Director Fatih Akin (b. 1973) is one of the exciting new talents of German cinema. Growing up in a Turkish community in Hamburg he studied Visual Communications and started making short films in the mid 1990s, immediately attracting attention and prizes. Head-On, his fourth fiction feature, won the 2004 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. There were some comments that perhaps the Berlin Festival was celebrating its own, but the power of the film is undeniable. This is not obviously an ‘art’ film. Akin’s previous features were rooted in the crime and comedy genres and Head-On has a broad appeal as a (in places quite brutal) ‘tragedy-comedy romance’.
The two central characters are both, like Akin, Turks living in Hamburg. Cahit is a 40 something man whose life has been destroyed by the death of his wife and Sibel is a young woman from a deeply conservative Turkish family who is desperate to escape and ‘live’ the life of a liberated young woman in Hamburg. They meet in a psychiatric ward after Cahit has driven his old car into a wall and Sibel has attempted suicide by slitting her wrists. Sibel pleads with Cahit to let her marry him so that she can escape her family. Eventually, he is persuaded to go through with the plan – but the outcome is perhaps not what was expected.
Like several other European directors, Akin is a fan of Jim Jarmusch and of popular music. But Head-On is seemingly uncontrolled with outbursts of violence and almost slapstick humour. Yet it is also a highly intelligent film, both in terms of subject and plotting and in presentation. Cahit was born in Turkey but has lived long enough in Germany to have forgotten both the nuances of Turkish as a language and its cultural mores. Sibel was born in Germany, but her family’s attachment to Turkish culture means that to carry through her plan, Cahit must act like a conventional Turkish suitor. The scenes covering the proposal and the wedding milk the cross-cultural misunderstandings for the same kinds of easy laughs that characterised a British film like East is East (UK 1999). Although a big commercial hit, East is East had its disturbing moments and Head-On too, soon undermines easy laughter with much darker representations.
Questions of Turkish and German identity are to some extent indicated by use of language. British audiences may miss some of this if they don’t notice when characters switch from German to Turkish and vice versa. For instance, in one early scene when Cahit and Sibel are arguing violently on a late night bus about the possibility of a marriage, they are ejected by the bus driver, a Turkish man who calls them ‘godless dogs’ (in Turkish) after they have been arguing in German. In the second half of the film the action moves to Turkey and in order to communicate effectively with an important character who is a manager in a large Istanbul hotel, Cahit switches to English.
Amongst all the techniques derived from genre cinema, Akin also employs a typical Brechtian device in the form of a music ensemble, dressed formally and traditionally, on the shore of the Bosphorus where they perform a number of traditional songs. These form chapter markers, seemingly commenting on the narrative. Neither a wholly mainstream genre picture, nor a realist art film, Head-On works as both a strong entertainment and a commentary on the new Europe of crossing frontiers and forging new identities – or of rediscovering roots and identities. Perhaps not surprisingly, Head-On proved a popular success in both Germany and Turkey. Its festival success led to a wider distribution (including to the UK) than most of the other films made within or about Germany’s immigrant communities. Around 20 million of Germany’s 82 million population are officially ‘of foreign descent’, including 2.3 million Turks.
Roy Stafford (Adapted from evening class notes, first written in March 2007)