(Gegen die Wand, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2004)


It has been called, a little crudely, the nuts-in-love genre: two mentally disabled, drug-addicted or alcoholic people whose sudden, explosive encounter and subsequent relationship adds up to a true tale of surrealist-style amour fou.


It’s a very modern genre, passing through Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), the post-Nouvelle Vague classic Les Amants du Pont-neuf  (1991) and Australia’s Angel Baby  (1995) – but Fatih Akin’s Head-On (not to be confused with Ana Kokkinos’ Head On, 1998) stirs a particularly potent brew by adding extra ingredients to the formula.


First, the union starts on a decidedly mock, non-fou note, as a marriage of convenience between two people on the bottom rung of society: Cahit (Birol Ünel) has smashed his car, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) has slashed her wrists. Yet, as Sibel asserts her desires by prowling the local clubs and bars, Cahit becomes increasingly jealous and violent – and then love, in however perverse or clumsy a way, asserts itself.


Second, Akin complicates everything by making this the story of Turkish immigrants in Germany, suffering racism and abuse in the course of their negotiation of two very different cultures.


Yet this is not, in any strict sense, a social-realist film. Akin’s choice of music – he in fact diverted much of the small budget towards securing rights to the chosen songs – is itself a cheeky, riotous blast of multiculturalism, assembled with the assistance of Alexander Hacke (member of the legendary German avant-garde outfit Einstürzende Neubauten): 1980s fare like Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, Sisters of Mercy and Wendy Rene mixed with Brechtian tableaux of performed folk music to mark the stages of the plot …


This music – reinforced by the wild, rough-edged lyricism of the acting, staging and hand-held camera movements – takes us beyond the strict confines of the social problem film, as well as overdetermined notions of cultural identity.


A nervy, unsettling, sometimes bleak drama of two outsiders (vividly played, with unwavering intensity and conviction, by Unel and Kekilli), Head-On in fact continues a vital strand of provocative, post-punk creativity in contemporary European cinema – a vitality from which even Akin’s subsequent films (Crossing the Bridge [2005], The Edge of Heaven [2007] and the awful Soul Kitchen [2009]) have shied away.

© Adrian Martin April 2008 / December 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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