At every film festival there’s always one film that’s light years ahead of the competition. A true gem that in shocks you, makes you laugh and moves you. A few days later the pictures and words keep reappearing in your mind – a sign that what you have seen has really and truly affected you. It is heartening when these films then get the recognition they deserve, and at this year’s Berlinale it was Gegen Die Wand (Head On) that justly won the Golden Bear, the first time in 18 years that a German film has done so.
The film centres on second generation German Turks, a subject that Fatih Akin is familiar with (his last film Solino was about second generation German Italians). Each ‘chapter’ of the story is rounded off with a Turkish band, whose female singer sings a song which outlines the pictures that have just been witnessed, much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. It’s also a style of narrative that veers sharply away from the documentary-like realism that is predominant in so many films at the moment.
The plot revolves around two Turkish Germans who form an uneasy alliance. They meet in a sanatorium that specialises in attempted suicide cases. Cahit (Birol Unel) has had a car ‘accident’ and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) has tried to slit her wrists. Sibel’s family (father, mother and brother) meets her in the sanatorium and takes her to the cafÈ. She looks prim and remains silent. Your first impression is that she’s demure and helpless, perhaps oppressed by an overly strict father, but as soon as the men leave the table, she lets her hair down, crosses her legs and lights up a cigarette. Cahit on the other hand, with his greasy hair and scarred-up face, looks like a heavy drinking down-and-out.
An unlikely match? Well you’d think so, but Sibel makes a beeline for Cahit and immediately asks him to marry her. He is her perfect decoy – too messed up to actually want her, but of Turkish extraction so her parents will accept him as a son-in-law. Once married she can go off clubbing and bedding other men because Cahit won’t care what she does anyway. In return she promises to cook and be his housekeeper. Grudgingly Cahit agrees. The scene in which Cahit and Sibel’s parents is extremely funny: Sibel’s brother makes it blatantly obvious that he thinks there’s something fishy going on. Nevertheless they do manage to fool the parents and get married.
This preamble looks like the premise for a predictable, slow-burning love story, but Head On is full of twists and turns. The witty script propels the action forward: Cahit realises that he is in love with Sibel when she goes out late one night. Instead of going out too and meeting up with his sometime lover Maren (Catrin Striebek), he first of all messes up the flat for revenge, and then promptly tidies it up again. This action is particularly striking as Cahit literally slept among beer cans and never washed anything up before Sibel moved in. He mopes around the flat like a lost puppy, picking up Sibel’s shoes and touching them. This is such a contrast from his previous hard-nosed character that Cahit becomes both pathetic and funny.
As the story progresses, Sibel starts to return Cahit’s affection, but just as it seems there’s going to be a happy end, Cahit kills one of Sibel’s lovers by accident and is incarcerated for doing so. Ousted by her family, Sibel flees to a relative in Istanbul where she spirals down into a depressing drug and sex-filled demise.
The scenes that depict the extent of Cahit and Sibel’s problems seem gratuitous at times. In one sequence, Cahit smashes a glass with his hand, grinds both palms into the broken remnants, and dances around a club dripping blood. Likewise, the scene in which Sibel is beaten into an absolute pulp by three men was unnecessarily violent, but these incidents emphasise how mutually and individually destructive these two personalities are. Their meeting merely helps each of them on the way to a better life with someone else. In this context, the ‘Turkish’ element of the story seems unimportant. Head On is a violent love story fuelled by cultural restrictions, self-hatred, anger, drugs and sex. It makes you realise that no matter how much you may love someone, it doesn’t mean that they are actually ‘good’ for you. Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli play these two desperate characters with such conviction, that even if you want to look away when the violence is too much, you won’t be able to. The unpredictability of the characters they play also means that you have no idea how it will end – the mark of a truly compelling story.