Onscreen / Offscreen:
For anyone interested in film, procuring a list of discussion points for Fatih Akin's critically acclaimed movies is an easy task. His diverse features are so rich with regards to cinematography that the possibilities for discourse are seemingly endless. It is important, however, to note that in order to provide a complete understanding of his works, their diverse aspects must be examined in relation to each other. Discrete considerations of cultural-political or film-historical aspects can only provide an incomplete view. As such, it is intriguing how Akin's light-hearted Road Movie Im Juli (2002) must have attracted viewers for markedly different reasons than those which guided audiences toward the Quentin Tarantino-like brutality displayed in Kurz und schmerzlos (1999). At first glance, the films' differences appear to be much more notable than their possible connections. This fact is accentuated by the glaring contrasts created by the captivating cinematic landscape of southeastern Europe traversed in the former, and the cold, static cityscape of the ganglands of Hamburg-Altona in the latter.
In spite of these visual and thematic differences, most
of Akin's productions, including these two films, are often considered
to be interconnected by a series of commonalities which include Turkish-German
friction, towering communication barriers, and many facets of physical
and psychological migration. As argued in this essay, despite these
obvious ties, most of Akin's films, and the filmmaker himself, often
remain intentionally at odds with the very expectations created by sympathetic
viewers and critics in regard to style, content, and meaning of his films.
In this context, what one British critic observed about the film Gegen
die Wand (2004, English title: Head-On) evolves virtually
into a character description of Akin whom one should always expect to
pungent performances and rug-pulling narrative twists." It is
Akin's cinematic and personal stance, that is at odds with the artistic
and political postures that the director is supposed to be taking up
(or perhaps better stated, postures which some would like to see Akin
accept), which will be examined, namely, a position as one of the leading
young German filmmakers with the taxing dual emphasis on German
and on the demanding designation 'auteur.'
Akin's international success, Head-On, highlights some of the
before mentioned thematic tensions (communication; social friction; migration;
etc.), as well as his frazzled relationship with the German filmmaking
tradition. With twenty-three national and international film awards so
far to its credit including the top prize at the 54th Berlinale in
2004 -- the first for a German feature since Reinhard Hauff's 1986 film
Stammheim) -- Head-On clearly illustrates on two levels
the tense position of both film and director within German Cinema. By
focusing on the filmic and parafilmic impact of Head-On,
the following discussion reveals how Akin's film relates artistically
to assertions within and about German film. This essay considers
the separate 'drama' created by the film offscreen,
while also addressing the central question of the film's handling or
avoidance of identity formation, cultural hybridity, and the enduring
myth of essentializing national cultures. Because of the centrality of
parafilmic elements for a film like Head-On, which include,
but are not restricted to, a heated reception and frenzied discussions
about the film's production, cast, and even choice of language, this
dual focus provides several preliminary insights about the past, present,
and future of film and identity politics in Germany.
Perhaps more than for any other recent film -- if one excludes forgettable
productions such as Dani Levy's failed satire Mein Führer (2007)
-- careful attention to the prereception context for Head-On and for the
filmmaker becomes a prerequisite for approaching the film itself. The
dynamics before the March 2004 release underscore the powerful influence
of viewers' assumed a priori understanding on subsequent interpretations
and categorizations of film and director. Although the focus at scholarly
symposia on award-winning German films might suggest that critics have
recently encountered a more varied cinematic selection that would once
again allow them to discuss German Cinema as Filmkunst, the fact remains
that the large majority of recent productions continues to exhibit an
all too familiar feel. Surely there are noteworthy exceptions to the
rule -- and distinguished scholars like Eric Rentschler include Akin as
such -- but most would agree that the bulk of recent German film is
characterized by trivial, entertainment-driven, Hollywood-inspired plots
and content, the use of unimaginative cinematic language, and -- to
many critics, most significantly -- a seeming absence of politically and
socially discerning ideas that scholars and moviegoers once used to associate
so readily with the New German Cinema.
In fact, colleagues from language departments may think back, for example, to some point during an academic year, when a student-run German Club tried to cater to a (hopefully) larger audience for one of their bi-weekly film screenings with a less distinguished movie. This selection may have been a television-series spin off such as Der Schuh des Manitu (2001), or one of the many sexual comedies like Liebe deine Nächste (1998). Naysayers truly cannot be blamed for their strident discontent with this so-called "German Cinema of Consensus." No one would argue the fact that the last two-and-a-half decades of German film can and should be viewed to some extent in light of the obvious manipulative "marketing ploys" that motivated their production. Yet, a film's popularity or its ability to simply entertain the masses does not necessarily result in its complete depolitization. Nor would such factors automatically turn a film or genre into the antithesis to the New German Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, and others. Even if Akin's Head-On is to some degree a victim of today's marketing schemes, it nevertheless suggests that there may very well be a new New German Cinema, with a sustained emphasis on 'new' and on 'German.'
