Turkish-German Cinema: Displacement and Diaspora in Fatih Akin’s Head-On
Contains spoilers for Fatih Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand).
Fatih Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand, 2004) is a film about autonomy and feelings of displacement. It is a film about the contentious relationships between identity and heritage, tradition and transgression, reinvention and conservation, Turkish identity in Germany, and German identity in Turkey. The film is also about Germany’s identification as Einwanderungsland (country of immigration) and its development towards self-awareness. Head-On is not just a quintessential part of contemporary German film history and diasporic Turkish-German cinema, but also a symbol of the country’s post-war transfiguration.
In his cultural and cinematic analysis of Fatih Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand), Stephen Brockmann writes that “Germany–in spite of postwar immigration by millions of ethnic Turks, Italians, and Greeks, among others initially for the purpose of filling a severe labor shortage–has not seen itself as Einwanderungsland (country of immigration)” (Brockmann). This phenomenon is best understood via the history of, specifically Turkish, immigration to Germany since the 1960s. In the last 60 years, Germany has seen a substantial influx of Turkish immigrants and asylum seekers, eventually making Turkish people, Turkish Germans, or those with a Turkish background, the largest minority group in Germany. Initially, many Turkish migrants came to Germany under contract as Gastarbeiter (guest workers). Their residence was deemed temporary and a path to citizenship or permanent residence was not envisioned or, to a certain degree, possible. The Gastarbeiter, mainly unmarried Turkish men, were expected to acquire technical skills, complete two years of labor, and return to their home country to contribute to its development with said acquired skills. These conditions were agreed upon by German and Turkish officials to benefit both countries and to deter permanent immigration to Germany by the Gastarbeiter (Prevezanos). However, as the two-year contracts were deemed too short and cost-intensive due to travel and training expenses for the responsible countries, the length of stay was extended and, for the first time, allowed for the accompaniment of family members (Prevezanos).
The global oil crisis of the early 1970s put a temporary halt on immigration proceedings due to the suspended demand for workers. Many Turkish families that were already residing in Germany stayed and had children. Much like their parents, the children of first-generation Turkish immigrants, although born in Germany, were not granted citizenship. As Nilay Kilinc notes in her research, “at that time, the government considered the presence of foreigners a temporary problem, which would resolve itself over time” (Kilinc). Germany, as Brockmann has pointed out, “has not seen itself as Einwanderungsland (country of immigration).” It wasn’t until the year 2000 when Germany officially reformed its citizenship policies in order for Turkish immigrants, and their children, to be able to apply for and obtain German citizenship. The reform also granted citizenship “to children born in Germany and whose parents had resided legally in the country for the past eight years” (Kilinc). The recognition of former immigrants as Germans by the state reified a shift in Germany’s national identity. As Klaudia Prevezanos writes, “Germany was only declared a de facto country of immigrants through the passage of new citizenship and immigration laws in 2000 and 2005” (Prevezanos). It was shortly after the reformation of these laws in 2005 that the first nationally successful and confirmational Turkish-German (alternatively German-Turkish) film had made its appearance. Although German cinema and audiences were relatively slow to adapt to the transforming cultural landscape in a significant manner, Fatih Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand) represented a vital shift in attitude.
Akin’s Head-On (Gegen die Wand – literally translated to “Against the Wall”) follows two Germans of Turkish descent, Cahit and Sibel, whose paths cross as Sibel recognizes in Cahit a ticket to personal and sexual autonomy. In an early scene, Sibel confesses to Cahit “I want to live, Cahit. I want to live, to dance, and to fuck. And not just with one guy.” However, Sibel, played by Sibel Kekilli, finds herself entrapped by the social and marital expectations of her traditional family. Cahit, played by Birol Ünel, on the other hand, is an alcoholic flaneur who finds liberation from an otherwise disconsolate life via alcohol and cocaine. After being thrown out of multiple bars and being told to “go home,” he purposefully crashes his car into a wall. Similarly, Sibel’s futile attempts at liberation reach their apotheosis as she unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. As Brockmann writes, “the two suicide attempts demonstrate how difficult it is to negotiate the demands of individualism on the one hand, and family and group identity on the other” (Brockmann). Cahit and Sibel align with and embody a German identity, yet they are not perceived in the same way.
Sibel and Cahit initially espy each other while awaiting counseling appointments in a hospital waiting room. Sibel is quick to make first-contact upon learning that Cahit is an unmarried man of Turkish descent who lives as a bohemian punk and has no relation to conventions of monogamy, gender roles, or sexual modesty. She unceremoniously proposes they falsely get married to absolve her from the pressures of her family and to start a new life independently. She expects her parents to approve since Cahit is Turkish and marriage would surely give her respite from their monitoring. Although Cahit has, more or less, cut ties to his family aside from an uncle who employs him, his and Sibel’s interfamilial circumstances mirror those of many descendants of Turkish families. As Kilinc notes in her research, “This is a highly gendered situation; whereas daughters are expected to obey their parents’ decision, sons can determine their future decisions more independently” (Kilinc). This is further illustrated by a later scene where Cahit sits with a group of Turkish men who openly discuss their visits to brothels whereas their wives would be dishonored and disowned by their families if they were to be unfaithful (Akin). After much persuasion and another suicide attempt by Sibel, Cahit sympathizes with Sibel’s desire to lead an emancipated life and agrees to and follows through on her quixotic plan.
