Old and new collide inside the self: “Head-On” (2004)

11 November 2011

Here’s what felt new to me: we’d spent the evening together bouncing about town — a café, a movie, a bar — drinking much more than I usually do and getting chummy. By the time it got really, really late it felt so good to ricochet through the square, making out in public, feeling each other’s desire. I knew him well enough to know we didn’t have a future. It felt safe not to have a future, not to be in love, to be young and willing to act on our desires, making out in those dark streets on a cool summer night when all your senses are on overload. It felt free.

Here’s what felt old: despite all this, I was so conscious of setting up boundaries, of finding “modern” answers to women’s age-old problem of sex and safety. Making out in a city square was safer than being in an apartment, because there would be no sex, and therefore no conversation/hassle about condoms, no boredom, no weirdness. Making out with someone I wasn’t going to fall in love with was safe. Looking back, “free” and “new” are not the words I’d use anymore.

This is just a personal vignette — but it indicates something I found amazing about Fatih Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand, or “Into the Wall”): it shows old and new colliding within the self in matters of sex and love. It portrays that collision with such intimacy that you can barely stand it; it feels like something you’ve experienced yourself, almost déjà vu.

This is Cahit (Birol Ünel), a 40-something Turkish German living on the margins. He’s wearing the neck brace because he has just driven his car straight into a wall in a failed suicide attempt; we can tell a lot from those old scars, too. While in the Hamburg psychiatric clinic he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a 20-something Turkish German who, without knowing the first thing about Cahit, asks him to marry her. She’ll do anything to escape her strict parents’ traditional home and have sex with men as she pleases. They are having this conversation in a bar after sneaking out of the clinic one night.

When Cahit tells her he won’t marry her — and that she should stop asking — she gets the strangest look on her face, almost like she’s going to laugh; then she breaks a beer bottle on the table and runs the jagged glass up her arm, spraying blood everywhere.With that kind of beginning, it won’t be surprising to learn that they have the most strange and loveless of marriages. They might as well be roommates: Cahit continues to benumb himself with cheap beer to the point of passing out; Sibel sleeps with a different man every night, medicating herself in a different way, yet doing so with such glee that it’s hard not to find her utterly delightful.

It could have continued indefinitely, this new, free marriage of theirs. Except bits of old, binding, unfree emotions start to creep in as Cahit starts to notice his wife — her love of dancing, her explosive desires, her sweet face. He’s been dead for years, but now there are sparks of life. How beautiful that he should come alive after she cooks a traditional Turkish dinner for him one night on a whim. Those old flavors insinuate themselves into his soul somehow, awakening him to feelings he thought he’d killed off.Head-On thus becomes a kind of love story that sneaks up on you — the emotions and the physicality between Cahit and Sibel are so intense and filmed so beautifully that you find yourself both incredibly sexually aroused and collapsing on the inside. It’s as if you’re falling in love too and there’s no safety net. It’s scary how powerful their love and connection appears. “Stop! Stop! Stop it!” she cries in the middle of their first sexual encounter, looking at him desperately. “If we do it, then I’m your wife and you’re my husband, understand?” Her feelings are so palpable — she’s caught between old and new, and succumbing to her desires and her love for him necessitates a fundamental shift in her sense of self. Likewise for Cahit. Later, he sits with his friend Seref gripping the bar with outstretched arms. “I’m in love!” he says, half crying, and suddenly in Turkish. “She’s bewitched me!” For two people so prone to self-harm, this intensity feels so scary that you can’t help but feel it too.

The film really hinges on Ünel as Cahit, with his damaged face and haunted eyes. I’ve seen him before, in parts where he’s played twitchy, even manic secondary characters who move too fast, almost as if he’s hiding his face behind that prettily greying hair, as if he disdains his viewers. But here somehow the director Akin gets him to slow down and get real — and, what’s more, shows the truth behind that evasiveness, the emotional damage he’s barely living with. “He’s kind of playing himself,” my Dear Friend (who’s far more familiar with German culture) told me with a certain regret, as if all Germans agree with this assessment. The film gives Kekilli less attention, fewer dimensions, but she inhabits the character of Sibel with such a believable set of conflicting passions and love/hate for life that one can’t help but feel attached to her.

And to bring us back to the subject of old and new, we have the director’s decision to frame the film with scenes of a “traditional” Turkish band positioned on Istanbul’s waterfront with the Hagia Sophia directly behind, playing traditional Turkish songs. But if at first you think this is the pinnacle of “old” Turkey — those songs, the stiltedness of the scene — in fact, the singer is Idil Üner, yet another German-Turkish actor and singer. The film takes both its leads “back” to Turkey (we learn that both were born there) but leaves utterly ambiguous the question of how we are to feel about it. “Returning” to Turkey — which neither of them know much at all — is neither a solution nor a problem. Sure, there they escape from the anti-Turkish prejudices that pepper their lives back in Hamburg. But they don’t belong in Turkey exactly, either. The “tradition” belted out by Üner and the Selim Sesler Orchestra is only a fantasy of something culturally pristine, untouched.

