Sunday, March 22

Considering "Auf der Anderen Seite"

My political theology professor has a joke about German intellectuals. Talking with a friend after a lecture by Karl Rahner on the immanent Trinity at a conference in Regensburg, the friend says, "I was disappointed. I thought Herr Professor Rahner was more intelligent than that."

My professor is taken aback. "I thought it was pretty good," he says. "What did you think was wrong?"

"Nothing in particular. I just understood it all."

Germans, you see, think the only intelligent ideas are those which are so hideously complex that they are nigh impossible to understand. I guess I'll have to add the French, Turks and Filipinos to this list of ridiculous nationals because film competitions in all their countries handed out major awards to Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven.

On the basics, I understand what happened. Parents and children had fights, left one another, only realizing later, some times too late, how much they loved each other. People looking for another missed them by seconds or by glancing in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Some people died by accident. It's about revolution and love, life and death, family. What it ultimately wants to say about these things, I have no idea. Absolutely none. Things happen, and the story moves on. People sacrifice for others, and then somone else does something mean and nasty. None of it seems to mean anything, yet I do not want to easily dismiss it as some exercise in nihilism. The director, at least, seems to knows what he's doing. He carefully frames his shots to include exit signs as often as possible. There are Koranic and Biblical allusions. A guy quotes Goethe. It all must mean something so much effort has gone into it.

Still I cannot completely keep back concerns about the complexity. I have no bias against complex things. They stretch the mind more than some simple Jack Chick fable and make repeat readings more rich. The Edge of Heaven, however, is obtuse to the point of impenetrability. There is nothing interesting or compelling in it enough that I would want to spend two hours in front of it and probably another six to begin to come to grips with what it might possibly be saying. What if all the allusions and references and suggestions of depth are just a shield to protect the fact Akin actually has nothing to say? Maybe it's all just a colossal joke to see who is fooled enough to invest the time for a meaning that simply does not exist. Even if I were convinced by all the critics who put this on their top ten lists for 2008, is it worth the effort? Will my life be that more rich for finally understanding this film? Call it the Mulholland Dr. effect: Overwhelming complexity equals neither depth nor meaning.

P.S. Almost all the details in the opening joke are made up. I have no idea who gave the lecture, what it was about, where it was or even whether my professor was there. The only thing I am sure about is the punchline. Forgive me, but I thought the details made it sound better than "So a German friend of my professor tells him that he didn't think this lecture by some German theologian wasn't that good..."

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