Cahit and Sibel, two Germans of Turkish origin, encounter each other in a psychiatric hospital after having made separate suicide attempts. Trying to escape the restrictions of her conservative family home, Sibel spontaneously proposes a marriage of convenience to Cahit, which gives her the (above all sexual) freedom she so desperately desires. But Cahit slowly falls in love with her, and kills one of her lovers in a fit of jealousy. Sibel becomes aware of her own feelings for him, and while he is in jail, moves to Istanbul, first waiting then beginning to make a new life. After Cahit gets out of jail, they meet one more time, with an uncertain outcome.
The first German film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 18 years, and recipient of many other awards, Head-On put Turkish German film director Fatih Akin on the map. Conceived as a love story, but more often read as an intercultural film, Head-On takes place in a ‘no man’s land of cultural identification’ (Lebow 2005: 60), where second-generation Germans of Turkish origin attempt to (re)make their lives. Not confined to social realism, this ‘filmic spectacle of auto-destruction’ (Fachinger 2007: 257) features an accessible and visually compelling story with its share of sex and violence, and Turkish and punk rock rhythms, while at the same time producing a nuanced image of Turkish life in Germany. Director Fatih Akin himself said that he tried to take into account Turkish, Turkish German and German audiences, even as he did not manage to escape controversy.
Head-On must be understood in the context of Turkish migration to Germany, and the cultural production that followed from it. In the 1960s, a large number of so-called Turkish ‘guest workers’ arrived in Germany, very often from rural (and thus fairly traditional) parts of Turkey. While the initial thought was that these workers would not stay, by the 1970s, they were allowed to bring their families; after 1989 (the date of the German reunification), and even more so after the Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11, the debate on citizenship accelerated and intensified. Within mainstream German media, stereotypes of oppressed Muslim women and criminal males developed, as did stories of honour killings and accounts of a ‘parallel’ (i.e. non-integrated) society, a term first introduced by German sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer in the early 1990s (see Ewing 2006).
What role films play in this – whether they complicate, combat or buttress such media discourses – can be debated. For sure, however, Turks in Germany became an object of cinematic representation at the very latest in the 1970s. Most critics agree that films of the 1970s and 1980s mostly concerned themselves with the depiction of guest workers’ problems and anxieties in a social realist vein, even as they single out Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (originally titled All Turks are called Ali). By the 1990s, a new generation of Turkish German filmmakers who had grown up in Germany became a vital force in German cinema, appropriating generic conventions, and by the twenty-first century, making more critically engaged films (see Göktürk 2002; Hake and Mennel 2012: 1–8). In the book that accompanies the film, Akin includes an excerpt from Maxim Biller’s ‘Dritte Ethnie’ (Third Ethnicity), which celebrates the second generation’s creative energy, as well as Georg Diez’s essay on how the Turkish German second generation’s energy will save German culture (Akin 2004: 267–8 and 253–8; see also Fachinger 2007: 243–4).
Within these contexts, Head-On has been understood both as a film that continues to draw on traditional concepts of culture and as a film that overturns stereotypes. While Sibel’s parents are certainly traditional, small details are important: the father listens to and accepts Sibel’s choice despite obvious misgivings about the husband; the mother dyes her hair, smokes, tries to rescue a photograph of Sibel and secretly says goodbye to her daughter, which has led some to argue that she has learned how to negotiate a system. Maybe more importantly, Head-On depicts a wide range, and very different kinds of Turkish characters, dispelling any sense of a homogeneous society.
The two main characters, Sibel and Cahit, often seem to be determined more by their individual idiosyncrasies than by collective cultural habits, so that one could argue that conflict is as much generational and psychological as it is cultural. But even as the film refuses to wrap up its storylines neatly, some commentators have understood it as a ‘conservative cautionary tale’ and a ‘back to the roots’ fantasy, as Sibel becomes the mother in a bourgeois family and Cahit visits his Turkish home town (Lebow 2005: 61).
These arguments suggest the ambivalence and complexity of the two main characters, Sibel and Cahit. Early on in the film, ironically named Dr Schiller cites a song, ‘If you can’t change the world, change your world’, and tells Cahit ‘if you want to terminate your life, then terminate your life, but you don’t have to die to do so’. As they progress from suicide attempts to new lives, Sibel and Cahit seem to take this initially paradoxical and thus comical comment to heart. Before doing so, however, both of these characters run against walls, both literally (in the case of Cahit) and metaphorically. The literal translation of the film’s German title is ‘Against the Wall’ – an appropriate governing metaphor for much of the film. Especially Cahit seems enclosed in claustrophobic spaces, for example his apartment (Fachinger 2007: 258).