I’ve always loved those You Can’t Go Home Again stories — and all the more those that capture the ethnic and racial issues of global migration. In the U.S. context it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s perfectly-told The Namesake (2003 — not the disappointing movie, by the way) that seemed to capture those complexities of growing up the child of immigrants in contemporary culture. (Actually, let’s also discuss Barack Obama’s elegant Dreams of My Father [1995].) Head-On is of a piece with those tales. No matter how much it displays its characters’ pain, the film begs you to watch it again. And when you do, please tell me what you think Akin is trying to say about the Turkishness of its German characters — I saw the film so much as a love story that the ethnic themes are still unfocused in my mind.


7 Responses to “Old and new collide inside the self: “Head-On” (2004)”

  1. servetus Says:

    Wow, I had never thought about it as a love story. (Professional deformation, I guess).

    One thing he seems to be saying is that the Turkish-Germans are mired in this anachronistic notion of Turkishness. They’re not allowed to be German (or don’t succeed at it when they try — how you read this depends on your politics going into the film, I suspect) but Turkey has moved on from their particular construal of Turkishness. They are neither Turkish nor German; they are simply marooned. That’s how I read it.

    • Didion Says:

      That is SO interesting — I’m not sure whether it’s my lack of knowledge about Germans’ uneasy relationship to its guest workers and immigrants. But I’m also inclined to think that sex and love are the quintessential places to work out those conflicts between new and old. That’s how it worked in Lahiri’s novel, too — we somehow seek something in others that we feel we desire/lack about ourselves. So the fact that Cahit finds something in Sibel that he never found in his German fuck-buddy Maren seems apt.

      That sense of feeling marooned is also reflected in The Namesake — so much so that Gogol even has trouble finding another Indian American woman of a similar background whose experience draws them together rather than just keeps them apart. The combination of romance and immigrant ethnicity seems very potent to me in this film.

      • servetus Says:

        And Maren seems to feel more for Cahit than she’s willing to concede? Another metaphor? (My friends in lit departments are always telling me not to read German film like a roman a clef about history and society, but it’s hard for me not to do that.)

      • Didion Says:

        You know, this leads me to another question I had — about the prevalence of very retro music throughout. And I don’t just mean the Turkish stuff of Uner’s, but also the Depeche Mode, the Siouxsie and the Banshees, the anarchy symbol, the post-punk stuff from the late 70s/ early 80s. There’s a weird way that Cahit seems stuck in time, not a man of the 2000s at all. I’d be more inclined to say that the director is discussing a more chronic human condition of feeling between two worlds/ cultures.

        I don’t know about the Cahit-Maren relationship as a metaphor for Turkey-Germany. (If so, Germany is the “bottom,” which stretches the imagination.)

  2. servetus Says:

    yeah, agree — for me all the post-punk stuff sort of points to Cahit’s embrace of a sort of youth / international culture (that would have been particularly apparent in Hamburg in the late 70s / early 80s, b/c Hamburg was one of the most cosmopolitan German cities at that time — not caught up in the rhetoric of the Cold War as in Berlin or the traditionalism of Munich) that ultimately lost its potential to change Germany in the inclusive way that its rhetoric signaled. He has this dusty allegiance to something that’s disappeared.

    • Didion Says:

      You’re such a historian! I see this as the fact that he, personally, got stuck in the early 80s (death of his first wife? who has what sounds to me like a very German name [Katarina]?) and has never left it. It’s definitely an international music culture, but wasn’t it international everywhere? all those British/ German/ Australian/ Asian and African bands cycling through the airwaves. I see that as less about his context than the last time he was alive.

      I think this is so interesting: you keep such a firm eye on the question, is this movie getting it right? Whereas since I have no personal context for reading the cultural cues of this film, I’m reading it for whether the emotions seem right and/or how it relates to some mini-moment in my own emotional past. (Not that I let movies off the hook when I think they’ve got the details wrong, mind you.)

      • servetus Says:

        yes, Katarina=German name.

        Getting it right: Part of my conclusion, I suppose, has to do with the issue that I’m hearing in my vocabulary all the German music of the early 1980s that’s not part of that film, the so-called “neue deutsche Welle” — the film is listening to music with a definite cultural / political stance as opposed to what was playing on German Top 40 radio at the time (when the German radio stations were all still controlled by the German state, before deregulation), which was for lack of a better word more bubblegummy. Certainly post-punk was international everywhere (afaik — you know I grew up under a mushroom), but it had a particular physical location in Germany.

        I don’t especially like historical fictions, so the “getting it right” is important to me, I suppose, than the love story. “Not getting it right” would be a reason for me to dislike this film.

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