Akin's contributions to the "liberating pleasures of cinema" differ from other popular filmmakers, including Christian Petzold and Tom Tykwer to whom Akin has occasionally compared himself. Akin remains intently focused on telling and selling stories while challenging his audiences. While some view this as a contradiction, Akin regards this duality as a product of his stated preference for realist or neo-realist cinema. From its opening sequence, the film Head-On, like its filmmaker, resists being reduced to easy cinematographic or topical categorizations. With the first two tense sequences, Akin manages to establish visual as well as diegetic and non-diegetic wedges that rip viewers out of their comfort zone. Only five minutes have elapsed when the movie's tragic lover, Cahit, tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide by driving at full speed head-on against a wall. By that point, much has already been established about the apparent protagonist loser and the narrative: something deeply violent, yet equally melancholic literally drives this down-and-out man in his drunken rage to utter desperation. Preceding his crash, Cahit first crudely turns down the advances of his on-and-off lover, Maren, before physically assaulting a bar guest who verbally attacks him with an array of provocations. As a result Cahit finds himself (again literally) kicked out of the bar. This time the physical act is coupled with the ambivalent verbal suggestion to "Go home." The subsequent race toward Cahit's attempted suicide visually sends the viewer careening through the tight city streets of Hamburg as the blaring sounds of Depeche Mode's droning "I feel you" add their own aural assault.
Such hectic scenes, full of jump cuts and changing camera angles, are
tightly connected to the much slower pace of the subsequent sequence
in which Cahit meets Sibel. In this initially more peaceful moment, Sibel
asks Cahit to marry her as a means of escaping a traditional Turkish
family situation. A few short scenes after his refusal, she attempts
her own dramatic suicide by slitting her wrist with a broken beer bottle.
Although the repetition of the attempted suicide obviously connects both
sequences, the formation of a coherent unit is established above all
by a frame which Akin himself sees as a contrasting "Brechtian element."
A seven piece Turkish folk band performing traditional Gypsy-songs along
the Bosporus in Istanbul serve as a framing device which ruptures what
would otherwise appear to audiences as a familiar contemporary German
narrative of anxiety and frustration culminating in suicide. The intensity
of both sequences is now even more powerful, as the initial pop-Multikulti constellation -- bum meets pretty girl who hopes to have found an escape
from the inflexibility of her traditional family -- is retrospectively
exposed as being anything but that predictable. The unexpected musical
interludes, which help to defamiliarize the all too common tale, occur
six more times throughout the film. They provide not only a visual bridge
between the 'acts' of a Romeo and Juliet-tragedy of sorts,
but also a simple narrative commentary through the presence of Turkish
folksong text imagery. Notwithstanding the significance of these transitional
interludes, they are not sole factors in contributing to the complexities
facing the filmic narrative and viewer expectations.
It is critical that Head-On rarely satisfies viewer expectations.
In contrast to Akin's previous multicultural Road Movie in which Istanbul
is the blissful end of a trans-European journey for two searching lovers,
Cahit and Sibel's quest for love and happiness remains open past the
filmic conclusion. Head-On intentionally dissatisfies those
viewers who gain pleasure from the resolutions found in other Turkish-German
films. Building instead on the false expectations produced by the
relationship between Cahit and Sibel, the budding love affair fails for
more complex reasons than just an overabundance of sexual infidelity,
drugs, and extreme violence. Cahit, born in Turkey, finds himself immersed
in Hamburg's Punk subculture to such a degree that he struggles to master
the most basic niceties of his mother-tongue in conversations with Sibel's
relatives. Apparently, he has taken his immersion into German life to
the extreme. In an act of self-hatred and denial, Cahit exhibits the
rampant callousness of many other Germans by simply denigrating other
Turks as Kanaken. It takes Sibel's outspokenness to eventually raise
Cahit's awareness of his repressed sense of self as she forces him to
rethink this xenophobic posture. Her words (Wieso, bist doch selber
einer!) lead him to pause
and examine Sibel (and himself) even more carefully. It is thus a mix
of two opposites that brings Cahit ever closer to Sibel. On the one hand,
he is attracted to the enticing sexual freedom that Sibel personifies.
