Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a 40-year-old self-destructive drunk. To pay the bills, he picks up empties at a nearby club — often finishing the abandoned beers himself. He snorts coke when he can, he looks like a grungier version of Benicio Del Toro, and his apartment in Hamburg reaches levels of filth I never saw in four years of fraternity life. So it’s not much of a surprise when, during one bender, he totals his car by driving it into a brick wall.
As he recuperates, Cahit meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a pretty young Turk whose recent wrist-slashing has landed her in the hospital. Frustrated that her family is keeping her from enjoying sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, she’s looking for any way out of her protective bubble of a life. Her Muslim parents, in turn, seem more concerned about how the suicide attempt affects the family’s honor than they do about Sibel’s well being.
For those not gifted with intuitive skills, Head-On, a film that swept the German Oscars and is being prepared for American release, is not always a cheerful movie. Directed by Fatih Akin (yeah, the name doesn’t ring a bell for me, either, but then I’m way behind on my German cinema), Head-On is the moving story of Cahit and Sibel, both Germans with Turkish roots, who enter a marriage of convenience so Sibel can get drunk and date others away from the watchful eyes of her parents. Eventually, their own love story develops, but not before the repercussions of Sibel’s free-spirited ways and Cahit’s proclivity for drunken violence land Cahit in jail. Disowned by her family — apparently, whoring around town when you’re married is another cause of familial dishonor — Sibel moves to Istanbul, promising to wait for Cahit.
But the movie is more than the story of two characters; Akin also delves into the clash between Muslim and Christian cultures. Head-On shows us three generations of Turks in Germany and, genuinely enough, gives us no solution to the problems that arise at this difficult intersection. At every possible clash of themes — social freedom versus strict religion, a woman’s career versus her marriage, love versus impatience, love versus jealousy, love versus responsibility — Akin consistently dodges happy compromise and gives us gritty reality. And here’s a hint: love, which is up against a lot, doesn’t always win.
Deep cultural commentary aside, Head-On is at its best when the focus is its two stars. Akin deftly explores how love can help two people too self-destructive to survive without each other, and the result is both sad and beautiful. Ünel, who wears a lifetime’s worth of sorrow on his rugged face, and newcomer Kekilli each turn in powerful performances that range from dark to joyous. Their chemistry and the slow development of love in their characters are so engrossing that the film stumbles when prison and international borders separate them. By the time Cahit is finally released back into society, it may be too late to resurrect his once-budding relationship with Sibel. Likewise, it may be too late to make this very good movie great.