas a film must expend much energy to do so. Fatih Akin resists the temptation to speed knot all the separate episodes into a single carpet a la "Babel", by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It looks likely that he's been influenced by Rossellini's travel films, whose clarity and simplicity make an uneasy transition into our times.

"The Edge of Heaven"

The film biggest problem is that it's not able to capture the impressionistic element of every inter-cultural journey. But it is also - contrary to what one might assume, free of pathos. Tuncel Kurtiz, ever-memorable from Yilmaz Güney's films, plays Nejat's gentle patriarch father with a quiet vehemence. Hanna Schygulla will not only move a nostalgic Cannes with her return as Lotte's mother – she's also telling anyone willing to listen that Akin reminds her of a young Fassbinder. And finally there's an incredibly powerful young actress in the role of the tragic revolutionary. Nurgül Yesilcay is born star material, and this will not go unnoticed in Cannes. The sky's her limit.

"Stellet Licht" by Carlos Reygadas
It's been a long time since we've seen a festival this good. Thierry Fremaux, the festival's artistic director, has had a terrific idea, and it's a wonder no one thought of it before. He simply puts the best films he can get his hands on into the competition. It's so simple, and before you know it everyone's in a good mood. Provided they've got nothing against a radical, demanding film aesthetic, that is. The best works are rich in aesthetic minimalism: for example "Stellet Licht," the masterpiece by the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, which was filmed in Dutch. His pastoral drama in a Mexican Mennonite community takes the most compelling look at farm labour since Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven." And as opposed to its non-identical twin in the competition, Andrei Zvyagintsev's Russian jealousy drama "The Banishment," it analyses religion rather than celebrating it.

Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof"

Cannes this year has also literally done the unheard of in the popular action genre, the otherwise unpopular means of ensuring there will be enough stars on the red carpet. Quentin Tarantino lengthened "Death Proof" by half an hour, his homage to the car crash films of the 70s that flopped so miserably in the US. It's the first time that an American director has put himself to such trouble for the festival. And he's even dug up some rare Serge Gainsbourg songs.

A couple of fearless beauties have an enchanting hobby: taking out expensive old-timers for dangerous test drives. While they're at it they discuss pop culture at length, as if they'd just seen a Tarantino film. And in passing they put a stop to the bloody games of sadistic traffic thug. It's pure fun, but the way Tarantino - himself a passionate collector of old films - gives everyone in the audience the sensation of watching a half-mangled car crash classic - this was good solid cinephilia.


The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on May 24, 2007.

Daniel Kothenschulte is film critic at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: lp, jab.

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