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Gegen die Wand (Head-On)

(2005) *** Unrated
118 min. Strand Releasing. Director: Fatih Akin. Cast: Birol Unel, Sibel Kekilli, Catrin Striebeck, Guven Kirac, Meltem Cumbul.

Fatih Akin's Head-On took Germany by storm, winning the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear, sweeping the German equivalent of the Oscars, and taking the 2004 European Film Award. But does it—translate? Well, let's just say Head-On is not one for the romantic comedy crowd.

This twisted, rough-hewn mad-love story traces the trying relationship of two young Turks eking out a living in Germany. Cahit's a widower who cleans up a punk club for his drinking money. Sibel lives under the thumb of her traditional Turkish parents, who won't let her out of the house without a husband. When Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) meets Cahit (a droll Birol Ünel) in a psyche ward, she sees an opportunity for a marriage of convenience. Cahit reluctantly agrees to clean up nice and fleece Sibel's parents.

At first, Sibel sees her wedding as buying her social and sexual liberation (free as a bird, she walks home happily from a non-nuptial tryst on her wedding night). Cahit sees the marriage as a bearable irritant. Soon, their arrangement leads to mutual jealousies, love, and yet darker developments. G├╝ven Kiraç makes good as Cahit's buddy Seref, who finds himself repeatedly caught up in Sibel's plans.

Both leads are extraordinary in their committed performances. The gifted Kekilli is, shockingly, an amateur. In one scene, Sibel's face subtly dims when her sister tells her, "You only have to believe in yourself." In another, Sibel watches weightlifter Sibel Simsek and quietly urges, "Come on, Sibel." For his part, Ünel convincingly growls, "You can't make a prince out of a peasant" and flips out over his phony lover ("She's bewitched me!").

These most penetrating of moments unfortunately break out into melodrama instead of settling into devastating truth, and the cultural metaphors overreach, but certainly there's room in cinemas for this kind of grim fairy tale. To acclimate the audience to his artificiality, Akin opens the film with a burst of music performed by a red-dressed woman and six tuxedoed musicians on the banks of the Bosporus; cutaways to their songs periodically chase the hard-liquor shots of plot.

Head-On is not for the faint of heart, with its depressive magnetism to bloody violence (broken bottles serve as a motif); as the bard said, the course of true love never did run smooth. Head-On is distinguished by dry humor, frightful desperation, and an uncompromising approach to reckless emotion. A psychiatrist needles Cahit with a The The lyric—"If you can't change the world, change your world"—indeed, letting love in transforms private worlds with a terrible, primal, chaotic power.

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