Paradoxically, Cahit is equally drawn to her exaggerated 'performances'
of Turkish traditionalism which are seen at the wedding, in their household,
and even in Turkish discos which symbolize his departure from the epicenter
of northern German alternative music, Die Fabrik. It is the
combination of these two elements, along with her spousal promise to
be there for him that make Sibel even more alluring.
The appeal of Sibel's seemingly traditional Turkish values is again intended
to defy all viewer expectations. Unlike Cahit, she was born and raised
in Hamburg and tries everything possible to escape her parents' tradition-bound
middle-class Turkish domesticity. Although Sibel decorously shelters
her parents from her wild nightlife adventures, it is curious that she
replicates in her phony marriage to Cahit the very structures from which
she is fleeing. In Cahit she seeks a man who is Turkish by name only,
hoping that she can finally express the resistance that has built up
within her against everything traditional, not just against Turkish,
social conventions: "Ich will leben, ich will tanzen, ich will ficken!
Und nicht nur mit einem Mann!" Yet, as her double-life commences (the
good Turkish bride by day, the uninhibited hedonist by night), Sibel
cannot escape her true preference; she screams at Nikko, one of her one-night-stands,
that she is a married Turkish woman whose husband will kill her lover
-- an ominous prediction whose roots can be traced to deep-seeded traditional
Are Sibel's actions then merely part of a self-destructive performance? Or are they perhaps an expression of her true desires? Whatever viewers may ultimately conclude, it is important to remember that Sibel's destructive behavior is only a part of a chiastic movement structure that places Cahit on the opposite end of Sibel's origin and destination. From the beginning, their desires, movements and actions leave them too far distanced to achieve any kind of third space between the two cultures that they must navigate. For all intents and purposes, there really cannot be a true sense of cultural hybridity in this movie -- at least with regard to the two main characters. In Sibel's brother, Yilmaz, or in the Bavarian-Turkish taxi driver in Istanbul, one catches a glimpse of some alternative resolutions in which the two worlds are seemingly accommodated or combined. Several characters, at least, have found or created a fragile third space for themselves. However, in spite of what critics suggest idealistically for Head-On, for Sibel and Cahit, Homi Bhabha's post-colonial Third Space exists merely as theory. In their lives, there is merely room for unresolved discursive tension within liminal space. No negotiation between either this One or the Other, be it Germany or Turkey, traditionalism or unconventional freedoms can be accomplished successfully. Therefore, the resulting constancy of motion must not be misread as some sense of hybrid identity formation in which new situations or new alliances arise through the process of translating one set of cultural principles through the necessary rethinking and extension of these principles into another. In Head-On, there is no "fluid adaptation" as Zeynep Kiliç terms it.
Instead, Sibel and Cahit's diametrically opposed paths collide in one
tragic moment. Their chiastic movements symbolically and physically cross
paths when Cahit fulfills his role as the 'conservative' Turkish husband
and kills Nikko. Sibel's earlier threat to her lover -- and her desire
for a 'traditional' husband to fend for her honor -- has been realized.
The reality of the situation following the murder -- Cahit's imprisonment
and Sibel's dishonoring of her family -- now merely continues to force
the two lovers' paths apart for good, as do the individual choices they
make. No resolution or long-term amalgamation can be established. Akins
resists, as Deniz Göktürk warns quite correctly, "well-meaning
projects encouraging multi-culturalism, that often result in the construction
of binary opposition between 'Turkish culture' and 'German culture.'"
The idea of postmigrant happiness thus intentionally remains a fantasy,
and a German mainstream fantasy at that, as some cynics would argue.
