Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004) has binary opposition at its centre. It highlights the differences between Hamburg and Istanbul, West and East, modernity and tradition, between being unwell and well. This film, which was the director’s fourth fiction feature, tells the story of Sibel and Cahit, two Turkish Germans who meet in a mental health facility after failed suicide attempts. Cahit is a depressed alcoholic who mourns the death of his wife. