It's been more than 30 years since Rainer Werner Fassbinder spat on Germany's mistreatment of its immigrants with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a bleak tale of the hatred attracted by an improbable love affair between a young Arab guest worker and a cleaning lady in her 60s. To judge by Head-On, a forceful, similarly over-the-top melodrama written and directed by the young Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, the news is no better for the next generation of Muslim youth, caught between their traditional immigrant parents' desperate refusal to give an inch to acculturation on the one hand, and a still-hostile white society on the other.
Cahit (Birol Ünel), a 40ish Turkish immigrant whose mad eyes and explosive temper reflect his grief for a dead wife, lives out his dreary days in menial labor, sodden barroom brawls and uncommitted sex with an on-again, off-again girlfriend. After driving his car into a wall, he ends up in a psychiatric clinic for would-be suicides, where he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a wild young beauty with almond eyes and an elegantly flared nose who chafes under her immigrant parents' incessant surveillance. Seeking a way out from under their iron discipline, Sibel proposes a marriage of convenience, and for reasons he doesn't entirely comprehend, Cahit reluctantly agrees. Watched balefully by Sibel's suspicious family, the couple settle into their apartment and their separate lives, with Sibel striking out into drugs and promiscuous sex, and Cahit drifting along as before. Inevitably, they fall in love, but the past seems to prove too much for both of them. After a disastrous fight with one of Sibel's lovers, Cahit lands in prison while she flees to Istanbul to find work and wait for his release.
Clearly inspired by the Sirkian obsession with self-destruction that informs Fassbinder's mesmerizing Ali – in both films, the death wish is paramount – Akin doesn't yet have Fassbinder's control, or his gift for black comedy. At times, Head-On is so unremittingly excitable, so pumped with catastrophe that I felt like sending the entire cast to their rooms for a time-out. But in its breathlessly claustrophobic way the movie is vital and passionate, and lit with a lyric beauty that washes over love scenes and violent acts alike. Framed by songs of doomed love from a band of traditional Turk musicians playing at the edge of the Bosporus, with the lovely minarets of Istanbul visible in the distance, the movie achieves a Romeo-and-Juliet romanticism that's hard to resist.
Like so many of the personal movies made by or about first-generation immigrants in recent years – Srinivas Krishna's 1991 Bollywood-style comedy of Canadian-Indian manners, Masala; Gurinder Chadha's 1993 Bhaji on the Beach; Mathieu Kassovitz's coruscating 1995 Hate; Coline Serreau's Chaos (2001), about a woman on the run from an arranged marriage – Head-On is as much, if not more preoccupied with intergenerational conflicts within the immigrant community as it is with prejudice from without. As with his characters, Akin's first language is German, and the movie's pell-mell rush of love and hate reflects his ambivalent relationship with a Turkish culture that's both familiar and alien to him. Some of the movie's loveliest and most brutal scenes take place in an Istanbul that is at once urbane and sophisticated, yet mired in a dark age of contempt for and violence against women. Akin makes no secret of his rage about the hypocrisy of Muslim men, who idealize their wives even as they brag about running off to the brothels. There's a hint at an honor killing, and in one of those unholy instances of life taking after art, when the release of Head-On sparked leaks from zealous German tabloids that Sibel Kekilli had acted in porn movies prior to being discovered by the director in a Cologne shopping mall, her immigrant family burned photos of her – just as Sibel's family does in the movie. Head-On has been crowned with laurels in Germany, including a Golden Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival and five German Oscars. I hope it doesn't also earn its creator a fatwa.
HEAD-ON | Written and directed by FATIH AKIN Produced by RALPH SCHWINGEL and STEFAN SCHUBERT | Released by Strand Releasing | At the Royal