I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a European film as vibrant and compelling as Fatih Akin’s Head-On, but this lacerating German production easily outpaces anything turned out lately by Almodóvar, von Trier or the other supposed leading lights of European cinema. In fact, in its passion, intelligence, stylistic verve and focus on anti-heroic lovers who are captured in a couple of stunning, incandescent performances, Head-On pushes beyond the arid postmodern gamesmanship of much current European filmmaking to recall the brash spirit and artistic purposefulness of such past moments of continental moviemaking glory as the French New Wave and the New German Cinema.
The tricky thing, though, is calling the film “European” when it is more accurately described as a cross-cultural hybrid. Though funded in Germany, it was made by a young German director of Turkish descent and concerns Turkish-German characters who seem torn by their dual identities. Yet, as much as that cultural schizophrenia may underlie the story’s dramatic troubles, it is also, arguably, the source of its artistic strength. The great periods of post-WWII European filmmaking, after all–Italy in the ’40s and ’50s, France in the ’60s, Germany in the ’70–all seemed to reflect nations undergoing a kind of collective identity crisis. Head-On suggests that the same crises are still occurring, only now they take place not between elements within traditional European societies (old and young, conservative and liberal) but between those societies and alien cultures that are challenging them from both within and without.
In that regard, Akin’s film is particularly of-the-moment. In voting against the proposed European Union constitution two weeks ago, French and Dutch voters were rejecting many things, according to the pundits, including a centralized bureaucracy and the impositions of globalization. But a particular source of fear and resentment, it seems, was the encroaching Islamic “other,” represented both by millions of not-always-eager-to-assimilate Muslim immigrants now living (and still arriving) in Europe, and by the prospect of Turkey’s admission to the EU.
European progressives and multi-culturalists might pooh-pooh concerns over the EU reaching out to embrace its first Muslim member, yet those fears are based not just in benighted prejudice but in historical memory. The contest between Islam and Christendom for centuries was a “hot” war over territory as well as souls, and the Turks were the last Muslims to make a deep thrust into the European heartland, reaching as far as the gates of Vienna in the 17th century. It’s hardly a wonder that their presence in Europe, either as a large immigrant population or a potential EU member, would leave some Europeans uneasy.
On the other hand, how do you suppose those Turkish immigrants feel? That’s the question Head-On poses. Akin’s film isn’t some sort of earnest sociological treatise or a plea for understanding across cultures, though. It’s something altogether grungier and more hard-edged–a plunge into a gutter whose denizens seem for all the world like the Euro-Turkic progeny of Charles Bukowski.
Cahit (Birol Ünel), Akin’s protagonist, is a disheveled, long-haired 40-something who earns a meager living picking up bottles in a bar. He sleeps naked on a sofa in a flat clogged with unemptied ashtrays, and sometimes, after snorting cocaine, can be heard to shout “Punk will never die!” while playing air-guitar in front of a tattered Souxsie and the Banshees poster. Soon after we first meet him, Cahit crashes a car into a wall and ends up in mental institution, where the doctor chides him for trying to take his own life. Why does the shrink think that, Cahit asks. “Because there were no skid marks,” the doc dryly replies.
In the hospital, Cahit meets 20ish Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), the author of a failed suicide attempt of her own. He laconically advises her to cut along the veins of her wrist rather than across them if she wants to get the job done. She asks him to marry her. He sneers at the suggestion, and later, when she persists, gets nasty about it. But Sibel’s campaign isn’t crazy. Cahit’s one unassailable qualification as a husband is that he’s Turkish. All the girl wants is to get her very traditional family off her back. She’s determined to stay out late dancing and drinking, and sleep with any guy she wants. Cahit will be her cover, not her lover.
Like a sleepwalker stumbling into the wrong door, Cahit succumbs and the marriage goes ahead. For a while, their arrangement seems to work as both intended: While Cahit continues to bed his sometimes squeeze Maren (Catrin Striebeck), Sibel goes through a string of casual hook-ups. But the inevitable comes to pass, too: Given their equally tempestuous natures, these two have to fall in love–and they do, but in their own typically unhinged fashion.
It’s a union at once emotional and carnal. Head-On contains more straightforward sex than most American films of late, but it is dramatically integral rather than the sort of pseudo-daring hardcore currently used to spice up too many artistically flaccid French films. The movie’s violence is also very upfront, and intimately connected to the lives of two characters whose self-destructive tendencies deeply ingrained. There were times when it seemed that Akin relied on violence as a plot stimulus, but this is a relatively small quibble in a film of such large accomplishments.
In any case, both the physical and emotional harm wrought in the film are notably free of any obvious polemical intent. In fact, the damage we witness is mostly self-inflicted: cultural violence, perhaps, but invariably turned inward. Given the context, it’s remarkable that Akin doesn’t spend any time accusing Germany. But German unfriendliness toward their Turkish “guest workers” is not his subject. Rather, he’s probing the ways open Western societies allow unmoored individuals to act out their worst as well as their best impulses, and the ways that traditional societies like Turkey’s rest on an implied force that looks like oppression to some and necessary authority to others, but is increasingly volatile as it reacts to the challenges of modernity.
The film’s press notes mention that “Akin sought to grasp his subject from three perspectives: German-German, German-Turkish and Turkish.” It’s one of the finer distinctions of Head-On–which takes place roughly two-thirds in Germany and a third in Turkey–that this subtle interplay of cultural viewpoints makes itself felt throughout. One can hardly witness the desperate hedonism of Cahit and Sibel without thinking how abhorrent it would be to traditional Muslims, and how much an indictment of Western mores it is. But it’s hardly defined by continental borders. When we glimpse some of Istanbul’s nightclubs, seedy dives and sleek hotels, it’s a necessary reminder that parts of Turkey are, for better or worse, as cosmopolitan as much of western Europe.
Such observations are a byproduct of Akin’s keenly observant eye, the hallmark of a filmmaker with an extraordinarily fluent and nuanced visual style. To cite comparisons from the glory days of the New German Cinema, his approach is less akin to R.W. Fassbinder’s theatrical mannerism than to the young Wim Wenders’ poetic naturalism, yet he shares both directors’ legendary gifts with actors. Ünel’s visceral, haunting performance as Cahit is the most striking work by an actor I’ve seen this year. Kekilli does a terrific job keeping pace with Ünel, a triumph in itself for a first-timer discovered in a shopping center.
Akin is only in his early thirties. Europe has seen few directors of such promise emerge in the last generation, and it would be counter-intuitive to assume that his ethnic background doesn’t figure into his innovations. Indeed, Akin has said that he researched contemporary Turkish cinema to prepare for his work on Head-On, and that he was inspired to find “very serious, intense films, in which comedy and tragedy are closely bound to one another.” He has achieved a similar fusion in the film he calls his most personal, and it’s a clear signal that any revival of the Europe’s cinemas is likely to come not from tightening the continent’s political and cultural borders, but from reaching beyond them.