We should not forget how dissimilar the two are. Sibel is hungry for life, and longs to transgress Turkish and middle-class conventions, but refuses to leave Hamburg because of her bond with her mother. She often consciously works her own hybridity in order to negotiate her own position. The cafeteria sequence early in the film subtly illustrates how Sibel’s body language changes when talking to the men of the family, or when talking to her mother, while also establishing a degree of complicity between the women. Later on, she claims to be a Turkish wife in order to get rid of an unwanted lover, while transforming herself with fashionable and sexy clothes, a belly button ring and a tattoo. She alternately performs ‘virtuous daughter, untouchable, Gucci bride’, and those performances do not lessen after she moves to Turkey (Lornsen 2007: 20).
Sibel’s ‘intentional’ hybridity is countered by Cahit’s ‘organic’ hybridity that comes unconsciously rather than consciously (Lornsen 2007: 17). Unlike Sibel, Cahit seems to have little to no family, and while he was born in Turkey, he ‘threw his Turkish away’, as he explains to Yilmaz, Sibel’s brother. He is worried that Sibel’s cousin from Istanbul will bring a ‘suitcase full of Turks’ and calls the guys who beat him up ‘Scheiss-Kanaken’ (fucking Kanaks).1 And yet, his self-hatred changes over the course of the film, while he comes to stand for an alternative model of Turkish German manhood, a topic that is being prepared fairly early on when he visits Yilmaz and his friends. Invited to come along to a brothel, he asks why they don’t fuck their own wives. Yilmaz’s friend explodes, chillingly not because of the question, but because Cahit used the word ‘fuck’ in relationship to Turkish wives. Akin himself has expressed his admiration for a character who has the courage to disregard tradition and who in the process destroys himself, likening the type to James Dean. A complex and contradictory character, Cahit tries to find an adequate male identity in the absence of any suitable role models (Fincham 2008: 61).
The complexity of characters is mirrored in the complexity of locations. Head-On mostly takes place in Hamburg and Istanbul. There is no easy juxtaposition of these two cities, even though Akin has opened himself up to charges of orientalising Istanbul, maybe not least because Sibel ends up smoking opium there (Lebow 2005: 61). Nonetheless, within the film Istanbul is also the location where Sibel dons tomboyish attire, watches European Champion Turkish female weightlifter Sibel S¸ims¸ek, and experiences capitalism. (Selma’s fancy hotel contrasts with the working-class lives of her relatives in Germany). Above all Istanbul is contradictory: ‘much more vibrant’ than Hamburg and yet also ‘harsher’ and ‘seedier’ (Fachinger 2007: 254; Lebow 2005: 61). Akin’s ability to produce local specificity and accents may be particularly striking as at the same time he also produces patterns of global migration and capital. In this sense it is typical that in Istanbul Cahit (whose Turkish is still partial) and Selma (who does not speak German) end up speaking English with each other. It nonetheless comes as a surprise to the spectator – a moment that rips us out of the texture of the localities in which the film immerses us, yet another moment that takes us out of the action of the film, like the performances of the folk song that punctures the plot.
Indeed, no discussion of Head-On would be complete without a discussion of its aesthetic structure and style. Akin himself has said that he did not want a classical narrative arc, Hollywood style, in the course of which characters encounter and overcome obstacles (Akin 2004: 236). Comedy and tragedy are close to each other. Maybe most strikingly, the use of folk songs, performed by Selim Sesler and Orchestra (Idil Üner singing), with the Suleymaniye Mosque across the Golden Horn in the background, divides the film into five acts. Akin himself has commented on the postcard-like effect of this device, which makes the spectators aware that the film is a film, pulling them out of the action, keeping them simultaneously emotionally involved yet critically distanced (Fachinger 2007: 258–9). After the first performance of the musical group, the film abruptly cuts to a low-angle shot of a glaring overhead light, and we find ourselves in the post-concert rubble of Die Fabrik (The Factory), a cultural centre in Altona (Hamburg), where Cahit collects bottles and drinks leftover beer. Akin’s editing does often not conform to continuity style; instead he uses visible editing and radically different camera positions, along with music (both musical bridges and abrupt cuts) to give the film varying, sometimes calming, sometimes pulsating rhythms.
