Hoisting the flag of Europe’s new hybrid cinema, Fatih Akin’s Head-On took the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, went on to sweep the German equivalent of the Academy Awards, and won the 2004 European Film Award. It’s hardly the first movie to explore the terra incognita of Turkish Germany—indeed, the 31-year-old Akin, born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, has made several previous features on the subject. Head-On‘s distinction is that, in recounting the tale of star-crossed lovers Cahit and Sibel, it eschews social criticism and inside ethnography for something more romantic and alienated. Call it doner kebab weltschmerz.
Antihero Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a fortysomething janitor who collects the beer bottles and sweeps up the debris in a Hamburg dive before engaging in his own round of drunken barhopping. This morose, grizzled, potentially violent sot lives in a miserable hovel where a Siouxsie (of the Banshees) poster bears mute witness to his punk past—and perhaps the happiness he enjoyed with late German wife. One night Cahit plows his jalopy into a wall and winds up in a clinic, where he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), another failed suicide half his age. This proud and impulsive rebel girl sees marriage to dissolute Cahit as a “green card” that will allow her to escape her traditional Muslim family and set off on her own life of sexual exploration.
Sibel is clever—spiriting Cahit out of the clinic to a bar—and she’s persistent. When the grouchy janitor turns down her proposal, she breaks a bottle and reslashes her wrists. Sibel’s will prevails and Cahit, who can barely speak Turkish, has to pass himself off as a respectable suitor and meet her suspicious family. (He agrees to be a beard and, once he shaves, we’re treated to his ravaged good looks.) The ethnic antics have a family resemblance to those of the far more focused and poignant Israeli immigration comedy Late Marriage. There’s a big fat Turkish wedding—albeit with the bridal couple getting coked up to cope.
Head-On starts as a bleary smear. A sense of jangling discord underscores Cahit’s punk youth, but the film is framed as a ballad. The action is punctuated by a six-piece Turkish Gypsy ensemble playing to the camera on the picturesque banks of the Bosporus. And the doings turn increasingly melodramatic and ultimately violent once Sibel enters Cahit’s miserable life. Installed in his crash pad, she gets a piercing and a job in a salon run by a tough broad who is Cahit’s sometime lover. Evenings, Cahit takes Sibel dancing; radiantly happy and always on the make, she picks up guys and goes home with them, leaving Cahit to retrash the apartment. (A 24-year-old amateur discovered in a Cologne shopping mall, Kekilli throws herself into her performance, exhibiting the same adventurous abandon with which her character embraces her new life.)
Dour as Cahit is, how could he not be captivated by this lithe, unflappable honey? As the clincher, Akin contrives a homemade biber dolmasi dinner that’s nearly as hot as the cook. And how could their arrangement do anything other than cause chaos and misery? Head-On loses its merry mojo once events turn irrevocable and the action switches from Hamburg to Istanbul. Germany may be toxic but Turkey is . . . what? The return to a homeland that Cahit and Sibel neither know nor understand is crucial to the movie’s meaning—and, a cynic might think, to its success with European audiences.
Once in Turkey, Akin sets up a symmetrical tragedy and then, perhaps too attached to his characters, continues on for another half-hour. Head-On‘s ending isn’t exactly a happy one but the late-inning narrative shift does allow additional time to consider who these people might be. In an odd spin on the immigration story, rootless Cahit and Sibel are ultimately too complex for the fiction that holds them.