Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fatih Akin's Gegen Die Wand

All I can say is that you should see “Head On,” and that, even if you end up hating it, there will be no denying the fact that you have been through something and that, if you are still foolish and hopeful enough to let movies get to you, the person who went into the theatre will not be quite the same as the person who comes out.

This from Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of Fatih Akin’s Head On (Gegen Die Wand/ Duvara Karşı).

I can not agree more. I have wanted to see Head On ever since I saw Akins İstanbul Hatırası: Köprüyü Geçmek (in English Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul) (post on the movie coming up next) at a National Museum screening more than a year back. I finally got down to it and ordered both movies on Amazon and they arrived last week.

I have already seen Head On twice and it affected me on second viewing as much if not more than the first time I saw it. The original German title Gegen Die Wand translates as ‘Against the Wall’ but ‘Head On’, I think, is a more apt description of what one feels as a viewer right from the moment when we are introduced to Cahit Tomruk, who makes a living in Hamburg collecting empty beer bottles and seems half stoned to death. It’s altogether not surprising when five minutes into the movie he smashes his car quite literally into a wall. Diagnosed as a possible suicide case he is admitted for treatment at a state run psychiatric facility where he meets Sibel Güner, another patient of the same ilk.

Her interest in Cahit is piqued upon hearing his Turkish name and the first thing she says, chasing after him as he walks out of the doctors office, is “Will you marry me?” She’s in for slashing her wrists, overwhelmed by the stifling dominance of her father and brother, and wants a sham marriage to get away. Cahit maybe a bum, but he is a Turkish bum and she just needs a roommate who will let her out of their grip – to live, to breathe, to fuck, as she puts it – and in return she will cook, clean and keep house.

Cahit brushes her off, but Sibel, nothing if not persistent, doesn’t stop at slashing her wrists again to make her point – this time even following Cahits advice as to how wrists should be slit. (Earlier he had told her she must not have been serious about dying, cutting ones wrists across “is shit”.) Why Cahit eventually agrees to marry her is obscure. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the film he goes home after being pestered no end by Sibel and tries on a tuxedo that seems quite literally from another age and stares at his reflection in the dusty TV screen. In the midst of the mess that are his life and house, she perhaps represents some sort of hope, some human connection, which he seems sorely in need of.

At first that connection manifests itself in Cahit hurling curses at Sibel at their wedding, then sharing their wedding dinner, both staring into space heavily stoned, and over time into a slow willingness to re-embrace life. She is reveling in her freedom and as they get more comfortable with each other, become friends, some of it rubs onto him too. Of course, you know that love will come next, but to Cahit and Sibel it comes as a surprise. Head On is not in the business of playing to clichés though and the two protagonists are on the same page only for a heartbreakingly fleeting moment before a most random act of anger destroys that hope, with Cahit in jail and Sibel fleeing to Istanbul, promising to wait for him.

Head On doesn’t play as a typical immigrant tale either and perhaps that’s why it captures little vignettes of immigrant life so well. Nor is this a story that neatly compartmentalises East and West. Cahit and Sibel converse in German through out and they are definitely on the outskirts of their communities. When Cahit goes to ask for Sibels hand in marriage, her brother asks what he did to his Turkish given that it’s awful. “I threw it away,” Cahit replies with a mix of anger and defiance. I loved the scene where Cahit goes to meet Sibels cousin in Istanbul and suddenly completely at a loss of words to express why it is important that she tell him where Sibel is, breaks into halting, inelegant English. He can’t speak German here and his Turkish just doesn’t suffice and that moment captures beautifully and exactly what it means to be stuck between cultures.

Istanbul and Turkey are foreign too and represent aptly an opportunity to start afresh without being totally at sea. In his review Lane mentions how much of a distance the characters seemed to have traveled during the film and that was exactly what I felt. It’s almost as if you have lived a life with these people and seeing them at the end makes the mind boggle at the thought that these were the very same Cahit and Sibel you were introduced to at the beginning of the film. That distance and the aging and growing of these two characters are what make the end of the movie fall perfectly into place too. There is hope, there is a new beginning but there is also, as the song that plays at the end says ‘infinite sadness’.


Alok said...

I liked the way Akin avoids the temptation of turning it into another ethnography picture - some kind of My Big Fat Turkish Wedding. Not that I have anything against cultural education, just that having it both ways never really works. This is the bane of all culture-clash movies.

Other thing I loved was, as you also mention, that in the last act Turkey itself and the idea of "home" is not sentimentalized. Their feelings of alienation and estrangement are much too deep to be cured by just a trip back home.

This film was a huge popular success in Germany, it became almost an instant cultural milestone. I don't know about the reactions in Turkey though.

There is also another film on a similar subject though very different in style by fassbinder called Fear Eats the Soul about a relationship between Moroccan "guest worker" and an elderly woman. It is great as well.

Szerelem said...

I'm not very sure how it did in Turkey either, though a lot of people I know really liked it - but that might just be a niche crowd. I'm not sure if it even had a big release there.

It's interesting you mention Fear Eats the Soul. I have been wanting to watch it for a long time actually but haven't been able to get my hads on a copy. Interestingly Spiegel had a nice interview with Akin and the movie was mentioned there too. I loved Akins answer to that - Here.

I really want to see Akins new movie (I am complete fan already!) - it has gotten really good reviews and its Germany's Oscar entry.

I also wonder whether we will ever see any interesting movies on Indian immigrants abroad (maybe they are better integrated?) – that genre is such a complete non entity and all we seem to have are Gurinder Chaddha and Karan Johar types’ take on all things NRI.

Alok said...

I hadn't seen that interview, Really! Anyway the similarity is quite striking, specially because there are not many German movies on the subject.

