Sounds like a meet-cute romantic comedy: Girl needs to escape her conservative family; boy needs someone to cook and clean for him; marriage of convenience chugs right along until zing! hubby falls for wife. Well, glossy-surfaced German melodrama Head-On (Gegen die Wand) plunges those comedic possibilities into an emotional apocalypse of suicide, alcoholism, violence and racism. Teutonic despair hasn't looked this good since Fassbinder was in business.
Shambling loser and aging punk Cahit (Birol Unel) makes a living picking up empty beer bottles in a club, and spends his leisure time emptying fresh ones down his gullet and picking fights. Driving home one night, he expresses his inexplicable belligerence by taking a sharp left turn into a brick wall. While recovering, he meets another attempted suicide, Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a Turkish Muslim girl who, recognizing that Cahit is also Turkish, histrionically begs him to marry her she's desperate to escape her stifling family. These two members of the dead-end club strike their bargain over the suspicions of Sibel's family; Cahit barely speaks Turkish and they can't understand why their graceful young daughter would want this lout. Once they're man and "wife," Sibel and Cahit can't figure out how they're supposed to act. Are they roommates? Siblings? Lovers? Sibel pierces her bellybutton, drinks and picks up men night after night; but she's also defrosting Cahit's isolation. And just as a frozen limb burns painfully as it thaws, Cahit's return to the land of the living reawakens his buried capacity for heartache.
The doomy struggles of our star-crossed lovers play out against the screen of German politics. Turkish immigrants are the largest group of "foreigners" in Germany, and anti-Turk (really anti-Muslim) prejudice is rampant. (As Cahit and Sibel argue one night on a bus, the driver stops and throws them off, calling them "godless dogs.") The result of this antipathy is that Turkish-Muslim families have drawn in upon themselves, clinging ever more tightly to religious conservatism. Young women who have become "too Western," in the eyes of their (male) relatives, are being murdered in so-called "honor killings." In Head-On, Sibel's family burns all of her pictures, in effect denying she has ever existed to protect their own "honor"; in reality, Kekilli's family did the same. (During publicity for the film's opening, it came out that Kekilli had earlier acted in pornographic films). Love hurts, all right.
Writer/director Fatih Akin is himself Turk-German, born in Hamburg to immigrant parents, but to assume his handling of this story is somehow hereditary is to belittle his skill. Though his symbolism is at times heavy-handed (a black cat runs across the street in front of Sibel moments before a horrific sequence in which she attempts suicide yet again by provoking a group of street thugs), only an intuitive and sensitive director could make us care about these often-bloodied but staggeringly unbowed characters.