Head On (Gegen die Wand), winner of the top prize "Golden Bear" at the 2004 Berlin Festival, is occasionally interrupted by a panoramic shot of a singer performing in front of a small Turkish orchestra on the banks of the Bosphorus across from Istanbul. It's a simple, at first incomprehensible, little device that provides punctuation and clarity amid the chaos and melodrama that otherwise dominate this story of a Turkish man in his forties and a twenty-year-old Turkish woman who meet in a psychiatric facility in Germany when both have attempted suicide -- he by crashing his car into a wall ("head on"), she by slitting her wrists. Cahit Tomruk (the sublimely attitudinizing Birol Ünel) is a purposeless rock 'n' roll loving boozer with a dead-end job collecting bottles at a club, and Sibel Güner (the wiry, intense Sibel Kikulli) is a young woman with conservative Turkish parents who wants to escape family pressures.
Both are total drama queens and both are German-born Turks. Cahit is more assimilated; his Turkish isn't even good. Sibel figures if he'll agree to marry her that'll get her away from her family. This is the irony of their situation: she must capitulate to the conventions of their culture in order to gain some freedom from it, and he must capitulate to society in order to get some sense of purpose. So they do get married -- he somehow passes muster with the stuffy family, baulking all the way -- and they eventually even fall in love. Her joie de vivre is exactly what he needs, and she's essentially just as wild in her way as he is in his -- but his nihilism and violence continue unabated and so does her promiscuity, and his brutal attack on one of her one night stands leads to jail and scandal, which in turn forces her to go to Istanbul. While he's incarcerated she writes him sustaining letters from Turkey -- their relationship, like the staid orchestra on the Bosphorus, is a stable element amid the surrounding chaos -- and after jail he goes to Turkey to find her.
To say this turbulent, brightly colored, lurid story is a "realistic picture of Turks in Germany" would be a total distortion of the truth. But somehow the situation of Cahit and Sibel reflects the unstable moods this half assimilated, half alien population experiences, and however melodramatic and unresolved the saga is, the two main characters are very well realized. The actors are strong, especially Birol Ünel, whose charismatic brooding and ravaged good looks make him irresistibly watchable. Both feel real to us -- he sardonic and gloomy, she dangerously spirited and full of life-- despite her dramatic suicide attempts, of which there's more than one. The story, as much as the images through which it's told, is both dark and vibrant.
We need the Brechtian, Greek-chorus device of those orchestral interludes on the Bosphorus, though: without an occasional break the drama and darkness would be too much. We also need to go with the flow of this movie, and not expect it to be more polished or more organized, or even better looking, than it is. It looks unlike most films we're seeing now, but that doesn't mean the cinematographer hasn't done the best possible job. What it has is life, tumultuous with incident, strong personalities, and a milieu we've not seen before. There's also a loud, authentic-feeling rock-pop soundtrack and a cunning contrast between Cahit's punk-rock sensibility and Sibel's love of good grooming and dance. Arguably the movie is too long, but that length gives it the feel of a saga, which it must have, because that's what it is, the confused, tawdry epic of a generation. Like all first films by a whole subculture, it has a lot to talk about. When Sibel and Cahit discover they still love each other, after everything, it's the Turkish Germans discovering that they have self-worth. The last scenes are open-ended: this generation's future is anybody's guess.