Sex, suicide, romantic abandon and hard rock collide in Head-On, Fatih Akin's electrifying exploration of the changing dynamics of German-Turkish identity. Asuman Suner on the critical hit of 2004
After it took the top prizes at the 54th Berlinale and the 2004 European Film Awards, German/Turkish director Fatih Akin's Head-On (Gegen die Wand) was claimed by Germany and Turkey alike. German newspapers talked of "German cinema" winning Berlin's Golden Bear for the first time in 18 years, while the Turkish press celebrated the "great victory" of "a Turkish film-maker". It was not difficult, however, to detect a sense of discomfort amid the applause. Head-On, after all, resists easy assimilation into the existing matrix of cultural stereotypes, and it is perhaps for this reason that most of the media coverage in both countries focused not so much on the film itself as on 'juicy' controversies involving the performers, notably lead actress Sibel Kekilli's previous appearances in porn videos.
But then Head-On is not an easy film to pin down. Audiences seem to find it deeply disturbing, perhaps because it draws on cultural tropes that co-exist in an eclectic and volatile disorder. Head-On arguably belongs to a sub-genre that could be called the 'hardcore love story', a group of films whose mood is different from that of either romance or melodrama, despite some shared themes. There is always a doomed affair at the centre of such movies, but what transforms this commonplace into something extraordinary here is Head-On's elusive atmosphere - an affective intensity, a concentration of desire and passion conveyed with utter conviction. The 'hardcore love story' category might absorb such disparate titles as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), Fassbinder's Sirkian (anti)melodrama Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Ettore Scola's costume drama Passion of Love (1981) and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together (1997). Head-On joins them less because of its storyline than because of its haunting tone.
Like Fatih Akin himself, the film's two protagonists are members of the second generation of Turkish immigrants in Germany. Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a middle-aged loner who has a job collecting glasses in a rock club and spends the rest of his time fuelled by heavy doses of hard rock, alcohol and cocaine. At the film's beginning, after a night spent at a bar, he drives his car at full speed into a wall. In hospital he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), an attractive young woman who has also tried to kill herself. After a brief encounter in the doctor's waiting room, Sibel rushes after Cahit and asks him to marry her.
Despite Cahit's initial refusal, it is obvious he is attracted to Sibel and will eventually say yes. She is desperate to escape the authority of her father and the brother who, we learn, broke her nose after seeing her with a boy. She chooses Cahit because he is Turkish, which means her family will accept him, but also because his cool looks suggest he will be unlikely to stop her from pursuing the independence she craves. After a series of farcical scenes of pre-nuptial arrangements, they marry. Sibel takes advantage of her new-found freedom from day one, storming out during a quarrel about Cahit's former wife and spending the night with a guy she meets in a bar.
One refreshing element of Head-On is its non-judgemental attitude to its female protagonist's appetite for hedonism. What might otherwise be perceived as banal promiscuity is rendered here as a sincere and naive passion for living life to the full. The film conveys the sheer enjoyment Sibel derives from having her belly-button pierced, putting on sexy clothes, dancing at clubs, and sleeping with men she likes the look of. Meanwhile a subtle attraction builds between Sibel and Cahit, thwarted by a fundamental obstacle. Sibel cannot make love with Cahit, she explains, because this would make her truly his wife, so jeopardising her cherished independence.
This state of affairs is abruptly interrupted when Cahit unintentionally kills one of Sibel's boyfriends after he has made insulting remarks about her. The mood of the film darkens as Cahit is imprisoned and Sibel recognises, at the very moment she loses him, how much she has been in love with Cahit: an instance of, to borrow cultural theorist Walter Benjamin's phrase, "love at last sight". As she mourns their relationship, she also realises that her brother might try to kill her to save the 'family honour'. Before escaping to Istanbul, she pays a visit to Cahit; in their first truly intimate moment, she tells him she will wait for him.
Postcards of Istanbul
In Istanbul we see a different Sibel. She cuts off her beautiful long hair and dons shabby, masculine clothes. Her expression is sober and depressed and she seems drained of all her energy and passion. She moves in with her female cousin Selma (Meltem Cumbul), an ambitious middle manager in a big hotel. For a while Sibel adopts a strictly conservative lifestyle, working as a chambermaid during the day and watching television in the evenings. In a letter to Cahit, she writes: "Istanbul is an energetic city full of life. I feel that I am the only lifeless thing in this city." But one night, driven mad by boredom, she walks down to the buzzing Beyoglu district in search of drugs. She soon falls into a self-destructive pattern like the one Cahit followed at the start of the film: now it is Sibel's turn to run, as the German and Turkish titles of the film have it, "against the wall" and crash.
Thus Head-On is divided into two parts: first, a light-hearted Hamburg-set romantic black comedy, then a heavier, Istanbul-set tragedy. But though only the second half of the story actually takes place in Istanbul, images of the Turkish capital pervade the film throughout.
