Ethnic Turkish couple in Germany forge an unlikely bond
“Head-On,” is an intense romantic drama about two German-born Turks trying to eke out a life for themselves on their own terms.
This sexy, violent and emotionally involving film is nothing less than astonishing. Writer-director Fatih Akin has taken a dense character study about two mismatched lovers drawn together by fate and turned it into something extraordinary—and extraordinarily moving.
Cahit (Birol Ünel) is angry, drunk, and out of control. In his 40s, he lives like a slob, works clearing empty bottles in a nightclub and spends his free time drinking, smoking and fucking. One night he rams his car head-on into a brick wall and ends up in a psychiatric clinic. It is at the clinic that he meets a suicidal young woman, Sibel (Sibel Kekelli), a 20- year-old who tried to slit her wrists as a way out of her claustrophobic home life.
Sibel sees Cahit as a suitable Turkish husband she can turn to in escaping her family, and she proposes they wed as a matter of convenience for each. She will make him a home, and they can each take lovers. Eventually, and reluctantly, Cahit agrees, and their wedding photo—seen framed in their apartment—truly expresses their emotions at the prospect of being married—he is scared; she is smiling.
“Head-On” is absorbing as it shows how these two very different characters learn and grow from being together. Although Sibel spends her honeymoon in the arms of another man, she and Cahit do reach an understanding in their marriage. The nature of their relationship takes a turn for the best, culminating in a strong bond that even the two partners don’t understand. That is, until a tragedy occurs that threatens to break them apart. Suddenly, the film moves from Germany to Turkey to play out the consequences of one character’s decisions.
Akin builds the tension incredibly as he allows the complex story to unfold, and slowly the audience begins to care about these characters and the outcome of their relationship, just like Cahit and Sibel learn to care for each other.
The filmmaker shrewdly tells this love story episodically, and the fits of anger, intercut with acts of passion, truly convey the thoughts and feelings of these emotionally unstable characters. There are reminders throughout the story that Cahit and Sibel are self-destructive, and each character cuts him/herself as a means of expressing their frustration, pain and rage at the world. These scenes are not easy to watch, but they are quite gripping.
As good as he is a dramatist, Akin is also a remarkably visual filmmaker. Many of his shots could pass as gorgeous still photographs, and he frames his actors elegantly and artfully in each scene. This may be a grim picture, but it is beautifully lensed.
The performances are also first-rate. Birol Ünel is flawless as a man angry at the world, but mostly at himself. His moments of fury are often followed with quiet scenes of regret, and the emotional arc he conveys simply through his facial expressions and body language are outstanding. A heartfelt speech Cahit makes in English near the film’s end is incredibly powerful.
Ünel is well matched by the beautiful Sibel Kekilli, who gives a riveting performance as Sibel. Kekilli expertly communicates her character’s need for freedom and her own self-loathing to make Sibel sympathetic. When she provokes a trio of street thugs to attack her, the reasons for her behavior are clear and it is horrifying to watch her being abused.
“Head-On” is terrific, but it could have been a bit tighter. Akin introduces a few characters and situations that go unresolved, and the film tends to feel long once the action switches from Hamburg to Istanbul. But this is a minor complaint in an otherwise mesmerizing film.
It may be difficult to watch, but “Head-On” is hard to forget.