Although Cahit seems somewhat estranged from Turkish culture and many of the Turkish people around him–exemplified by his use of slurs and disinterest in the origins of his name when asked about it by an insensitive counselor–we see the welcomed reintroduction of Turkish culture into his and Sibel’s daily, independent, and shared lives once they have ascertained “freedom “. Only once Sibel and Cahit can finally realize and conduct lives by their rules do they reintroduce certain aspects of their cultural heritage. They listen to Turkish music, she blissfully cooks a Turkish meal for him, they even visit a Turkish club together, yet they still lead urban German lives. These elements have become just as much a part of a multi-faceted German culture, as they are rooted in Turkish culture. This auspicious period in their lives is, however, interrupted by Cahit’s development of feelings for Sibel and subsequent jealousy he experiences for one of her lovers. Cahit kills Sibel’s lover in a fit of rage, is imprisoned, and Sibel is disowned by her family for being unfaithful. This tragically ironic turn of events leaves Sibel with no other options aside from moving to Istanbul to live with her cousin where she picks up work as a housekeeper at a hotel. The location of her work, as well as the place where Cahit eventually stays when visiting Sibel after being released from prison, a hotel, is symbolic of their perception of identity in Turkey. The many caustic comments and looks Sibel receives for her discordant behavior and appearance positions her as an outsider, which she is. The immediate recognition of Cahit as a German when taking a cab in Turkey has a similar effect. The hotel becomes a metaphor for their positionality in Turkey. The film never ceases to be about two Germans, regardless of geographical context.
In the year of its release, Head-On (Gegen die Wand, 2004, dir. Fatih Akin) was the first German film to win the top prize (Golden Bear) at the Berlinale in over two decades. This significant achievement is all the more so not just because the film is largely in the Turkish language, but that it was also partly filmed in Turkey. Head-On was not the first Turkish-German production, many of which had existed on the outskirts of popular German cinema in decades past, but as Brockmann points out, it was the first of these films that “the German mainstream press greeted not just as a Turkish film, but as a specifically German film, and they treated its triumph as their own triumph.” The manner in which the film was greeted by the press could be perceived as symbolic of the overdue recognition of Turkish immigrants and Germans of Turkish descent no longer as foreigners but as Germans. Katja Nicodemus writes in her review of the film that “[Germans] could refuse to recognize it, just as you could ignore the Kölner Dom [Cologne Cathedral] or Siegessäule [Berlin Victory Column]” (Nicodemus).
Fatih Akin and his producer Ralph Schwingel had been in the business, and also at the forefront, of producing Turkish-German films since the mid-1990s. Schwingel notes in an interview that he and Akin believed that there was an audience for their content in Germany. Schwingel recalls, “When I developed [Akin’s first film Kurz und Schmerzlos] I thought there was an audience. Young Turkish people, I thought, would like to see the film. I thought everybody who was second-generation was willing to see a film like that in the cinema: in order to recognize themselves on the screen.” He, however, goes on to admit, “I was completely wrong. The young Turkish cinema-goers: they go to the American cinema. The adult Turkish people: they go to see the Turkish big box-office hits that their families talk about on the phone. They don’t run to see a film like [Kurz und Schmerzlos].” Once Schwingel and Akin realized that their films had limited commercial appeal, they reconsidered their filmmaking approach and committed to making arthouse films without too much scrutiny on what would make a film “look commerical.” Ironically, it was the dedication to niche film that resulted in the creation of their most commercial film yet with Head-On (Gegen die Wand). They found an audience of approximately 850,000 German ticket buyers, most of which fell under the category of “adult cinema-goers: open-minded, ready to experience another part of the world, even if it’s in their own city” (Schwingel). Schwingel adds that he believes “the same happened in Turkey.” He recounts a memory of going to a screening of Head-On at a cinema in Istanbul to see who the audience was comprised of; it was students and art-house cinema-goers. In the 2007 interview, Schwingel recognizes that the German audience is uniquely difficult in terms of “being risky” with their content selection compared to cinema-goers of different countries where multi-cultural films have had more frequent and profitable mainstream success (Schwingel). He however found the success of Head-On as well as the contemporaneous success of a Hitler comedy (Mein Führer, 2007. Dir. Dani Levy) to be evidence of the broadening of taste in German cinema-goers.
The interview of Ralph Schwingel was recorded in 2007 shortly after the release of Head-On in 2005 and was conducted for the research network Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe. The central question that Schwingel was posed during his interview was whether he believed that the diasporic Turkish-German cinema could become mainstream. Schwingel based his answers on his experience with producing and distributing Akin’s films throughout his career and pointed to their most recent film Head–On as evidence of Turkish-German cinema possibly bridging over to the mainstream. However, he still never confirmed whether he believed it to truly have commercial potential. Since the conducting of the interview, the mainstream German film landscape, and Turkish-German cinema’s place within it, has undergone considerable transformation. As Katja Nicodemus presciently suggests in her review, “soon [this new Germany will] happily sweep last believers in the Leitkultur (dominant, leading culture–pertaining to ethnically German culture) out of the way of its inevitable future.”
Kilinc, Nilay. “Second-Generation Turkish-Germans Return ‘Home’: Gendered Narratives of (Re-)negotiated Identities.” University of Sussex, 2014.