A romantic comedy with jagged edges, Fatih Akin's exhilarating Head-On paves the road to love through miles of prickly thatch. As its heroes hack their way toward an unlikely happiness together, they become more endearing for their efforts. Akin tried his hand at cross-country, cross-cultural romance before in 2000's underappreciated In July, a breezy road odyssey across Eastern Europe that recalled classic American screwball comedies like It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. Without losing his endearingly offbeat sense of humor and surprise, Akin extends himself into a more serious examination of the social forces that affect the brittle relationship of a German-Turkish couple in Hamburg. And those are merely the most prominent of the obstacles that keep their battered, impossible union from reaching full flower.
The left-field winner of the 2004 Berlin Film Festival—the first German film to take the top prize since 1986—Head-On plays like a work of a precocious young talent, in the best possible sense. Working in the proud tradition of "l'amour fou" (crazy love), the 31-year-old Akin directs with a propulsive, breakneck energy appropriate for a relationship that starts with a guy accelerating into a brick wall. A lonely, bedraggled bum in his late 30s, Birol Ünel works nights picking up empties at a Hamburg club, but he mostly specializes in producing empties, as he's still soaking in the loss of his first wife. When a drunken bender leads him to "accidentally" crash his car into a wall, Ünel winds up in a clinic for other unstable patients, where he meets the beautiful Sibel Kekilli, who unsuccessfully attempted to slit her wrist. The daughter of strict, conservative Muslim Turks, Kekilli begs Ünel, a German Turk, to join her in a marriage of convenience so she can pursue a wild lifestyle that's more to her liking. He agrees to the arrangement, but their feelings for each other naturally grow more complicated.
Himself the son of Turkish parents, Akin understands the dilemma of second-generation immigrants like Kekilli, who feels so painfully removed from her family's old-world value system that living with a head-case like Ünel seems oddly liberating. Deeply romantic at bottom, Head-On testifies to the redemptive power of love, but in Ünel's case, there's quite a lot to redeem. There's nothing cute about his volatile temperament, with its ugly flares of drunken belligerence, or his living conditions' palpable filth, which practically wafts off the screen. When Kekilli attempts a makeover on his Mickey-Rourke-as-Charles-Bukowski look, Ünel warns, "You can't make a prince out of a peasant." For all its invigorating spirit, Head-On takes him at his word.