Wham Bang, Thank You Ma'm: Fatih Akin's Energetic Approach to the Multicultural Drama

in 54th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Dana Linssen

Some films end with a bang. “Head On” (Gegen die Wand), the competition entry from Turkish-German helmer Fatih Akin (born in Hamburg, 1973) that won both the Golden Bear and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 54. Berlinale, begins with one. And another one. And yet another one. Bang. Do not be afraid that this film will slowly fade out. Not like the lives its protagonists are afraid to live and therefore kill themselves, in vain, unwilling. Then try again. But anything is better than mediocre conformism.

In his forth feature film since his groundbreaking debut “Short Sharp Shock” (Kurz & schmerzlos) in 1997 Fatih Akin returns to the uncompromised and energetic style that then pitch forked him as the spokesperson of a new generation of Turkish-German filmmakers. He gave a cinematographic voice to an overlooked section of the German population, the so called second generation of Turkish émigrés. And he continues to do so with revived dedication in “Head On”. A literal translation of that title “Gegen die Wand” would mean “towards the wall” — which sounds as stubborn and shortsighted as its two protagonists, the 40 years old Cahit (Birol Ünel) and the 23 years younger Sibel (Sibel Kekilli). Gegen die Wand. It would also mean that they are prepared to do almost anything. That they are destined to grasp all and prepared to lose all. Until the English title tells some more truth about their lives: even with their heads towards the wall, they are powerful enough to move on.

Sibel and Cahit meet at the psychiatric ward of a hospital where they were both brought to after a failed suicide attempt. Not that they were really depressed or tired of living. Sibel just was desperate. Because her traditional Turkish Muslim parents and her brother would not give her the freedom and opportunities to live the kind of life she would like: a live of experiencing and experimenting, especially in a sexual way. Cahit just was lazy. Too lazy too take a turn in his life. So he ended up “gegen die Wand”.

Two opposites. Destined by the screenwriter/director to meet, collide, attract, clash, kiss, fuck, hate, love. A film that evokes so many emotions in its narrative is not likely to ripple on without a wrinkle. And thus “Head On” swings, and rocks, caresses and beats its spectator into the many outskirts of the human soul. It is a soul-film, although director Fatih Akin prefers to call it a punk-film for the way it cherishes a certain mentality, a fuck-you-mentality, a do-it-yourself-mentality, and in the end a we’re-gonna-make-a-better-world-mentality, just as the punk-wave in Germany developed itself into a socially engaged movement, not very different from the anti-globalists or the pro-environment-activists nowadays.

But in spite of its upbeat mentality, “Head On” still is a soul-film, as it is prepared to dig deep into the depths of the human soul, where not such glamorous traits as uncertainty, or egoism, or cowardice can be found. And the film treats them with all the tools a melodrama would grant. Melodrama in the real sense, as many melodies, from Turkish originals, to punk rock non-melodies underline or juxtapose the narrative. And not only melodrama it is. As “Head On” is tragic and comic and social-realist at the same time.

The humor saves the film from its darkness. The tragedy disenchants the sweetness of the love story. The romance gives hope. The Brechtian intermezzi wherein a Turkish traditional is sung grant thinking space and room to reflect and breath, before indulging again in yet another twist or turn. Just as real life complicates itself by pride and honor.

As “Head On” is uncompromised in the way it tackles certain traditions within certain Turkish and/or Muslim communities, the film will most certainly raise controversy and debate. It is one of the more extreme examples of a film about the multicultural society that was shown at this year’s Berlinale. Ken Loach’s “Ae Fond Kiss” and Dutch Panorama-entry “Shouf Shouf Habibi” by Albert ter Heerdt, being only two of the others. The power of the film is that it is so much more than a discussion-piece. Shot with precise and focused hand-held camera, natural lighting and as a poor man’s dogma-film on authentic locations, but without the usual neurotic, skittish camera movements, “Head On” emerges an authentic feeling. It is the film itself, with all its cinematographic means that tackles the subject. Not the subject itself.

© FIPRESCI 2004