Some films leave an immediate imprint upon the minds of viewers, while others sow seeds of interest that gently blossom into a deeper appreciation. In his fifth feature, Turkish-German director Fatih Akin crafted a powerful and provocative film that achieves the rare feat of instigating both short- and long-term impressions. With Head-On (Gegen die Wand, literally translated as “against the wall”), Akin caused an instant shock like a slap in the face, and made a lasting mark akin to the reddened remnants of the accompanying hand print.
Exploring love, loyalty, desire, despair, identity and intimacy, Head-On paints a portrait of two second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany on parallel journeys of discovery. Although hailing from different generations and plagued by disparate problems, self-destructive Cahit (Birol Ünel) and stifled Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) share more in common than their cultural heritage, and a fortuitous meeting in a psychiatric clinic sparks a unique bond. Cahit is initially dismissive of Sibel's attentions, but she perseveres with a proposal to free her from the conservative clutches of her family. Over time, their relationship evolves from pretence and convenience to romance and salvation, with their choices driving both into unexpected territory.
Raw, refreshing, raucous and riveting in both form and execution, Head-On provides a sensory experience designed to elicit a visceral reaction. The eclectic soundtrack ranges from thematically relevant musical interludes between the five distinct chapters of the feature, to the mirrored symbolism of Depeche Mode's 'I Feel You' at pivotal points in the narrative. Akin calculates every element to engage the audience: from the intricate framing, to the undercurrent of black humour, and the frenetic yet naturalistic performances of veteran Ünel and newcomer Kekilli,. The outcome is an electrifying emotional awakening.
Upon first viewing Head-On at the 2004 Brisbane International Film Festival (mere months after its Golden Bear triumph in Berlin), I was struck by the gritty and grounded film in the aforementioned fashion. Indeed, the profound and perceptive nature of Akin's feature rendered me speechless afterwards, with time needed to process the energy and passion of his masterful creation. As I ruminated over the film, I was unable to shake the feeling that I had witnessed a work that transcended not only convention but expectation as well. That I almost missed it courtesy of festival fatigue still haunts me, with my general cinematic appreciation certain to be altered without the film's enduring influence.
Like life itself, Head-On presents a juxtaposition of hopelessness and optimism, as mediated by continual change. Uncertainty is a constant presence, with every occurrence ephemeral other than the permanent shadow of death. It is for this reason that the film lingers in my mind, for it not only captures the transience of the protagonists, but the fleetingness of human existence. As the musical accompaniment indicates, everything that comes to pass will pass again one day – a personal yet universal message that Akin conveys with heartrending immediacy and uncompromising resonance.
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