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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

German drama transcends language barriers

"Head-On" is a relentless, deeply affecting melodrama, one of 2004's best films and a bold new work from Turkish director Fatih Akin.

The film won the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, and it's not hard to see why. This is an excellent picture that stays with the viewer long after the credits roll.

"Head-On" follows two characters, Cahit (Birol Unel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), and their bizarre relationship over the course of several years. The two meet in a psychiatric ward after respective suicide attempts. Sibel sees in Cahit the opportunity to escape the scrutiny of her demanding family.

While Cahit, a depressed widower, resists initially, he eventually agrees to marry Sibel. This marriage of convenience is not based on love, but on the hope to escape the confines of their world, which does not bode well for either character. The essence of the plot begins after their marriage, as the film follows the relationship and the tragedies that ultimately ensue.

It would be easy to categorize "Head-On" as mere melodrama, but the film's plot is surprisingly unpredictable. Just when the audience thinks it knows where the picture is going, a new twist is introduced that somehow seems exactly right.

Ultimately, the various twists and turns serve the story, which keeps the plot from sinking under the weight of its own pretenses. Many things happen to the two characters, much of it quite unpleasant, but somehow they endure. This works because "Head-On" is, at its core, not a movie about plot, but characters. Sibel and Cahit are sad, depressed people who feel trapped in their limited existences.

"I am not living. I am only surviving," Sibel says at one point, and that sentiment echoes throughout the whole of the picture.

The acting, especially of the two leads, is quite good. Akin, a German-born director, draws fantastically moving performances from the protagonists, who carry the movie with sensitivity and panache.

Birol Unel (who often looks like David Carradine in "Kill Bill") brings depth and sadness to the complex role of Cahit. Sibel Kekilli is equally compelling as Sibel, a character whose party-girl demeanor hides a startling perception. Since the two characters dominate the plot, their believability and forcefulness is essential, as it keeps the audience interested throughout.

"Head-On" is also doggedly cinematic, at times recalling (or perhaps even explicitly referencing) the French New Wave's penchant for excess. From a technical perspective, the film is undeniably well-made, using camera angles, freeze-frames and rapid editing to provide emotional impact. At times, these elements recall the best tradition of Scorsese and Truffaut, two directors who also used cinematic technique to enhance (rather than substitute for) the narrative.

"Head-On" is a battering ram of a movie that tramples forward and takes no prisoners in its wake. For all its attributes, it is essentially a depressing movie about depressed characters. Though it is an unforgettable picture, its unflinching approach to its material may not sit well with all audiences. Sex, drugs, violence and suicide all play prominent roles as the lives of Sibel and Cahit crumble around them.

Yet, the film is so well-made and so movingly indelible that it's impossible not to recommend. Movies as acute and affecting as "Head-On" are rare and a writer/director as sensitively attuned to the world as Akin are even rarer.