Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Head-On
Gegen die Wand : Germany 2004 : Fatih AKIN : 120 mins
When the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival went to Hamburg’s Fatih Akin, observers struggled to recall the last time Germany’s top cinema prize had stayed at home. Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss (1982) seemed a safe bet, until a check of the records revealed that in 1986 the winner was Reinhard Hauff’s Stammheim. Though now somewhat forgotten, the picture – a dramatisation of the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s imprisonment and trial – caused a sensation at the time when jury-president Gina Lollobrigida broke with etiquette to announce “I was against this film.” The Berlinale hadn’t seen anything like it since 1970, when the entire jury resigned and the festival came to an chaotic halt over Michael Verhoeven’s anti-Vietnam shocker O.K.
There were no such ructions on Potsdamer Platz this time around: the fourth feature from writer-director Akin (b.1973) was a popular choice, having also picked up the Fipresci prize from the international critics. But it’s debatable whether Head-On, while a solid enough piece of work, would have received similar recognition from either of the other two big European festivals of Cannes and Venice. It seems that a combination of ‘home sentiment,’ the slightly below-par feel of the competition slate, plus the film’s wide-ranging appeal and worthy plight-of-immigrants theme combined to hand Akin the laurels. One veteran US critic commented thus: “I caught Head-On at the Buenos Aires festival and thought it was good, but not nearly on par with a number of other films that I’ve seen from this year’s Berlin like Before Sunset, Triple Agent and The Weeping Meadow.” He might also have included Cedric Kahn’s startling Red Lights, which also featured in competition but was presumably rejected for not being sufficiently “serious.”
There’s no mistaking the gravity of Akin’s subject, however: despite flashes of earthy humour in the early and middle stretches this is a heady, tragedy-tinged romance with topical political undertones. Turkish-born but long-term resident of Hamburg’s rough-and-ready St Pauli district, Cahit (Birol Unel) is a hard-drinking 40-ish layabout, grizzled and booze-soaked in the Charles Bukowski manner. After an especially busy night on the pop, he drives his car at speed into a brick wall. Suffering only relatively minor neck injuries, he grudgingly receives psychological counselling at a suburban clinic. It’s here that his path crosses that of Sibel (Sibel Kelilli), a headstrong young woman in her early 20s who has also failed in a suicide bid. She’s desperate to escape from her tradition-minded family, and the only way she can leave home is by marrying a suitable Turkish man. She pesters Cahit into fulfilling just such a function and after their wedding (the groom having scrubbed-up to reveal a passing Michael Hutchence resemblance) the “couple” duly live together, though their relationship is a decidedly open one. Despite the decidedly unromantic circumstances of their initial “agreement”, however, their friendship deepens into something rather more serious – with disastrous consequences…
Head-On is a film of savage, compound ironies. When we first meet them, Cahit has too much freedom (his self-control is minimal) and Sibel too little. After their marriage the roles are reversed: Sibel throws herself hedonistically (‘head-on-istically’ perhaps) into Hamburg’s raucous nightlife, snorting coke and picking up men in a manner that recalls Diane Keaton in Looking For Mr Goodbar (Akin, of course, found his ‘Herr Gold-baer‘ in Berlin). Cahit, who has been saved from self-destruction by Sibel’s unlikely intervention, comes to appreciate the values of domesticity – and then his liberty is reduced to zero when he’s jailed after a violent display of temper. This outburst is a direct result of Sibel’s sleeping around, about which he’s been taunted by one of her conquests, Nico (Stefan Gebelhoff). Cahit’s drastic response is that of the stereotypically macho “Turkish husband” – ironic, given how far behind he’d supposedly left the ways of his native land (when asked by Sibel’s thuggish brother why his Turkish accent is so lousy, he snarls “I threw it away.”) Sibel, meanwhile, experiences a similar shift: “I’m a married Turkish woman – if you touch me again, my husband will kill you!” she shrieks at an understandably confused Nico.
Throughout these developments, we see a genuine bond develop between ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ – all the more convincing for being so very hard-won. The first hour or so crafts compelling character-studies of Cahit and Sibel, damaged survivors thrown together by pure, blind chance: screen veteran Unel is consistently impressive; Kekilli, whose only ‘acting’ experience reportedly consisted of porn videos (a detail conveniently omitted from the film’s press-notes), is also pretty good as Sibel, even if her zany energy does occasionally grate on the nerves. We do end up rooting for the couple’s happiness – though it’s clear from quite early on that Akin is setting both us and them up for a major downhill plunge: we brace ourselves for the worst when Sibel buys a chocolate heart with “Ich liebe dich” spelled out in white icing, and the cataclysm duly arrives in the very next scene.
It’s at this point – two-thirds of the way in – that Head-On starts to lose its way. The story-arc becomes more predictable and schematic, with Cahit and Sibel being put through a series of increasingly melodramatic travails. This second half has a broken-backed feel, and the pacing goes awry with the result that we feel every minute of the two-hour running-time. Temporal and geographic unity are shattered as the action moves from Hamburg to Turkey, Cahit travelling to Istanbul to track down Sibel following his release from jail. This movement east has been signalled throughout the film, however, by Akin’s effective left-field decision to punctuate the action with choric folk-songs performed by a singer and her smartly-dressed musicians on the banks of the Bosphorus.
These songs comment obliquely on the course of Sibel and Cahit’s story, adding an epic, classical dimension to small-scale events. The gentle folk melodies also stand in striking counterpoint to the blaring punk rock cuts that dominate the St Pauli scenes, Cahit being a rebel-rocker of the late-70s/early-80s vintage: Siouxsie Sioux glares down from the door of his dingy flat, and he even plinks out a hesitant rendition of Talk Talk’s ‘”Life’s What You Make It” on a fancy hotel-piano – the recorded version plays out over the end credits. It’s likely that Cahit would also have been a fan of The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose biggest hit Head On very nearly shares its title with the film’s “international” moniker. Gegen die Wand translates as “Against the Wall,” which has quite different connotations in English – what Akin is referring to is Cahit’s head-on crash into the wall.
His own approaches in scriptwriting and direction aren’t nearly so confrontationally uncompromising as either title might suggest, however – this is fundamentally an old-fashioned drama anchored solidly in plot, character and environment. Likewise the camerawork (Rainer Klausmann), editing (Andrew Bird) and score are solidly professional without breaking any new ground. For a slightly looser, more organic treatment of a very similar story, audiences should seek out 2003’s When the Right One Comes Along (Wenn der Richtige kommt) by Oliver Paulus and Stefan Hillebrand, which is in effect a distaff, more concise (78min) and experimental companion-piece to Akin’s film, albeit much less garlanded on the film-fest circuit.
1st November, 2004
[seen 29th October 2004 : Odeon West End, London : press show – London Film Festival]
by Neil Young