The agony & the ecstasy

German film examines the terrible and wrenching power of romance

A film that opens with its two lead characters attempting suicide doesn’t promise to be an evening of romantic giggles — but to ignore this passionate, uncompromising and brutal love story would be a grave mistake. Like a twisted fairy tale, director Fatih Akin’s Head On takes a conventional romantic-comedy storyline and spins it into something unexpected.

Turkish-born Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a fortysomething punk rock veteran who picks up empties at a rock club for cash. Grizzled, drunk and hostile, he lives in a Hamburg flat so filthy Sid Vicious would have had second thoughts. His face is the craggy ruin of a man who’s experienced crushing heartbreak. One night, angry and depressed, he drives his car head-on into a wall. He survives, and winds up in a psychiatric facility.

There he meets a beautiful and suicidal young Turkish woman, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli). Living under the thumb of her repressive Muslim family, she longs for the sexually liberated, hedonistic life of the modern German woman. Desperate, she begs Cahit (in their first meeting) to marry her so she can be free from the grip of her father and violent brother. Repelled by the proposal, he rejects her offer with startling bloody consequences.

Eventually, for reasons even he can’t explain, Cahit agrees to help her. Cleaning up and using his best friend Seref (the excellent Güven Kirac) to pose as an uncle, he courts Sibel’s family and the two are wed in a traditional ceremony. Sibel then moves into the apartment and they proceed to lead separate and reasonably tolerant lives. Over time, Cahit rediscovers his passion for life and an inevitable spark of attraction blossoms between these mismatched roommates. Soon love, jealousy and devastatingly unexpected complications arise.

Originally released in Germany as Against the Wall, both titles are perfect metaphors for the violent effects love, culture and circumstance have on Cahit and Sibel. Though the film is deeply romantic, writer-director Akin has more than a simple (albeit gritty) love story in mind. He’s interested in the friction caused by European and Muslim values, depicting it as an ever-present force that shapes the characters’ choices, but never letting it overshadow the lovers’ story. Alienated from both cultures, the couple careens through life as a pair of damaged souls, testing the strength of love against their self-destructive impulses.

The brutality — sexual, emotional and physical — of Head On’s final act takes us by surprise, and Akin comes dangerously close to pushing the melodrama too far. But while the story spirals into deeper darkness, our investment in the lovers’ relationship intensifies. We can’t help but hope these two wounded souls will help each other find the grace they so desperately deserve.

Akin is a director who understands how small intimate details can shape the greater meaning of a story. He gives all his characters wonderfully revealing moments with insight and poignancy. In an early scene, a drunken Cahit returns to his squalid flat and pulls out a rumpled tuxedo and photos of a woman we’ll never know. He puts the jacket on and evaluates himself in the reflection of a dusty television screen, trying to imagine himself as anyone’s groom.

There are several musical interludes, which act as chapter breaks in the narrative. It’s a conceit borrowed from Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, a similarly brutal love story — but the gesture comes off as forced and unnecessary.

The cast of astonishingly committed actors breathes life into characters who live on well past the credits. Kekilli terrifically balances the impish sexuality of youth with the tragic vulnerability of a woman molested by fate. Shockingly, her only previous film experience was limited to a handful of adult videos.

Ünel is outstanding, convincing us that beneath the scuzzy surface of Cahit there’s something hopeful and even noble. His performance is haunting and unforgettable.

Head On is not an easy film to watch. It’s a wrenching examination of the terrible and chaotic power of love, and its ability to transform even the most wretched soul. Akin’s unapologetically bittersweet film rushes headlong into the viewer. You may be tempted to flinch and turn away. Don’t. If you surrender to the ferocity of its heartache you’ll leave the theater as a different person.


In German and Turkish with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].