The film’s success was not without controversy. The German tabloid Bild quickly found out that Sibel Kekilli had previously appeared in porn films, and exploited the story with relish right after the film had won the Golden Bear. The story may have contributed to a particular conflation of fiction and reality within both the Turkish and German press. In Germany, the conservative press missed the nuances of the film, reading it as a commentary on the oppression of Muslim women, while others understood it as rejuvenating German film culture (see Machtans 2012: 153–6). Likewise Turkish television interviewed Kekilli’s parents who talked about their shame, while at the same time the national media criticised but also took pride in the film, conveniently ignoring the production of porn in Turkey, which had flourished especially 1974–80 (see Arslan 2008).
Like its characters refusing any easy categorisation, this multilingual film clearly belongs to an increasingly transnational film production that has recently become a main focus of film studies (see Ezra and Rowden 2006; Durovicová and Newman 2009). At the same time, the Turkish German film movement can also be compared to similar ethnically accented film movements in other countries. Akin likes to compare himself with Italian American filmmakers in the United States in the 1970s who would quickly move to the centre of American cinema, noting in particular Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). A more contemporary comparison may be made with the North African (‘beur’) film movement in France and directors such as Abdellatif Kechiche who have successfully moved out of narrowly conceived ethnic subject matter. Within Germany, this kind of cinema is seen as distinct from the immediate post-Wall cinema, which is regarded as a cinema of consensus (Fachinger 2007: 259).
1. Kanake is a derogatory term for people from Southern countries, which occasionally also gets co-opted by Turks as a self-designation.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany. Production Company: Wüste Filmproduktion, Corazón International, NDR, Arte. Director: Fatih Akin. Producers: Ralph Schwingel, Stefan Schubert. Screenwriter: Fatih Akin. Cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann. Music: Alexander Hacke, Maxeo Parker. Editor: Andrew Bird. Cast: Sibel Kekilli (Sibel), Birol Ünel (Cahit), Catrin Stirebeck (Maren), Güven Kiraç (Seref), Hermann Lause (Dr Schiller), Demir Gökgöl (Yunus Güner, father), Cem Akin (Yilmaz Güner, brother), Aysel Iscan (Birsen Güner, mother), Meltem Cumbul (Selma).]
Fatih Akin, Gegen die Wand, das Buch zum Film: Drehbuch/Materialien/Interviews, Cologne, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2004.
Savas¸ Arslan, ‘Head-On, Head-Off: How the Media Covered a Former Porn Actress’s Rise to Stardom’, Film International, Vol. 6, No. 6, 2008, pp. 62–71.
Natasa Durovicová and Kathleen E. Newman (eds), World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2009.
Katherine Pratt Ewing, ‘Between Cinema and Social Work: Diasporic Turkish Women and the (Dis)Pleasures of Hybridity’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 21, No. 2, May 2006, pp. 265–94.
Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds), Transnational Cinema, the Film Reader, London, Routledge, 2006.
Petra Fachinger, ‘A New Kind of Creative Energy: Yadé Kara’s Selam Berlin and Fatih Akin’s Kurz und schmerzlos and Gegen die Wand’, German Life and Letters, Vol. 60, No. 2, April 2007, pp. 243–60.
Victoria Fincham, ‘Violence, Sexuality and the Family: Identity “Within and Beyond TurkishGerman Parameters” in Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand, Kutlug˘ Ataman’s Lola + Bilidikind and Anno Saul’s Kebab Connection’, GFL: German as a Foreign Language, No. 1, 2008, pp. 39–72.
Deniz Göktürk, ‘Beyond Paternalism: Turkish German Traffic in Cinema’, in Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter and Deniz Göktürk (eds), The German Cinema Book, London, BFI, 2002, pp. 248–56.
Sabine Hake and Barbara Mennel (eds), Turkish German Cinema in the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds and Screens, New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2012.
Alisa Lebow, ‘Head-On’, Cineaste, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer 2005, pp. 60–1.
Karin Lornsen, ‘Where Have All the Guest Workers Gone? Transcultural Role-Play and Performative Identities in Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand (2004)’, in Robert Schechtman and Suin Roberts (eds), Finding the Foreign, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, pp. 13–31.
Karolin Machtans, ‘The Perception and Marketing of Fatih Akin in the German Press’ in Sabine Hake and Barbara Mennel (eds), Turkish German Cinema in the New Millennium: Sites, Sounds and Screens, New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2012: 149–60.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.