After a night of heavy drinking, Cahit (Birol Unel), a 40-year-old Berliner of Turkish descent on a path of self-destruction, drives his car head-on into a wall. He enters a psychiatric clinic where he meets, Sibel (Sibel Guner) a wayward young woman who shares his Turkish background as well as his manic-depressive tendencies. Sibel persuades Cahit to enter into a marriage of convenience so that she can live freely without interference from her traditionalist family. But after the two of them move in together their developing relationship changes both their lives.
Review by Jake Wilson:
In the first half of Head-On, the Siouxsie and the Banshees poster pinned up in the ageing punk hero's kitchen drifts centre-frame with such regularity you'd think Siouxie herself was paying for product placement. Or you could take it as evidence that this movie's punk styling is as artfully retro as the Communist nostalgia in last year's German comedy blockbuster, Goodbye Lenin.
Though the ethnic tensions may be up-to-date, the lowlife antics in Head-On are in fact so familiar they seem timeless - which is not to say lacking in amusement value or grungy glamour. From his first appearance brushing off an ex-girlfriend, brawling with a bouncer and driving his car into a wall, Birel Unel as Cahit is as elegantly ravaged as any rock star, nor can fault be found with the comic timing of his offbeat reactions (deadpan or explosive). As for Sibel Kekili, who makes her film debut here, she's both gorgeous and devoid of coy movie-star mannerisms: the character is frank about her desire for sex and excitement, and Kekili doesn't caricature or shrink from these impulses in any way.
You could say that Unel personifies the film's irony while Kekili provides its soul, except that their chemistry never feels more than theoretical: maybe Unel remains too stuck in his hipster groove to be truly persuasive as a man at the end of his tether. Or maybe the director, Fatih Akin, just doesn't have what it takes to pull off this kind of crazy love story. Most damaging is his readiness to fall back on easy scenes, whether it's Cahit repeatedly flying off the handle, a montage of Sibil preparing stuffed peppers, or routine meet-the-parents farce.
In short, just because the characters have wild and crazy sex, dance like dervishes, snort cocaine and engage in bloody mutilation of themselves or others, doesn't mean that Head-On is anything but slightly ponderous mainstream entertainment. Tellingly, for all its supposed anarchy the storyline never for a moment shifts focus away from the two leads, with their sidekicks, lovers, relatives and antagonists all arranged in fixed orbit round their self-destructive yet vital personalities. In this sense the film isn't so far from the simpler side of Hollywood, as neither within nor beyond this relationship are there many real surprises: despite loss, death and anguish, we're reassured that life goes on, in other words that what we've seen has taught us nothing new.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Audiences who recall the Australian film, Head On, will see a certain parallel in this award winning German film (Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, among others), certainly in the powerful, graphic and high impact filmmaking style. And yes, even perhaps the themes of cultural identity in a foreign country are related. Here, the central characters are ethnically Turkish, living in Berlin. (As opposed to Greeks living in Melbourne.)
Birol Unel as Cahit is every bit as explosively self destructive and hedonistic as is Alex Dimitriades as Ari. But Cahit is older, and worn. He is lost in a drink and drug induced haze that has emptied his life to the point of no return, when we meet him. He survives physically, but so does his nihilism. Along comes a darkly attractive, sweet looking Sibel (Sibel Guner) asking him to marry her even before she has said hello or introduced herself. He brushes her off without even registering surprise, so deep is his self absorption and self hatred.
We meet Sibel's Muslim Turkish family, the cause of her desperation to escape. They are following tradition in wanting Sibel to marry - and marry a Turkish man. The patriarchal and religious rules make little sense in a modern, enlightened world, yet they cling to these notions. The men go whoring but are indignantly furious when told to f*** their own wives by an insolent Cahit. The constraints of this culture seem, to Western eyes, hypocritical, with its dual standards, its mysogynist rules and its hidebound attitudes which put intangible family honour above caring for their daughters.
That it is a Turkish filmmaker exploring this culture within the context of expatriate life is poignant and powerful; Fatih Akin, whose background is similar to that of his star Birol Unel, has instinctively understood the need for special actors to carry this story, in which Sibel is no victim, no puppet being pulled by strings held by men. That's the key to the film's exceptionally powerful story. Sibel is not a token woman wanting a freedom she can't define. She has the will and the power to live life just as brazenly and hedonistically as Cahit. This is no virginal sweetie pie merely wanting to escape tradition so she can choose her own husband; she wants to be free to have lovers, screw around, drink, do drugs and decide how she lives. We are not required to condone her choices.
In the end, Fatih Akin had to resort to looking for people in the street to find his lead actress; she was one of 350 he auditioned.
Remarkable, searing performances from these two hold the secret to the film's towering impact. But Fatih Akin deserves acclaim for the truth of his observation, the daring of his vision and the craftsmanship of his execution.
Review by Louise Keller:
An uncompromising and hard-hitting love story, Head-On is the story of two misfits, who inspire each other to find a new life. After smashing his car head-on into a wall, Cahit is taken to a psychiatric clinic where he meets Sibel who has attempted suicide. She asks Cahit to marry her, as a way to escape from her strict Muslim Turkish-German family, but when they begin to fall in love, complications arise. Outstanding performances from Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli, this 2004 Golden Bear winner is a powerhouse of a film.
'If you can't change the world, you can change your world,' the psychiatrist tells Cahit, a young man with rebellion painted on his face. Marrying a girl who is suicidal, while struggling with his own demons and the loss of his wife may not seem an ideal plan, but when her parents reluctantly approve, Cahit doesn't seem to care. There are incongruous images as Sibel, still wearing her white wedding gown, sits at a bar, a forelorn bride with nowhere to sleep. Quickly, she and Cahit come to a working understanding of their relationship, as they begin to lead their own lives. 'I'm gonna get laid,' Sibel tells her husband excitedly, as she is about to leave a disco they have gone to together.
Although Cahit and Sibel are such flawed characters, Unel and Kekilli inject such vitality in them both, making us really care for them. The intensity of the cultural complexities come crashing down as Sibel is disowned by her family. Time passes, but our commitment to the two characters remains. The storyline delivers sharp u-turns when you least expect it, making this tough film brave and confronting at the same time. Unel and Kekilli are magnificent together, and it's remarkable to learn that this is Kekilli's first film.
Not to be confused by Head On, Ana Kokkinos' 1998 film starring Alex Dimitriades about a Greek-Australian teenager coming to terms with his own sexuality, Head-On bears all the credentials of a film whose multi-cultural ingredients and themes break down the barriers of its German origin.
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Gegen die Wand
CAST: Birol Unel, Sibel Kekilli, Catrin Striebeck, Guven Kirac, Meltem Cumbul,
PRODUCER: Stefan Schubert
DIRECTOR: Fatih Akin
SCRIPT: Fatih Akin
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rainer Klausman
EDITOR: Andrew Bird
MUSIC: Maceo Parker & others
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tamo Kunz
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Gil Scrine Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane: February 3, 2005 (other states to follow)