somebody is hurting you, you know you are alive."
are certain things that immediately inform an audience
that they are watching a European film rather than a mainstream
American one. Obvious indicators such as language and
location aside, European films frequently use actors who
resemble real people rather than the groomed mannequins
of the typical Hollywood product. In Hollywood, the same
old operators are still too often in place – good guys
are attractive, bad guys are ugly, anyone with a beard
is probably untrustworthy, and young is almost always better than old.
The argument goes that American movies provide the audience
with characters that they aspire to be,
whereas a European film reflects how things really are.
This also extends to a large degree to television. You
want a prime example of this? Compare two successful soaps, Dallas and Eastenders. In Dallas it was not just looks that the audience was invited
to desire, it was property and wealth and social standing.
Say what you like about Eastenders (and I do), but the cast look exactly like the people
whose lives they are dramatising and the problems they
deal with are ones we recognise as real.
find no better example of this casting diversity right
now than Head-On's lead actor Birol Ünel.
He has a great face – rough, weather-beaten, pock-marked
and scarred, but somehow still ruggedly good looking,
though not in the Hollywood design-a-visage way. Despite
his considerable talent as a performer, he doesn't look
like an actor – he looks exactly like what he is, a man
beaten down by life and by drink.* If Hollywood were to
(God forbid) remake Head-On, I shudder
to thing who'd be cast in the lead. They'd ruffle his
hair and give him a two-day beard growth but he'd still
be Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson or whoever might be in vogue at
the time, and Cahit's later facial transformation, here
so believable, would just turn designer scruff Cruise
back into smiley teeth Cruise. Remember Keifer Sutherland
at the end of episode one of the second series of 24?
I nearly kicked the TV across the room. And I have a big TV.
back to this movie and a little bit of plot. Cahit is
a German citizen of Turkish birth and caught in a spiral
of nihilistic, alcohol fuelled self-destruction. One night
after being thrown out of a bar for assaulting another
customer, he drives headlong into a brick wall in what
appears to be a deliberate but botched suicide attempt.
At the hospital he is approached by the younger Sibel, who has also
tried to kill herself, in her case a reaction to the
oppressive and sometimes aggressive actions of her traditionalist
Turkish family, who strongly disapprove of her active
social life. She presents Cahit with a proposal, a marriage
of convenience that would allow her to enjoy her liberal
lisfestyle away from the ever-watchful eyes of her family.
Initially hostile to the idea, Cahit reluctantly agrees,
but the two have not been together long when Cahit finds
himself attracted to his new room-mate.
elements aside you'd be forgiven for a smile of recognition
on reading the above. In movies at least, men and women,
no matter how different and seemingly mismatched, always seem to get
together sooner or later, and the moment Cahit agrees
to the marriage it seems inevitable that their relationship will develop beyond the purely practical. Director Fatih Akin, himself a
German Turk, knows this and perhaps even relies on our
recognition of this familiar odd couple set-up –
Cahit is some years older than Sibel and a slob two steps
away from vagrancy, while she is youthful and strikingly
attractive – as after an hour of leading us down
a familiar but still problematic path, he throws an almighty
curve ball that turns the narrative completely on its
head. We are just over halfway in and all the familiar
generic assurances are effectively thrown out of the window.
the set-up sounds familiar then Akin makes it seem fresh,
not least because although this is at heart a story of two people drawn to each other against the odds and tested
by adversity, it is also a film about cultural dislocation
and value rejection. Cahit is Turkish by birth but sees
himself now as German, expressing dislike for the traditions
of his people and his newly adoptive family. "I hate
all this Turkish crap," he complains to Sibel as
he is driven to a family get-together, at which he infuriates
the young males by suggesting they fuck their wives instead
of visiting the brothel (what angers them is his use of
the word 'fuck' in relation to their spouses). He is bemused
by the wedding rituals and is no longer able to
speak the Turkish language with any level of competence.
Sibel, likewise, rejects the traditions that her family
still hold dear, which she believes are suffocating her
enjoyment of life. "Do you think my nose is nice?"
she asks Cahit. "My brother broke it because he caught
me holding hands." Married to Cahit and freed from
her family's grip, she embraces promiscuity with
a gleeful vengeance, even copping off with a barman on her wedding
night after being thrown out of their apartment by Cahit
for asking about his late wife. It is here that we begin
to understand just why Cahit is so self-destructive, the
pain he is nursing, what he lost that also robbed him
of the fire of life.
the two patch things up, Cahit lands Sibel a job with
hairdresser Maren, his on-off girlfriend and another of
the film's great faces. Here a clear distinction is made
between love and sex, what Cahit desires of Sibel and
what he gets from Maren. His sex with Maren is energetic
and passionate and presented with a frankness that distances
the film further from its Hollywood brethren, and yet it never feel gratuitous, included as it is to clearly communicate the purely physical nature of their involvement.
When Maren chooses to reveal their relationship to Sibel,
she says simply, "Cahit and I fuck sometimes."
is no surprise when Sibel's enthusiastic embracement of
life not only begins to rub off on Cahit but acts as
a candle for the love that he keeps aggressively buried. In the film's most electrifyingly vibrant
sequence – as Cahit and Sibel bop and enthusiastically
converse to the strains of The Temple of Love by The Sisters of Mercy, climaxing with the decision to
go clubbing and Cahit's explosive proclamation that "Punk
is not dead!" – the connection between the two is
keenly felt, but is immediately undermined with a
mid-song cut to Cahit's club of choice, where he is left
looking mournfully on from the sidelines while Sibel nails
that evening's companion. Even when Sibel does start to feel for Cahit there are complications, but initially recognition alone
is enough for Cahit, who slams his hands down on two beer
glasses with the loud proclamation "I'm in love!"
and leaps on stage and dances with the club band, hypnotised
by his awakening, blood pouring from his injuries. Now this is the power of love.
