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Wild, raw, and full of drama

Still image from "Head-on", directed by Fatih Akin, 2003
After years Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) and Cahit (Birol Ünel) meet in Istanbul | Photo (detail): Kerstin Stelter © WÜSTE Film

You may love or hate this movie, but there is hardly room for anything in between. Fatih Akin’s romantic drama is a brutally honest portrayal of the cultural rift that divides two German Turks.

By Julia Deshkin

Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) and Cahit (Birol Ünel) meet in a psychiatric clinic following failed suicide attempts. He, an embittered alcoholic for whom life no longer has any meaning, gets into his car one night and drives at full speed into a wall. She has slashed her wrists in despair because her Turkish family does not allow her to live the life that she wants. Sibel talks Cahit into marrying her for show so that her family will stop hassling her and finally let her off the leash. But when the pair begin to fall in love despite their best intentions, the plot takes a new turn with dramatic consequences.

Head-on sparked a great deal of discussion in Germany in 2004 – on a number of different levels. The coarse language and unadulterated violence and sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination are one thing. The other far more delicate issue is the fact that the director Fatih Akin gives a brutally honest portrayal of the cultural rift that divides German Turks in this award-winning movie. And this is something that had not been done before in the German film world, or not in this form, at least. But what sort of cultural rift, exactly? Even the dialogs between the actors themselves are a mixture of German and Turkish. The protagonists switch as a matter of course between two languages, cultures, indeed worlds, which blend into one despite being so very different. Much like the lives of the two lead actors, who could hardly be more different in spite of their shared origins.

Two worlds, one story

Sibel and Cahit, the children of Turkish guest workers, grew up in a fairly open, cosmopolitan society in Germany. Whereas Cahit has nothing more to do with his Turkish roots, Sibel was brought up in the traditional Turkish manner. While she respects her family, her thirst for freedom and self-determination is so great that she is ready to do almost anything. Although her father would have liked a better match for his daughter, Cahit is at least a Turk, so he agrees to the marriage. The life for which Sibel has yearned for so long can finally begin: she has her navel pierced, goes out dancing all night, and sleeps with any man she chooses. Cahit, who lives from one day to the next and has never bothered about anything or anyone, finds Sibel’s lust for life contagious – albeit subconsciously – and falls in love with her.

Consequences of the Film

When their sham marriage comes to light as a result of a tragic accident, Sibel is forced to flee. Her brother, who once broke her nose simply because she held hands with a boy, chases her down the street, incensed with rage. Through her now public affairs, she has soiled the family’s honor, which is taken very seriously in traditional Turkish families – Sibel realizes that her father has disowned her and that there is no way back for her now.

The actress who plays Sibel is herself the daughter of Turkish immigrants. With a population of around 1.48 million people, Turks are the largest group of migrants in Germany. In later interviews, she admitted that she had been reviled for her role in Head-on, mainly by her fellow countrymen, and had even been threatened.

Fatih Akin once explained that he had attempted to portray three perspectives when writing Head-on: the German, the German-Turkish, and the Turkish. Perhaps the secret to this movie’s success is precisely this wide range of viewpoints that touches all viewers emotionally in some way or another. At the Berlinale 2004, one of the leading film festivals alongside Cannes and Venice, Head-on was awarded the Golden Bear. At the time, it was the first German movie to win this award in 18 years.


Julia Deshkin © Julia Deshkin Julia Deshkin has worked as an Editor for various daily newspapers in Germany. Her interest in non-mainstream movies was sparked by her journalistic work for the environmental initiative “Films for the Earth”.