Still, the possibility for a positive outcome lingers as Sibel hesitantly
tries to rebuild her life in Turkey, working in a traditionally acceptable
role of a hotel maid. Yet, Akin once again only flirts with popular viewer
expectations as Sibel cannot (or perhaps intentionally fails to) negotiate
between both worlds. In the end, she abandons any hope of finding a solution,
and in a drug induced state she provokes a group of young men in Istanbul
essentially to viciously attack her -- this time, she has others symbolically
and nearly literally kill her old self. Even after Cahit arrives, anticipating
a traditional life, if not with entirely uncritical expectations for
a new life in his Turkish birthplace, Sibel remains a stranger in Istanbul -- a stranger because of her non-traditional household with boyfriend and
Additional moments in Head-On further highlight attempted but
failed negotiations between national cultures and traditions. Notable
verbal exchanges (for example, when Sibel's brother criticizes Cahit's
wretched Turkish skills, who in response provocatively notes that he "threw
them away") and highly visual cues situated both in Hamburg and
in Istanbul, such as Turkish supermarket products or post-coital backgammon
games, all come together to expose how viewers' and critics' obsessions
with resolutions are merely superimposed onto Akin and his film. Parafilmic debates
then reiterate how a demand for politically correct alternatives to Either/Or
resolutions of national identity has merely caused viewers and critics
to project the ideas of hybridity or duality onto film and filmmaker.
What once had provoked and shocked German audiences -- when the New German
Cinema with Fassbinder's
Katzelmacher (1969) and Angst essen Seele auf (1974)
depicted Germany as a country uninhabitable for foreigners and outsiders
-- over time became commercialized and was twisted into an appealing
and hopeful way of looking at lives in-between cultures. Pessimistic
depictions of the inner city Ghettos of Berlin and elsewhere throughout
the 1980s and early 1990s now became pleasant multicultural solutions,
despite tensions between winners and losers, insiders and outsiders.
By talking about the dilemmas of migration, xenophobia, and
identity, films successfully turned their problem into our problem,
but not necessarily in a negative sense. In this process one positive
idea outweighed everything else as they (the Other) became a
part of us. Contents that had originally
concentrated on problems caused by our (that is Germans') hostility
others in Germany had now been conveniently reappropriated,
albeit by never actually dealing with any of the conflicts that were
portrayed. The third generation of filmmakers like Thomas Arslan, Ayse
Pollat, and Akin -- inspired considerably by the French cinéma
beure and Mathieu
-- now found their once dissident tales about foreigners more frequently
misread as harbingers of hope. Suddenly, their films were simply viewed
as celebrated chronicles of a multicultural German society. This was
a change that was welcomed by a German mainstream and subsequently incorporated
as 'German' in comedy shows and musical acts.
It is in this artificially created mainstream position where one has to situate, at least to some extent, the initial public discussion of Akin and Head-On, particularly surrounding the frenzy of the 2004 Berlinale. Popular expectations had built up tremendously with Akin's three earlier films, and now more than just those who handed out awards at film festivals were interested in his newest work. Im Juli had noticeably catered to a larger German audience -- if not quite with the success of Tykwer's Lola rennt (1998) -- and it was partly because of its success that expectations were great for Head-On. When the movie departed from the path established by Im Juli and Solino (2002), discussions surrounding Head-On shifted, concentrating on portions of the film that did fit the pattern. The more intense debates about the film, however, focused on aspects other than the film itself and eventually took over much of the discourse. Akin's newest Immigrantendrama, as it had been proclaimed by some, had developed a life of its own and the finer filmic nuances that departed from predictable, harmonizing patterns were simply overshadowed by different offscreen spectacles. Television entertainment shows on private channels such as SAT1 and RTL picked up on the almighty BILD-Zeitung's thinly veiled campaign of negativity, harping on the 'discovery' of lead actress Sibel Kekilli's previous film credits in the porno industry. It was in the end the yellow press itself that set out to salvage Akin's film for the broadest possible audience, of course as would be expected, with further insult. For the popular media focused on what it regarded as wonderful 'German' attributes about the film and the filmmaker, while concurrently and shamefully highlighting a number of stereotypical racial and physiognomic differences. In the end, even reviews that voiced some outrage about these low brow media reports only further sensationalized Kekilli's adult film past, thereby revealing the dubious nature of this particular parafilmic debate.
As the recent wave of political hoopla about Horst Seehofer's infidelity or Gabriele Pauli's S&M photo shoot in the magazine Park Avenue suggests, if a self-declared moral elite cannot be safe from sexploitation by the media, the popular film medium never will be. Although sex sells, it is still surprising that other intriguing pre- and post-production issues almost entirely disappeared from the popular radar screen. This is particularly interesting as these less frequently discussed points are ultimately surprisingly close to the narrative tension on which Head-On is founded. For example, the explicit, at times bone chilling dialogues between Cahit and Sibel, which some had praised for adding to the film's realist mood, were toned down for the Turkish version which premiered at the same time as the version for the German market. Given the presence of an anti-traditionalist thread in Head-On, alongside the ongoing criticism of western Europe against Turkey's desire for membership in the European Union, this kind of hidden (self-)censorship deserved broader attention. It remains most notable that when all was said and done the mainstream media (and the yellow press once again was a part of this) eagerly proclaimed the film's wide appeal and awards -- comparable to a great soccer victory by the national team -- as a triumph for Germany. That the Turkish press simultaneously celebrated the success of their 'very own' national filmmaker illustrated even more clearly what may be cause for alarm for essentialist thinkers.