Head-On both begins and ends with a particular shot of the city, and this image also interrupts the narrative several times. At the close of the credits sequence we hear a male voice counting off numbers - "one, two, three, four" - then a postcard-style view of Istanbul fills the screen, with a group of musicians performing traditional Turkish music on the shore of the Golden Horn. The sidewalk is covered by brightly coloured carpets that form a kind of stage and in the background, across the blue waters, rises the dreamy silhouette of a mosque. As the six male musicians, dressed in black suits, play their instruments, a woman in an old-fashioned red dress performs a song. The vision seems to belong to an imaginary past - it could have come from an old album cover - and is both familiar and intimate yet distant and mysterious. An abrupt cut takes us to the bar in Hamburg where Cahit works. Six different songs performed on the same set are inserted at various points in the course of the story: usually we hear the music in the background, then the image appears; after the closing song the musicians salute the audience.
This framing device can be read on one level as a self-reflexive Brechtian strategy serving to remind the audience of the constructed nature of the narrative. This would align Head-On with the films of Fassbinder, in which strategies of disruption and distanciation merge with stories of profound emotional intensity. But at another level the musical sequences direct attention to a deeper layer of meaning, in which Istanbul features not only as a physical counterpart to Hamburg but also as a locus of the imagination that opens up a realm of overlapping sensibilities.
Saved by devastation
Head-On makes use of an assortment of music from hard rock to rap to frame its story, but the majority of its songs come from Turkish popular music. In most scenes the lyrics resonate with the events depicted, and the phrase kara sevda, which can be translated as 'dark passion', forms a persistent refrain. The word sevda, with roots in Persian and Arabic, referred originally to "a dark-coloured fluid that the body produces when one gets sick." It later came to denote intense passionate love: a prevailing theme of fables, music, cinema and poetry, kara sevda is an overwhelming condition experienced almost like an incurable illness, from which the 'victim' can never recover and through which s/he will be forever transformed. But this 'dark passion' also holds the promise of renewed wisdom and deeper insight. It teaches one to be courageous enough to risk everything for love, but also to accept defeat. It inflicts pain, yet supplies the strength to endure it. Kara sevda is both the poison and the remedy.
The bond between Cahit and Sibel is a 'dark passion' of this kind. After his release from prison Cahit meets his friend Seref (Güven Kiraç), who tries to dissuade him from going to Istanbul to seek out Sibel by arguing that she has already ruined his life. Cahit, however, believes he has been saved precisely by the devastation Sibel caused. "Without her," he says, "I could not have survived." And as Cahit and Seref talk, we hear sung in the background the words: "I cannot call you my love, for you are my dark passion."
Singing in tongues
Drawing on diverse cultural influences and _challenging the notion of an authentic or fixed _cultural identity, Head-On poses questions about place, tradition and language. The Turkish-German characters shuttle between languages as the film moves locations; the conversations between Cahit and Sibel are striking more for their broken Turkish than for their accented German. Time and again the switching of languages becomes an ironic, even subversive device. When Sibel is trying to convince Cahit to marry her, they argue loudly in German on a bus empty of other passengers. After Sibel declares that her family will accept Cahit because he's Turkish, the bus stops and the driver, who turns out to be Turkish himself, starts yelling at them in Turkish to get out of his bus since he cannot stand "bastards like [them] who have no respect for their God and religion." Cahit coolly reminds him in German that this is not "his" bus, but it belongs to the municipality. The driver gets increasingly furious.
A reverse scenario occurs in Istanbul when Cahit is looking for Sibel. Hiring a cab at the airport, he doesn't know where to go, so tells the driver to cruise around for a while. The driver asks where he's from and on learning that Cahit originates from Hamburg he delightedly switches to German, explaining that he lived in Munich for several years. Then when Cahit visits Selma and finds her reluctant to help him to track down Sibel, he moves from German to Turkish to try to express his feelings but is unable to do so, as if Turkish were a foreign language (or maybe as if Turkish were not foreign enough). So he switches to English, a language foreign to both of them. Yet during her prison visit, Sibel said in Turkish the words Cahit takes to his heart: "I will wait for you."
Head-On also shuttles between cultural codes. Having grown up in Germany with Turkish parents, the protagonists seem to feel equally (not) at home in either culture, quoting freely from both their Turkish and German cultural heritages. Yet the film presents this not as a problem of non-belonging but rather as an opportunity to construct multiple belongings. Instead of portraying the experience of exile in terms of homelessness and loss, Head-On emphasises its enabling side, what Edward Said called the "plurality of vision" it offers.
Fatih Akin has said that his film has no ambition to "represent" the Turkish minority in Germany. Instead, his protagonists are outsiders, "on a quest to find themselves." They seek to invent a new life, a new morality, and they pay a price for trying to do so. The film ends with the suggestion that for both of them the quest and the passion are ongoing. In the words of one Turkish pop song: "What would remain from the story, if there were not passion?"