Head-On (Gegen die Wand) Review

Born in Hamburg of Turkish parents, Fatih Akin is in an ideal position to depict the identity crisis of many young Germans who feel torn between living in a modern European city where they don’t really fit-in and the traditional upbringing of their Turkish parents, which they cannot relate to either. Head-On presents this situation with all the force of Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, where the characters are so downtrodden and disenfranchised that sooner or later something is about to explode.

In the case of Head-On it’s two characters in particular who are on a road to self-destruction. Cahit Tomrak (Birol Ünel) is a bum, living in squalor in Hamburg, employed to collect empties in a live-music venue at the end of an evening. Drunkenly thrown out of a bar for starting a fight, he takes a car and drives it at high-speed straight into a brick wall. The psychiatrist looking after his recovery recommends that rather than end his life, he start a new one, but what opportunities are open to him? Then a young Turkish woman, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), also an inmate at the institution asks him to marry her. As he is of Turkish origin, she believes her family will accept him – eventually – and give her the opportunity she needs to escape from their protection and live her own life. A marriage of convenience seems to offer both Cahit and Sibel a way out of their current situation, but as two violent people with suicidal tendencies, living together is not going to be easy.

The premise of Head-On (Gegen die Wand) is intriguing, the characters are interesting as is their circumstances, but the film does then tend to slip into the predictable Green Card formula that has little to do with their backgrounds – a marriage of convenience, each of the partners are free to do what they like, sleep with who they like, but have to maintain the appearance of being a married couple. The inevitable tensions creep into the relationship as, not unexpectedly, there is an undeniable attraction between Cahit and Sibel – but they are unable to sleep together, since consummation of the marriage will really make them husband and wife. Such a situation is usually played as a romantic comedy, and while there are one or two incongruously funny moments around the unlikelihood of such a union (particularly in Cahit’s visit to Sibel’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage), the characters are so wild, volatile, violent and unpredictable in their behaviour that the routine plot is rather subverted, often to quite shocking effect.

Fatih Akin’s treatment of the film is hard to fault – the character development and pacing of the film is excellent throughout, convincingly played by the main leads, who are superb, as well as by the supporting cast of genuine characters. Each situation rises naturally and realistically out of the situation, and just when you think it is following a predictable path, the film hits you with something completely unexpected. The film completes full circle in the latter part of the film, signalled neatly by the use of Depeche Mode’s I Feel You, when Sibel, living in Istanbul, is eventually reduced to the same condition that Cahit was at the start of the film. The music is of key importance to the film, using an eclectic and appropriate soundtrack of Goth and traditional Turkish music, nicely blended with some original music by Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten.

The film captures well what it must be like for these misfits and there is no doubting the authenticity of the locations and the characters, but in many ways, particularly with its similar setting among the Turkish immigrant community in Germany, it must be compared to Werner Herzog’s masterful Stroszek, against which it can’t but pale in comparison. Despite its wild appearance, lowlife characters, hard-hitting authentic street violence, this film doesn’t really say as much as it would appear to want to say about the loss of identity and inability of Turkish Germans to relate to either culture. The failings of the characters arise not out of their confused identities, but their individual highly-strung personalities and their inability to deal with their circumstances. Tied into the “marriage of convenience” format, the film appears more like a traditional cautionary tale, warning of the dangers of casual sex outside of marriage, the dangers of hard drug abuse and, from the rather downbeat ending, how we all have to deal with the harsh lessons life deals us and move on.

Head-On is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The DVD is in PAL format and is Region 2 encoded.

I’ve certainly come to expect a fine quality image from Soda Pictures releases so far, and Head-On is no different, presenting a great transfer to DVD with scarcely a mark on the print, not a trace of edge-enhancement – in fact no real problem with artefacts other than a little bit of aliasing on one or two objects. Colours are strong, as are brightness and tone and the film is reasonably sharp and clear. Where it is less than perfect is probably more to do with the natural lighting and conditions of the shooting.

Slightly more disappointing is the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. The film should really have a bigger impact than a mere stereo soundtrack allows but that said, it’s not weak, allowing dialogue to come through clearly and the music score to drive certain scenes.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and are optional.

Trailer (1:51)
A short trailer, but it gives a lot of information, perhaps too much, about the film.

Director Fatih Akin and editor Andrew Bird provide a fairly entertaining commentary in English – not greatly illuminating any underlying themes, messages or even filming techniques, but at least giving the viewer an indication of how much the director personally put into the film. There are lots of friends and family involved, and the film uses bars that he frequents, his barber, local shop and even the registry office where he himself was married. They do helpfully explain why there is a sequence in English in the film that I was wondering about, give some commentary on the underlying feelings behind the concluding scenes and comment on quite a number of deleted scenes from the 4-hour first cut, all of which is fairly interesting, although none of these deleted scenes make it to the extra features.

Short Film: The Evil Old Songs (5:57)
This is another short film segment from the Visions of Europe collection of 25 short films by directors from 25 different countries (a segment of which has already appeared on the Soda Pictures release of Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction). Rather experimentally, Fatih Akin creates a short piece around a song with music by Richard Schumann and words by Heinrich Heine, remixed industrially by Caspar Brötzmann and FM Einheit (Einstürzende Neubauten) to create something uniquely (anti-)German.

Trailer Reel
Trailers are presented for the Soda releases of Untold Scandal, Brothers and The Miracle of Bern.

Head-On presents an interesting twist on the familiar romantic setting of an ill-matching couple who find their fates thrown together and have to find a way out of the complications that arise, by pitting them against the morals and traditions of their Turkish background. But rather than their ethnic origin, it’s the fact that these characters are so realistic and display such human feelings and failings that makes the film just that bit more wild, unpredictable and shocking. The film also makes great use of Hamburg and Istanbul settings, set to a terrific music score that is integral to the story and the characters. There’s plenty to be impressed about with Head-On and likewise with Soda Pictures presentation on DVD, which is supported by some excellent extra features.

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