Akin's subsequent reflections, in a wide range of interviews and in publications accompanying the film, only further complicate this matter of national belonging. But it would be proper to assume, given the frankness yet ambiguity of his film, not without intent. In describing his own film as "ein deutscher Film mit einer türkischen Seele," Akin seems on the verge of adopting a popular mantra espoused by many politicians and journalists who would like to see the two worlds of 'German' and 'Turkish' come together as close as possible, if only, in a best case scenario, in harmonious parallel structures. As one might expect, however, Akin's own heart and soul duality -- that some rightly interpret as supporting the idea that at the very least his filmmaking is located within a hybrid third space -- has been challenged on other occasions by the filmmaker himself. Some of these challenges even directly relate to the plot of Head-On. In one instance, in March 2004, shortly after the Berlinale frenzy, Akin revealed the following to Rüdiger Suchsland in the magazine artechock:
As Akin suggests regarding the demand to dramatize the situation of Turks in Germany, when expectations created by audiences or stagnant film practices become a demand for and by the German Cinema -- culturally motivated or not -- the essential integrity of filmmaking is challenged. Akin's commentary is revealing as it shows moreover that the filmmaker's sense of self appears openly challenged by such expectations as his artistic aptitude is seen as being entirely dependent upon his national identity.
Therefore, for viewers and critics to seek out, in Akin's biography or in a film like Head-On, some sort of miraculous resolution between multiple national affiliations is simply a reflection of their detachment from the reality that is fictionalized on film. In the end, one can conclude that the contemporary postmigrant reality, shared by Germans and others in a growing Europe characterized by porous borders and changing principles, leaves little room for those that do not already possess a sense of home. It matters that Akin's protagonist, Cahit, literally and figuratively continues down the road to nowhere upon his 'return' to Turkey, whereas Sibel's new family life 'returns' her to a place from which she has always tried to run away. As vague as this may seem, such openendedness is precisely what helps constitute Akin's realism; his is a realism that carries out the principle of a freies Darüberstehen -- to make use of Theodor Fontane's ambiguous dictum -- full of unresolved tensions, open twists and turns, and contradictions. Only with the willingness to acknowledge such a reality are viewers ultimately able to conclude that Akin and his protagonists intentionally remain lost in their search for a sense of belonging. Because Head-On purposely resists the cinematic trends of a "German Cinema of Consensus" with its lamentable preference for easy solutions, Akin's filmic collision at last signals the arrival of a new New German Cinema.
Akin sees his entire oeuvre as an ongoing search for solutions, a process which is never complete but rather constantly in motion and thus the key to his cinematic vision: "Ich denke, die Konstante ist die: Alle meine Figuren sind auf der Suche. Auf der Suche nach einem besseren Leben. Aber mit Ausnahme von Solino scheitern alle. Oder es bleibt offen, ob sie das bessere Leben finden. Und im Ursprungsland suchen sie Erlösung. Aber die Erlösung finden sie nicht." Ironically, critics' laments about the demise of the New German Cinema with its emphasis on "questions of identity and collective memory...as a continuing source of tension and disquiet" help to define Akin's own tense filmmaking. The politics of Akin's works may be completely unlike those of Fassbinder, Herzog and others, but this difference is ultimately something positive. The absence of answers to many crucial questions raised in his films does not make them any less political, but rather a true reflection of our present day reality.
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Gegen die Wand. Germany 2004. Director: Fatih Akin. Screenplay: Fatih Akin. Cast: Birol Ünel (Cahit Tomruk), Sibel Kekilli (Sibel), Catrin Striebeck (Maren), Meltem Cumbul (Selma Güner), Güven Kiraç (Seref), Cem Akin (Yilmaz Güner). Producers: Ralph Schwingel, Stefan Schubert. Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann. Editor: Andrew Bird. Original Music: Alexander Hacke, Maceo Parker. Production Company: Wüste Filmproduktion, co-produced by NDR/arte, Corazón International. English Title: Head-On. Run Time: 121 min.