Head-On (Gegen die Wand)
Director : Fatih Akin
Screenplay : Fatih Akin
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2004 (German release) / 2005 (U.S. release)
Stars : Birol Ünel (Cahit Tomruk), Sibel Kekilli (Sibel Güner), Catrin Striebeck (Maren), Güven Kirac (Seref), Meltem Cumbul (Selma), Zarah McKenzie (Barfrau in der Fabrik), Stefan Gebelhoff (Nico), Francesco Fiannaca (Mann am Tresen)
Fatih Akin’s blistering Head-On (Gegen die Wand) isn’t your typical love story. It has plenty of passion and even a warped sense of the romantic divine, but Akin’s main goal seems to be turning the pretensions of movie-style love on their head. The film has the same basic concept as Peter Weir’s Green Card (1991), in which a marriage of convenience ends up sparking the real deal, but whereas that movie was blissfully conventional in its set-up, execution, and teary ending, Head-On constantly jabs at your with its refusal to stand up and fly straight.
The majority of the story takes place in Hamburg, where two failed suicides, both of Turkish descent, meet in a clinic. The man is Cahit Tomruk (Birol Ünel), a mangy, bitter, alcoholic widower in his mid-40s who lives in a squalid apartment, works at a punk club cleaning up after the masses, and is prone to violent outbursts, sometimes against himself, as when he drives his car (head on, natch) into a wall late one night (the film’s German title translates as “Against the Wall”). The woman is Sibel Güner (Sibel Kekilli), a lithe, early-twentysomething nonconformist who sees in Cahit an unexpected ticket to freedom. She comes from a strictly conservative Turkish family, but she’s a modern girl at heart who wants to party and sleep around to her heart’s content. The only way she can get out from under her family’s thumb (including an older brother who once broke her nose when he caught her holding hands with a boy) is to marry someone and move out of the house.
Cahit resists the initial suggestion that he marry Sibel, thinking she is crazy, which she seems to confirm by responding to his rejection by slashing her wrists (again -- and not for the last time) with a broken bottle. Cahit eventually agrees to the marriage of convenience, even though he has to pass himself off as a good Turkish suitor to her family, despite his rudimentary knowledge of the language and generally roughish appearance (even when cleaned up he seems seedy and desperate).
As planned, Cahit and Sibel live their marriage to their own advantage. He gets a cleaned-up apartment, nicer furniture, and someone to cook and clean for him, while she gets freedom from her family and freedom to pick up guys at bars, get her belly button pierced, and generally engage in all the fun, tawdry behavior previously denied her. Yet, something unexpected (to them, anyway) happens on the side: they fall in love.
Part of the charm amidst Head-On’s grueling and gritty despondency is the way Akin builds Cahit and Sibel’s attraction to each other without calling much attention to it and, in the process, finds a touching, yet frustratingly truncated, redemption for them both. Even though they are both sleeping with other people (Sibel even spends her wedding night in another man’s bed), you begin to get the sense that they would like nothing more than to really, truly be with each other.
Birol Ünel and Sibel Kekilli, both of whom won the German equivalent of Oscars for their roles, give powerful performances that undercut conventional notions of romanticism while going straight to your heart. They play imminently self-destructive people -- the kind who ruin the lives of their friends and family while destroying their own -- yet they convey a sense of loss and pathos that makes them imminently sympathetic, even when they’re on a collision course of self-obliteration. Unfortunately, Akin has a tendency toward overstatement that can’t always be redeemed by fine acting, such as when Cahit finally proclaims his love for Sibel by smashing two glasses on a bar and then blissfully rubbing the broken shards into his bloody palms. L’amour fou to be sure, but c’mon.
It might seem like Head-On is reaching its climax when Cahit and Sibel finally realize that they love each other, but Akin has something different up his sleeve, which is a third act that begins with a violent tragedy that separates the two just when they should be coming together. There is a long interval, and then the story shifts to their native Turkey, where the question of whether or not they will end up together forever is answered.
By this point, the story has thrown us for a loop so consistently and effectively that it’s anyone’s guess whether they will actually be reunited. To do so would mean falling into a romantic cliché, but to not do so would mean falling into another cliché, namely the undermining of the romantic cliché (let’s face it: especially in an edgy, wantonly perverse movie like this one, an unhappy ending can be its own kind of hackneyed formula). It’s testament to Akin’s skills as both a storyteller and a filmmaker that Head-On effectively delivers on both and neither.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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