Head On

April, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Ana Kokkinos

Starring:Alex Dimitriades, Paul Capsis, and Julian Garner

This 2004 import arrived in New York City last week brandishing a handful of awards from back home; winner of all five German Academy Awards, (for film, script, cinematography, best actor and actress) topped off by The Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Bear Award. Ad blurbs in The Big Apple contained the following; “this highly praised film speaks for itself”. It does indeed, but not in the way its American distributor intends; touted as an unusually candid examination of Germany’s Turkish immigrant population, Head On panders to its audience with a mixture of soft-core sex and a purported display of how “those people really live”. Titillating it sometimes is: worthy of your time and money it most definitely isn’t. 

The film opens with the attempted suicide of Cahit, a 40-something drunk who supports himself by collecting empties at a Hamburg nightclub. Just why he slams his car into a brick wall at high speed isn’t immediately made clear, but it’s enough to land him in a psyche ward where he meets Sibel, a twenty-ish hairdresser who’s taken to slashing her wrists in order to escape her oppressive family. This pair of self-involved egos decides that an arranged but unconsummated marriage between them will give each what they want; a housekeeper/wage-earner to finance Cahit’s alcoholism on the one hand and license for Sibel to sleep with lots of young men once she’s out from under the watchful eye of her father and brother on the other.

Traditional Turkish nuptials occur, after which Cahit drinks heavily in his newly-cleaned apartment while Sibel starts sleeping around.  But the arrangement only works until Cahit finds himself getting jealous of his wife’s sexual explorations. Fights ensue and Cahit finally kills one of Sibel’s lovers by smashing a bottle over his head. Prison follows, bringing much-needed sobriety to Cahit and great guilt to Sibel, now under a familial death threat for her infidelities. She goes to Istanbul, lives with a sympathetic cousin, starts doing drugs, prostitutes herself to support her habit and finally winds up bleeding from multiple stab wounds in a gutter. Is this the end of our star-crossed lovers? The audience should be so lucky…

Cahit does his time and emerges from prison a changed man. He travels to Istanbul, locates the cousin and discovers that Sibel has turned her life around; she’s got a steady man in her life and a young daughter. Undeterred, Cahit insists on a meeting; Sibel agrees, arranging a sitter for her daughter while her current lover is out of town so she and Cahit can finally consummate their doomed relationship. They do, he pleads for her to go away with him; she agrees, but guess where she is as the final credits roll over shots of the bus taking Cahit back to the small Turkish village where he was born?

This heavy-breathing soap opera would be merely annoying were it not for the picture of Turkish culture and mores it slanders so thoroughly. Written and directed by 31 year-old Fatih Akin, a German-born filmmaker with Turkish parents, “Head On” depicts the Turkish community in Germany as homophobic, deeply misogynistic and either unwilling or unable to adapt to life in a more “advanced” society. The film was an enormous hit upon release, giving native Germans a purported peek inside a culture stubbornly grounded in alien religious, tribal and familial customs. Imagine a Hollywood movie about star-crossed African/American lovers who do drugs, sleep around and commit crimes because of unresolved tensions which arise from being part of a minority community which is consistently displayed as hopelessly backward and you have some idea of the condescending attitude which permeates “Head On”. Post-war Germany has been politically correct when it comes to evaluating other cultures out of a fear that negative stereotypes might cause the world to believe that its racial prejudices hadn’t been fully resolved. Does the commercial success of Akin’s movie arise from the fact that it’s acceptable for the son of Turkish immigrants to take the gloves off in depicting his heritage? Germany’s booming post-war economy lured thousands of Turks to take jobs West Germans weren’t interested in; but after reunification and economic stagnation, German frustration with its “visitors” from Anatolia finds legitimating expression in this type of lurid expose. 


The film’s cinematography deserves the attention it received, but the script telegraphs the moves of its star-crossed lovers quicker than Western Union could. You know that behind Cahit’s loutish behavior must lay a damaged, sensitive soul; sure enough, he’s recovering from the death of his artist wife, whose profession only confirms that Cahit really is the tender guy he morphs into after his time in the slammer. And how does the audience know Sibel’s finally falling in love with her hubby? She stalks away from a beauty parlor patron who admits sleeping with him. Despite its desperate attempt at hard-hitting realism, this maudlin exercise in melodrama never achieves the profundity its creators obviously intended. 

How then to explain the German film awards this won? No one whose country has given best picture Oscars to movies like The Sound of Music, Braveheart and Rocky can afford to cast aspersions on another country’s choices.  

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus