HEAD-ON
Written andd irected by Fatih Akin
Strand Releasing
Opens Jan. 21 at the Angelika

***
The  German cinema boom of the ‘70s was made by men who distrusted their parents’ generation and turned to the U.S. and France for movies and music they could wholeheartedly embrace. The few recent German films that have made a mark in American arthouses - like Tom Tykwer’s RUN LOLA RUN and Wolfgang Becker’s GOODBYE, LENIN! - have either avoided politics or dealt with them superficially. Wim Wenders’ existential soul searching and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s commitment to capturing 20th-century German history  lies  far behind them. HEAD-ON, made by a German-born director of Turkish decent, suggests something new in the nation’s cinema. Without avoiding social issues,  it’s not haunted by the twin ghosts of fascism and communism. Unlike some French films about minorities, it doesn’t turn to American directors like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese for inspiration. Akin’s sensibility feels thoroughly original, mixing observational naturalism with outbursts of melodrama, violence and music.

Cahit (Birol Unel) works at a nightclub,  picking up empty bottles at closing time. An alcoholic, he attempts suicide one night by crashing his car. Waking up  in a psychiatric clinic, he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli). More than twenty years younger than him, she faked suicide out of desperation to escape her strict family. They insist that she spare them the “shame” of a suicidal daughter by getting married. She proposes to Cahit, who reluctantly says yes. The two are merely roommates at first. They don’t have sex; indeed, both continue to sleep with other people. However, they gradually fall in love. Their relationship is ruined when Cahit attacks a man in a jealous rage. He’s sent to jail, and she heads to Istanbul.

Both fascinating characters, Cahit and Sibel  make an odd, yet complementary, couple.  Cahit could have stepped out of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s glum, minimalist comedies. With long hair,  a scruffy beard and a taste for loud rock music, he resembles a Jim Morrison who survived into middle age without cleaning up his act.  By contrast, Sibel is outgoing and vivacious. Her impulsive nature is both a positive and negative quality. She can be a lot of fun to hang around with, but she’s also capable of casually slitting her wrist to make a point. Their one shared quality is a self-destructive streak.

The Turkish-German community generally responded positively to HEAD-ON, but  viewers expecting a flattering series of “positive images”  would have been sorely disappointed. Family is a source of oppression, not a refuge from racism. Our few glimpses of Sibel’s home life make it look horribly stifling. When Cahit socializes with her male relatives, they brag about picking up women in nightclubs and then grow furious because he uses profanity while asking if they have sex with their wives. Even Sibel’s independent cousin, an Istanbul hotel manager, turns out to be less benevolent than she initially appears.

HEAD-ON is not exactly nihilistic, but it exudes an overwhelming air of alienation. Being Turkish-German, it suggests, equals a restless rootlessness. Cahit suffers from a fair amount of self-hatred over his Turkishness. At times, the film seems to share it, although it eventually offers a more measured perspective. When Sibel goes to Istanbul, the city’s both alluring and baffling. This section, which descends into hyperbolic miserabilism, is the weakest and least convincing part of HEAD-ON . However, Sibel and Cahit finally do come to terms with their Turkish heritage.

HEAD-ON opens, closes and periodically returns with musical numbers performed on a Turkish riverside by a singer Idil Uner her group of musicians. Frankly, these pointless scenes add little to the narrative. Generally, Akin’s use of music, drawing heavily on ‘80s Goth rock, is more effective. Perhaps inspired by music videos, he lets several scenes play out without dialogue, relying on songs to carry the mood. When Sibel visits a carnival by herself, she’s serenaded by an R & B number. A Turkish band plays while Cahit smashes bottles on a bar, cuts himself and becomes so moved that he gets onstage to dance with them. These lyrical interludes help keep HEAD-ON from feeling completely grim.

With less care, HEAD-ON could have turned into a banal, blunt melodrama. (It features more suicide attempts than any other film I’ve seen.) Fortunately, Akin knows when to embrace excess and when to back off. Critic Stuart Klawans has accused HEAD-ON of pandering to European audiences’ “need for loss and misery,” yet the ending suggests a cautious optimism. Love doesn’t last, one may not feel at home anywhere, but the characters’ attempts to live an unalienated existence continue. Their  journey is well worth following.