Fear Eats the Soul is quite good as are many other Fassbinder's films. All very gloomy and full of despair but quite good overall. (I just had a major gloom attack watching ten hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Six Hours still to go.)

There are films like My Son the Fanatic or East is East which though not masterpieces are still convincing character studies which don't compromise with complexity but yes in general I don't see any masterpieces. I don't think it has anything to do with how succesffully integrated Indians are - rather it is more about how few genuine artists are there interested in this subject.

That Armchair Philosopher said...

@alok - Hmm. Interesting - I hadn't come across "Fear" before - sounds like an interesting movie to watch. But you raise a good question - I'm sure its reception in Turkey itself would comment on a lot of things - not in the least how audiences there react to such a movie.

I also wonder who this movie is targeted at.. or similar movies. If a film maker's trying to put forth a point but can only achieve limited audiences, is he termed successful?

Which brings us to why such a movie about NRIs hasn't been made yet - or won't be. Perhaps it would be limited to a niche audience within/outside the country, win a couple of awards at film fests the general population couldn't care less about, and perhaps garner attention when the Times of India cribs about how the censors chopped off the most important bits of the movie for being too risque. I mean, expecting just appreciation of a complex movie from an "advanced" culture which sends a movie like Lagaan or Rang de to the Oscars? meh.

@szerelem: This is what I was going to ask before :P

"breaks into halting, inelegant English. He can’t speak German here" ..

why not?

Szerelem said...

Alok: You’re right about how few people seem to be interested in the any rate I would not expect anything even in close to being in the same league as Head On any time soon :)
Also, good luck with Berlin Alexanderplatz! I read your post on it and that itself made the task of watching it seem daunting!

TAP: Well, like I said a lot of Turkish people I know really liked it but they are all Istanbulus. Also if you read Akins’ interviews it’s quite clear the movie is targeted at both the Turks (in Germany and Turkey) and the Germans. As Alok said it did hugely well in Germany (it was I think the first German film to win the Golden Bear in 18 years or so) and is something of a cultural milestone. And Akin is hugely popular there and even in Turkey.

I don’t think Akin in the movie tries to ram a message into his audience – it’s simply a love story and that the characters are second generation immigrants gives it a certain level of complexity. Plus, I think it’s pointless to measure success in numerical terms like how many people can you reach. The thing about Head On is that it doesn’t play the blame game with either Germany or Turkey and getting people in the audience (even if it is just one person) to rethink their judgments about the other is already a success isn’t it? Plus that it is a universal human story makes it easy for anyone to connect with it and I think that at the end of the day is what is important – that anyone anywhere can be moved by a story about people who they might have nothing in common with.

Why can’t he speak German? Well, you are going to watch the movie right? :D But anyway, simply because his sister-in-law is a Turk from Istanbul and doesn’t know German!

That Armchair Philosopher said...

@szerelem: Reading Akin's interview again.. I think I read it once when you originally pointed it out, but I don't recall him mentioning that.. btw, as Istanbulus, will they be classified in the same way you might think of someone from DPS/Stephens from Delhi?

Well, I guess making a difference to even one person is indeed making an impact - but this brings us back to the foreign policy conversation about the "impact" of what you do, from the Fullerton. But I do agree with Lane about 'having changed' when you step out after the movie - if it can affect you to that extent, it must have something worthwhile to say; and your point about anyone anywhere being moved by something they might not even identify with.. I just think that its even better if you have a large number of people feeling that change, than say just one person in the audience..

And yes, I'm going to be seeing the movie soon enough :)

??! said...

the only two even remotely decent (read: non-KJ/YP types) films about NR Asians that I can think of, are Hyderabad Blues (although a reverse version), East is East, and Leela.

It's quite sad really.

??! said...

make that three.

Although, since HB was about NRIs in India, I was technically right when saying two. I win. Yay!

I need mosambi.

That Armchair Philosopher said...

Okay, I saw both Head On and No country. The first one was absolutely smashing - really, not only is it so vivid in its description - the ending with çahit on the bus leaves says So much, albeit implicitly.

Also, I liked the little touches - the stuffed peppers (*yummy*), the sudden break into english - although since he speaks turkish, no matter how badly - you're sure there's nothing hidden in the reference? hmm? hmm?

Anonymous said...

If you want to stick to the hindi speaking immigrants and their problems in living in foreign lands, then you'll have very few good Bollywood fillums. I suggest you watch malayalam films to get a better view of the immigrant's problems - last year there was Gramophone, which is a superb film examining the emotional turmoil of the Ben Israelis who return to Israel from Kochi but find that adjusting to life there is really not all its meant to be. Also this year there was Arabi Katha which has the inimitable Sreenivasan in it, as a Communist-Marxist who ends up selling his soul to work in Capitalist Dubai yet hopes he can somehow make it to Cuba and witness the glorious revolution that once was. Indian films are simply not only Bollywood trash you know.

thalassa_mikra said...

I saw Head On a while ago on TV here. And the part that I liked the best was the protagonist's trip to Istanbul to meet Sibel.

I think being marginal to your own immigrant community is very liberating and in some ways disquieting. Although honestly more liberating - the story of Cahit of Sibel can only take place at the margins.

elizabeth said...

I love this movie so fucking much. Including for reasons that have nothing whatsover to do with some of it being filmed on a street where I once lived.

And it was very popular in Turkey as well, at least with urban audiences.

Oh, and the code-switching between Turkish & German (and yes, briefly English) is loaded and lovely-- I was wishing they'd color-coded the subtitles or something for audiences who speak neither, as scenes like the one with the tram conductor lose something if you don't realize what language is being spoken.