Gegen die Wand: A search for identity via death, anarchy and love
The characters and story in Fatih Akin’s 2004 film “Gegen die Wand” or “Head-on”, have a certain resonance for any stranger in a strange land. For these characters though, there is no choice; they are second generation Turkish immigrants living in Germany. They are adrift between two cultures; they inhabit the chaotic gap between West and East.
The story opens when the harsh, bright lights come on in a punk club in Hamburg at closing time. It’s that awful moment when escapism is brought to an abrupt end and grungy reality is revealed. Cahit, the main male character, is picking up empty bottles and glasses and guzzling down the remnants of discarded beer while the last straggling revellers stagger off. He is a forty-something year old man, unkempt and haggard, who looks like he survives on a diet of booze and fags. He is also depressed, as is clear from the way he stares blankly into his beer at the late night bar he stumbles on to having finished his cleaning task. When a fellow drunken customer provokes him to violence he is thrown out of the bar, gets into his car and drives it head on into a wall at full speed. This is a grim opening to a dark and gritty movie, but even here there are tinges of humour, particularly in the dialogue, and Cahit, despite being unattractive, morose and violent, is intriguing.
This doesn’t seem like the typical opening to a film about love, but that is the dominant theme of the film, woven alongside that of the search for identity betwixt two cultures. Cahit meets a beautiful Turkish/German girl called Sibel in the psychiatric unit in which he awakes after trying to smash his car into a wall. She is there because she tried to empty her life out of the veins in her wrists. There is no ‘love at first sight’ but Sibel sees in Cahit a method of escaping from her tradition-bound Turkish family. He eventually agrees to the sham marriage and she moves into his disgusting hovel of a flat, to be his flatmate, not his lover, and live a life free from scrutiny and judgment (or so she thinks). What immediately follows is predictable but hugely enjoyable to watch. They gradually fall in love. We see the increasing bond between them develop as she cleans up his apartment and cooks him dinner. They drink together, take drugs together and go out dancing. They both have copious amounts of sex with other people. It’s not a straightforward or ordinary romance, but it’s obvious to the viewer what is happening. It is also happening far too early in the narrative for there to be any possibility of it ending happily, but we are lulled into almost believing it might while we watch these often sweet and comic scenes unfold. The comedy here serves the same purpose as it does throughout the film. It provides an entertaining surface to much deeper and more serious issues. Here the comedy draws us in, engages our empathy for these complex, difficult characters, while we consider the effects love has on them – this is a marriage of convenience in which love is highly inconvenient.
It is Cahit’s slowly discovered love for Sibel which arouses his jealousy of the other men she fucks. Cahit cannot control the anger his jealousy provokes and he attacks and inadvertently kills a barman who Sibel has had sex with. His love destroys any chance they could possibly have of living happily with one another. Not only does he go to prison for his crime, but he also propels Sibel into misery as the inevitable media coverage of the murder exposes her infidelity to her family. Her ‘honour’ is left in shreds, as is, therefore, the family ‘honour’. Her brother chases her through the streets, his own murderous intentions clear.
Sibel is slower to realize that she loves Cahit but falls just as deeply. By the time he murders the barman she is irrevocably in love and promises she will wait for him to serve his prison sentence. She then flees to Istanbul to escape the rage of her family, but the thwart to her potential happiness leads her to ever more inventive methods of self-destruction. Love leads her into a spiral of decline, at the bottom of which lie rape and horrific violence.
But love in this film is not only destructive, it also provides redemption and hope. On his release from prison, Cahit reveals to his friend that he intends to go to Istanbul to look for Sibel. His friend asks why on earth he would get himself involved in all that mess again. His answer is that Sibel has saved him from himself; their love has enabled him to get clean from drink and drugs and to get through his years behind bars. Without her, he would certainly have destroyed himself, one way or another. Whether they can be together again or not, he has come back to life and has rediscovered purpose. He intends to go back to the town where he was born in Turkey, as if to reconnect with himself. Sibel also eventually manages to find equilibrium and peace with herself and love is at the base of it. Love in this film is not a one dimensional fix-all, as it is in many ‘romantic’ films. It covers the full spectrum of emotions; from intense joy, to violent passion to peace and acceptance. It destroys but it also renews.
