Back in January I wrote about a new film from Germany called "Head-On" ("Gegen die Wand'), which at that time was playing only in New York and L.A. To judge from the number of reviews popping up everywhere, the film has been deemed sufficiently marketable to open in a few more cities (like Boston). So here is my review again, if you will forgive the repetition. This film, the fourth from Turkish-German writer/director Fatih Akin, is worth seeing.
Comic, tragic, absurdist and affirmative, "Head-On" is about two people moving at escape velocity...but in opposite directions. Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a Turkish-born denizen of the Hamburg punk scene whose marriage to a German woman has failed, sending him into drink and depression. As the film opens, he leaves his miserable job picking up empties in a bar and drives very fast into a concrete wall ("Gegen die Wand" means "against the wall").
Alive but banged up, he is next seen in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic, where he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a daughter of Turkish immigrants who rebels against her tradition-minded family by slashing her wrists.
Recognizing scraggly Cahit as a kindred spirit, Sibel conceives a better escape route than suicide - marriage to a guy who, being Turkish, will pass muster with her family, but who also, being a complete lowlife, will not care about the wild fling she hopes to enjoy once she’s free. As it turns out, Cahit does care. Or rather, he learns (re-learns?) what it means to care. And Sibel is drawn, reluctantly, into caring for him. They don't live happily ever after. On the contrary, some grim things occur before the end (this is a German film, after all). But they do pull each other back from the brink.
"Head-On" is so timely, it's easy to miss the subtleties. For example, the New York Times describes Sibel's background as a "cloistered society where women are kept captive by their fathers and brothers." But this is a caricature. Sibel's father (Demir Gökgöl) is strict, and her brother (Cem Akin) is a bully. But they are not the Taliban. If they were, then Sibel's mother (Aysel Iscan) would not dye her hair blond and chain smoke. And the hilarious scene where Cahit comes to call would not end the way it does. After listening to his son berate Cahit, the father turns to Sibel and asks, "Is your mind made up?" And when she says yes, the stern old man shrugs: "What is left to say? When two people are in love..."
For Cahit and Sibel the road is not just rocky, it is land-mined. Against the presumption that it’s always good to shake off the fetters of tradition and religion, "Head-On" opposes a distinctly unromantic portrait of the liberated Western lifestyle. Cahit wants to end his life of booze, drugs, impersonal sex, and selfish behavior; Sibel wants to start hers. But for a moment they glimpse something better: not the old ways, but not their total rejection, either. The sweet spot is when, after cleaning up Cahit's pigpen of a flat, Sibel cooks him a meal of stuffed peppers. The music on the soundtrack is perfect, the camera lingers on her hands, and even though the film contains several sex scenes, this is the most erotic.
There is no hotter issue in Europe right now than the assimilation of large Muslim immigrant populations. But Europeans still have a tendency to think of assimilation as a one-way street. Here in the nation of immigrants, we have learned to think of it as a two-way street. Indeed, in recent years millions of immigrants have come to America and learned new ways. But they have also kept some of the old, and in the process, the rest of us have learned (remembered?) that life is best lived between the poles of individual liberation and the constraints of family and community. If the success of "Head-On" is any measure, then the same lesson is being pondered in Europe.