Dir. Fatih Akin. Germany. 2004. 120 mins.
Reinforced by this year's Golden Bear award, Fatih Akin's reputation as the foremost exponent of emigrant life in Germany shines through in this tale of a mismatched couple, one a 20-year-old rebellious girl of Turkish origin, the other a self-destructive drunk twice her age who she literally forces into marriage. Unfolding against Hamburg's underbelly of foul back alleys and cheap bars, with two dedicated actors pulling out the stops at every opportunity, the film will immediately register with Turkish communities both in Germany and elsewhere. The Berlin award should then help it crossover into a wider market both at home and abroad, and, under the auspicious guidance of sales agent Bavaria Film International should turn out to be one of the better bets for German cinema in early 2004.
Cahit (Birol Unel), a forty-something German-naturalised, has given up on himself and become an alcoholic after his wife's death. While on one particular self-destroying binge he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a lively but despondent Turkish girl who has already tried several times to slash her wrists, despairing of ever finding another way out of the strict supervision of her devout Muslim family.
She sees marriage to Cahit, who due to his Turkish origins will be acceptable to her parents, as offering a solution. With a husband far too busy feeling sorry for himself to care about her, she will then have the chance to go out, enjoy herself and find out what western life is really about.
Cahit, who is given to bouts of uncontrollable rage and has just smashed his car against a wall in a drunken stupor, at first rejects Sibel's proposal, but later, through a mixture of pity for her and hope of redemption for himself, gives in. She moves into his squalid one-room flat, gives it a woman's touch but soon enough is getting high on her own new-found freedom, going out every single evening to explore the delights of sex, drugs and pure hedonism.
Predictably enough, her pretend ties with the tormented Cahit soon become all to real when Cahit attacks one of Sibel's night-time friends and is sent to prison. To escape the wrath of her family, who have found, Sibel escapes to a cousin in Turkey, where it is planned Cahit will later join her to pick up the threads of their relationship.
While the money behind Head On may be German, it is hard to negate the soul of the film, which includes a Turkish band opening and closing acts and Istanbul as part of the backdrop.
Working from his own script, Akin moves across a territory he knows well, introducing audiences not only to the Turkish community in Germany, whose agonies he has been the most perceptive at documenting document, but also the back streets of Hamburg, where he has shot most of his films. His portrait of the anger and frustration within the Turkish community in Germany, living in an alienated world of its own and torn between its allegiance to the old country and its eagerness to blend in with the new, bristles with the real pain of the transitory state in which it finds itself.
Cahit's unbridled self-destructive fury and Sibel's rage for life are unflinchingly served by debutante Kekilli and particularly Unel, a veteran of German TV drama who plays Cahit in a state of constant frenzy which does not relent before the story begins to wind down in the fourth and least coherent act.
The film's chief weakness is its dramatic structure, and if the danger of familiar formulas is largely avoided early on by the sheer impetuosity of the direction and performances, its later loose ends are difficult to ignore. Thematically, the dragged out finale may be justified as an integral part of the writer/director's message, but dramatically it looks as if Akin, undecided on the best ending, tries several ones and leaves them all in, before reaching his final conclusion.
Rainer Klausmann's nervous handheld camera catches the gritty face of Hamburg's sleazier corners and the restless despondency in Cahit's character. And the art department must have ransacked Hamburg's garbage cans for weeks to assemble the chaos that reigns in his apartment.
Prod co: Wuste Filmproduktion
Int'l sales: Bavaria Film International
Prods: Ralph Schwingel, Stefan Schubert
Scr: Fatih Akin
Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann
Ed: Andrew Bird
Costumes: Katrin Aschendorf
Make-up: Daniel Schroeder, Nurse Balci
Music dir: Klaus Maeck
Sound: Kai Lude
Main cast: Birol Unel, Sibel Kikelli, Catrin Striebeck, Guven Kirac, Meltem Cumbul, Hermann Lause, Cem Akim, Demir Gokgol, Aysel Iscan, Tim Seyfi