Destruction and renewal, life and death, seem uniquely close in this film. The director, Fatih Akin, explores the very fragile thread upon which life hangs. Not only do the two main characters meet after their respective suicide attempts but they go on pushing themselves to the boundary between life and death. Sibel picks up a beer bottle and takes it deftly to her wrists in a bar in her attempt to persuade Cahit into the sham marriage, Cahit squashes his hands into a mound of broken glass when he realizes how desperately he loves Sibel, she deliberately and repeatedly provokes a gang of youths to attack her in the streets of Istanbul until they stab her and leave her for dead. And yet despite these various attempts to destroy themselves these two characters seem more alive than almost any I’ve seen on screen. Perhaps it is because of their repeated attempts to die that they seem somehow indestructible. There is something irrepressible about them, some force of vital energy, which engages the viewer in all their bubbling joys and deep misery. It is this and the brilliantly timed comic touches which keep us watching what would otherwise be simply a deeply distressing and horrific film. Akin wants us to see that it is in pushing the boundaries of our lives, in taking risks, in going outside of the normal and routine that we really begin to live. When Sibel rejects the job as a hotel cleaner offered to her by her cousin in Istanbul, she claims that she sees no life in simply working all day and coming home to sleep. She needs risk, she needs challenge, she invites misery and despair because these, to her, are essential to life.
What this points to is essentially a search for freedom. Sibel feels trapped and suicidal in her role as the daughter of a Turkish family with conservative ideas about who she should marry and how she should behave. To her, freedom is having no rules, living how she chooses, two fingers up to chastity and morality. But the anarchy she craves has dire consequences. She manages to live like this for a short period of time, sleeping with every man she can get, taking drugs and partying but her actions, and those of Cahit, have consequences – there is no escape from rules. For Cahit also, living like there is no tomorrow has taken its toll. He is deeply unhappy with his life and suffering from the loss of his first wife when we meet him at the beginning of the film. He had long ago abandoned his Turkish identity and had long lived outside of normal social rules, but all he had found was alcoholism and despair. Freedom is what both characters thought they would have if they got away from the rule-bound grips of their Turkish communities (Cahit admits he has “thrown away” his Turkish along with his Turkish identity) but they are both mistaken. In this film, freedom comes from self-acknowledgement and from carving out your own identity, free from the restrictive stamps put on it by the culture into which you are born. Sibel discovers peace when she finally accepts herself and her life and chooses it. At the end of the film Cahit travels to his childhood home, seeking to come to terms with the Turkish side of himself. In making these choices about their identities both of them find freedom. They are not Turkish or German; they are Turkish and German but most of all they are Cahit and Sibel.
Although “Gegen die Wand” deals with many disturbing issues and is unapologetic in its violence, it also manages to be highly entertaining. This is in part due to the flawless acting from the two main actors (Birol Unel and Sibel Kikelli) which endears us to these deeply troubled characters, but it is also due to the miraculous use of comedy. The film is brutal, raw and uncompromising, but it is also in many places hilariously funny. Its frenetic pace also keeps the viewer riveted to the screen from beginning to end, barely able to blink for fear of missing some part of the action or another stunning shot by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann. Musical interludes performed by a traditional Turkish band on the banks of the Bosphorus also punctuate the film into sections, reminding us that this is some kind of twisted love story, offered up for our entertainment and our edification. This adds a degree of lightness to the whole experience which not only makes the darkness bearable, but also manages to encourage the viewer to look for meaning and therefore to engage more deeply with the seriousness of some of its themes. The director has here achieved a balance which could so easily have gone off kilter. It is a balance many film-makers fail ever to strike but, judging from the other films of Akin that I have seen, he has the knack.
Katy Karpfinger is New Linear Perspectives chief film correspondent. She lives in the USA and is currently working on various projects, including an in-depth review of Jean Cocteau’s ‘Blood of a Poet’ to go alongside NLP’s interview with ex-Siouxsie and the Banshees Steven Severin, who is touring his new score of the 1930s film.