Head On

English Title: Head On

Original Title: Gegen die Wand

Country of Origin: Germany, Turkey

Studio: Arte, Bavaria Film International, Corazón International, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), Panfilm, Wüste Filmproduktion

Director: Fatih Akin

Producer(s): Stefan Schubert, Ralph Schwingel

Screenplay: Fatih Akin

Cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann

Art Director: Sirma Bradley, Nergis Caliska

Editor: Andrew Bird

Runtime: 121 minutes

Genre: Drama, Romance

Language: German, Turkish, English

Starring/Cast: Meltem Cumbul, Sibel Kekilli, Güven Kirac, Catrin Striebeck, Birol Ünel

Year: 2004

Volume: German


Cahit (Ünel), a forty-year-old Turkish-German alcoholic, and Sibel (Kekilli), a young woman from a conservative, working-class Turkish-German family, meet in hospital in Hamburg following their respective suicide attempts. Cahit, depressed after the death of his wife, had driven his car into a wall at top speed. Sibel, who was attempting to escape her oppressive family, had slit her wrists. Sibel persuades Cahit to enter into a fake marriage so that she can leave the parental home and enjoy her sexual freedom with a variety of men. Their agreement works until Cahit and Sibel fall in love and Cahit kills one of Sibel's sexual partners in a fit of jealousy. When Cahit goes to prison Sibel promises that she will wait for him. She moves to Istanbul to live with her cousin Selma (Cumbul). Sibel's self-destructive behaviour results first in her rape and then in a savage beating. When Cahit is released, he goes to Istanbul to find Sibel, who now has a partner and a little girl. The two lovers spend the night together in Cahit's hotel, and Sibel promises to accompany Cahit on his journey to Mersin, the town of his birth. Sibel does not turn up at the bus station and Cahit boards the bus alone.


Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's Berlinale-winning feature Head On shows the full complexities of Turkish-German identity among the second generation of immigrants. Cahit Tomruk's Turkish is ‘totally fucked’, as his future brother-in-law remarks, and the alcoholic, who earns his living by clearing away beer bottles in a club, certainly seems to identify more with the anti-bourgeois Germans of the punk generation than with the ‘Kanaken’ – a pejorative German term for Turks that occasionally falls from Cahit's lips – who populate Sibel's world. Whereas Turkish-born Cahit seems rootless, Sibel, born in Hamburg, is functionally bilingual and anchored in the Turkish community. Cahit's best friend Seref (Kiraç) is a Turkish bachelor; Sibel, initially at least, admires her cousin Selma, whose emancipated lifestyle as a single woman in Istanbul is far removed from Sibel's oppressive experience of the Turkish community in Germany. The permutations of Turkish-German identity and culture are endless, the film seems to be saying, and Turkey is not the backward country the European Union would have us believe. Istanbul is a city of freedom for both Sibel and Cahit – in Sibel's case, this includes the freedom to self-destruct. The protagonists’ respective voyages to Turkey should not be seen as a return to their roots for neither of them are truly Turkish, but more properly cultural hybrids; nor is it an implicit condemnation of Germany, but a relocation to a strange country where both can embrace a new life.


Head On is also, and perhaps above all, a tragic love story. This is signalled by the musical entr'actes which frame the film: Selim Sesler and orchestra, along with the singer Idil Üner ‘watch’ and accompany Cahit and Sibel's story from the banks of the Bosphorus with music and song. The Brechtian framing asks us to consider this very modern tale as a conventional love story and adds an intellectual dimension to what is otherwise a conventional, if powerfully, filmed drama that appeals primarily to the emotions. Akin's love story manages to juxtapose scenes of disturbing violence – Cahit's joyous dance with bleeding hands held aloft and Sibel's near death from a beating on the streets of Istanbul – with lighter, often extremely humorous scenes: Cahit and Seref's concern over the alcohol content of the chocolates that are to be presented to Sibel's parents; Cahit answering the door to his flat stark naked, having struggled up from the sofa where he has been sleeping off his hangover.


The film's ending is a quiet tragedy after the major tragedies that have accompanied Sibel and Cahit through their love story. Sibel chooses the life she has rather than a life with Cahit, perhaps out of consideration for the relationship between her daughter and her new partner. Cahit boards his bus to Mersin alone, strong enough now to face a future without Sibel. A happy ending would arguably not have suited this couple and the tender scenes of them making love in Cahit's Istanbul hotel room prior to their separation somehow mitigate the melancholy.


Akin's Germany is de facto culturally hybrid and multilingual. The soundtrack to Head On marries East and West, traditional and modern, and is an essential part of the film's mise-en-scène. Turkish, German and English – the globalised language that Cahit adopts when neither Turkish nor German fulfil his communicative needs – mix on-screen and in the characters' lives, belying Germany's official status as a monolingual country.

Author of this review: Chantal Wright