Fatih Akin’s Head On

June 9, 2009

Der Spiegel has anointed Fatih Akin the new face of the German film industry. Of Turkish descent, Akin has no interest in the ghosts of Germany’s past or in facing history through films such as The Reader-which still attract large audiences and Oscar nominations in America. Akin finds his inspiration in the new Europe and in the lives of people like himself who are the rising generation of Europe’s immigrants.

Der Spiegel has anointed Fatih Akin the new face of the German film industry. Of Turkish descent, Akin has no interest in the ghosts of Germany’s past or in facing history through films such as The Reader-which still attract large audiences and Oscar nominations in America. Akin finds his inspiration in the new Europe and in the lives of people like himself who are the rising generation of Europe’s immigrants.

The low-life characters and raw emotion of Akin’s early films had German film critics describing him as their new Fassbinder-the greatest writer-director of postwar Germany. But Akin shuns even flattering comparisons. He is a man with lots of ideas and, to use Lvi-Strauss’s term, he might be described as a “bricoleur”: someone who puts things together with what is at hand rather than following a blueprint and ordering the parts. Akin likes actors who are willing to work with him and improvise their characters on the set as he improvises the film being shot. He relies on his British film editor, Andrew Bird, to tie all the ideas of the moment together in some sort of final package. Bird, he claims, can work wonders. Akin’s “bricolage” approach and raw emotion give his films an oneiric, surreal quality, and the emotional intensity and conflicts of his characters will intrigue psychiatrists.

Fatih Akin was a child of the generation of Turks that the Germans brought in as guest workers to do the menial labor during their economic miracle. More than 2 million came and others followed, putting down roots and transplanting their Turkish traditions and Muslim religion in the heart of cities like Hamburg, where Akin was born.

Akin’s generation attended German schools where, with their secular education, some of them learned to be skeptical about the family values that shaped their parents’ Islamic Turkish identity. Outside of school, the more rebellious ones assimilated the beer-drinking, drug-taking, club-crawling, rock music, sexually active lifestyle of Germany’s inner cities. Akin has set his films in the vibrant world of what has become a generational, cultural, and religious battleground. For American psychiatrists, he will open a window on a parallel universe where these new Germans feel they must choose between their parents and their peers as they fashion their own identity.

His breakout film Head On (Gegen die Wand) was the first German-made film in decades to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The protagonists of the film are like Akin, second-generation Turkish immigrants who speak Turkish and German in the film and, like most Europeans, a few words of English as well. In Head On, Cahit (Birol nel), a man of about 40, and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a 20-year-old, meet in a mental hospital after both have attempted suicide. He crashed his car into a wall and she slit her wrists. Cahit seems to be a lost soul on his way to the grave: he drinks beer night and day, abuses cocaine, and immerses himself in punk rock along the way. The actor Birol nel is a friend of Akin and the part was written with him in mind.

Akin portrays Cahit as an archetypal Kurt Cobain–Jim Morrison character who romanticizes his own self-destructive lifestyle. Cahit, who is drunk or high most of the time, has been reduced to making his living at a club by picking up empty glasses and bottles that litter the floor after the bands have performed. His self-esteem is precarious and any provocation can throw him into a rage or launch a suicide attempt. Like Cobain and Morrison there is something appealing, even a kind of existential courage about Cahit that attracts people to him. For example, in the film, a girlfriend shows up from time to time to have violent and gratifying sex with him followed by an amicable chat. He has a male friend who admires him and stands by him through the worst of times.

In Sibel, Akin has created an even more unusual archetype that defies Islamic convention. She is a woman full of sexual desire and ready for sexual adventures, yet her innocence is always intact. She has been imprisoned by her family’s Muslim sexual restrictions: her brother broke her nose when he caught her holding hands with a young man. It is to escape this family oppression that she slits her wrists.

In the hospital, Sibel comes up with a plan, she asks Cahit to enter into a fake marriage with her. She promises to be a good roommate, take care of his apartment for him, and under his protection, in the role of a Muslim husband, she will be able to freely explore all the pleasures of sexual adventure. Cahit reluctantly agrees, but the marriage quickly becomes problematic. They argue on their wedding night, and he throws her out. She goes to a bar in her wedding gown, and invites the bartender at closing time to enjoy the rights of the groom.

The next morning we see Sibel, still in her wedding gown, beaming over the success of her escapade. Sibel is, as it turns out, good at all life’s pleasures; she brings happiness wherever she goes and gains pleasure in return. She is a nymph of the club scene enthusiastically partaking in anything that is offered-drugs, sex, and alcohol. Her innocent pleasure in all this seems inextinguishable. Cahit of course comes to regret the terms of the marriage contract.

But Akin’s script holds him to it until it is used as a device to explore the hypocrisy of conventional Muslim marriages. When Sibel’s male relatives, who insist on the honor of their wives and daughters, invite Cahit to join them on their next regular excursion to the whorehouse, he responds, “Why don’t you f*** your own wives?” They are of course outraged by this scandalous suggestion.

A Turkish girl once asked Akin to help her escape her family by entering into such a false marriage. However, he has worked the scenario out to great effect not only as a vehicle for ironic commentary on the sexual hypocrisy of his parents’ generation but also to portray a believable love between Cahit and Sibel that comes into being in their sexless marriage. Akin gives us love but no happy ending.

His story becomes more brutal and melodramatic. Cahit goes to jail for killing a man who makes sexually demeaning comments about Sibel. And she, left with nothing, goes to Istanbul to find work. There she hits bottom and nearly gets stabbed to death in the streets. The spark of pleasure that made her radiant goes out, and she settles for an ordinary life. There is a coda when Cahit gets out of prison in Germany and comes looking for Sibel in Istanbul. The spark is reignited, and they spend 3 ecstatic days in Cahit’s hotel room, finally consummating their marriage. But Sibel now has a daughter and goes back to her obligations, and Cahit, a different man, no longer bent on self-destruction, returns to the Turkish village where he was born. They are no longer the glamorous archetypes we knew. The sober Cahit and the dutiful Sibel have stepped out of their Dionysian fable and have become ordinary people, but they have also found peace in embracing their Turkish homeland and identity.

After winning the Golden Bear, Head On went on to take Best European Film of 2004 over Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Pedro Almodvar’s Bad Education. Akin may still be unknown in America, but he is a cult figure in Europe and at international film festivals all over the world. As the crisis between Islam and the West deepens, psychiatrists who are interested in how it feels to those caught in the middle will want to watch Akin’s subsequent films on DVD as well. His brilliant film The Edge of Heaven offers extraordinary insights to those like me who know little but want to learn more about the spiritual might of Islam.