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’.