Sibel's initial attempt to clean Cahit up (she transforms
the Withnail/Marwood-like disarray of his apartment and
tries to tidy his straggled hair) is on traditional ground,
the partial personality exchange that occurs later is
not. As Cahit temporarily drops out of the story, Sibel
relocates to Istanbul and reconfigures her identity, which
has effectively been wiped by her father's sense of shame.
Back on Turkish soil she is forced to subjugate her previous
lifestyle and conform again to the expectations of family
after being taken in by her sister, who is herself undergoing
a cultural mutation, eagerly embracing the greed
of Western capitalism, her apartment dominated by a large
widescreen TV that constantly plays the English Eurosport
the film's toughest sequence, Sibel hits rock-bottom in
every respect and is physically and morally transformed into the Cahit
we meet at the start of the film, a nihilistic, drugged
up and self-destructive figure who is seemingly begging for a punishment
that will serve as some sort of attrition. The transformation
is linked to the music score, with the rock tracks that follow
Cahit in the first half and help shape his identity
disappearing with him from the story in the second, only re-emerging
briefly to accompany the wasted Sibel as she dances drunkenly
in the bar in which she now works, the flattering clothing
of her wild days in Germany replaced by what almost looks
like Cahit's cast-offs.
the final act, both Cahit and Sibel have undergone life-changing
experiences, and it is to Akin's real credit that he leaves
it to us to join the dots and realise just what has transpired.
Both rediscover a sense of cultural identity, but
on very different terms and which may or may not include each other. The film ends as it began, on a group of traditional
Turkish musicians who, seated against the backdrop of
Istanbul, have functioned as both a Greek (well, Turkish)
chorus and the narrative chapter stops, reminding us in the
first half that despite its setting, this is essentially
a Turkish story rather than a German one.
a drama, Head-On is bold, exciting, compelling
and occasionally brutal; as a love story it is honest,
unsentimental and even heartbreaking; and as a study of people
caught in a cultural wasteland its is intelligent and
heartfelt. The performances, notably Birol Ünel as
Cahit, Sibel Kekilli as Sibel and Catrin Striebeck as
Maren, are consistently excellent, and the storytelling and film-making
are both first rate. If the sheer power of the film is fractionally
decreased on the smaller screen then it matters not – Head On is still one of the finest films
to hit UK cinemas and DVD players this year.
at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer provided
by independednt distributors Soda Pictures is very good,
coping equally well with scenes set in bright sunlight and
half-lit night. Detail and contrast are impressive, with
solid black levels and only minimal evidence of grain. The
film's sometimes warmly tinted colour palette is effectively
reproduced – this is how the film looked in the cinema.
is only one soundtrack on offer and that's Dolby 2.0 stereo.
Though a decent enough job in terms of clarity, this a film
that screams out for a 5.1 track, its excellent use of sourced
rock tracks and traditional Turkish music needing the subwoofer
wallop and all-around assault that 5.1 can provide. The
stereo track will do, but this would be a good time to engage
those DSP modes.
should be noted that the German DVD has the desired 5.1
track, but no English subtitles. Groan.
principal extra here is a commentary track by director Fatih Akin and his regular editor Andrew Bird.
The commentary is conducted in English and is a lively one
– Akin's English is first rate and Bird is English by birth,
and the two are obviously good friends as well colleagues.
Plenty of revealing background information is supplied on
the locations (Cahit is collecting bottles in the very club
in which Akin once did likewise), the main actors (Ünel
is drunk for real in one scene), the supporting players
(Akin's brother and a friend of his Mum play key roles),
Turkish family customs ("I hate these kind of weddings")
and the technical aspects of filming. I was genuinely astonished
to hear that the film was shot entirely hand-held, a real
testament to cinematographer Rainer Klausmann 's extraordinarily
steady hand. There is also a solid awareness of the film
work of others, including an admiration for Ken Loach and
a suspicion that Tarantino uses his movie soundtracks as
a personal juke box. A quick discussion on the fate of West
Ham at the end provides a recording date (the team have
done rather well in the past year), and I laughed out loud
at Akin's admiration for Ünel's looks: "If I would
be gay, I don't know, I would really eat him up!"
theatrical trailer (1:51)
is non-anamorphic 1.85:1, rather well put together and surprising
in its inclusion of very strong language.
we have The Evil Old Songs (5:58),
Fatih Akin's segment of the 2004 project multi-director
film project Visions of Europe (other directors
involved included Tony Gatlif, Peter Greenaway and Aki Kurismaki).
Anamorphic 1.85:1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo, the transfer is
very good, but the film itself requires some interpretation
and cultural knowledge to properly appreciate. It is intriguing
enough to make me want to see the others in the project,
trailer reel featuring promos for Untold Scandal,
Brothers and The Miracle of Bern.
structured and performed and utterly gripping from its opening
frames, Head-On is an important film not
just for German cinema but also for Turkish. As a drama
of love, loss and cultural identity it knocks most other
recent wanderings into any of these territories out of the
region 2 DVD is a largely fine affair, with a good picture
and a very enjoyable commentary track. Only the lack of
a 5.1 soundtrack irks at all, but I'll live with it. Highly
* According to director Fatih Akin on the
commentary track, Ünel was indeed something of a slave
to drink and was forced to kick the booze on medical advice
during the shoot lest it kill him.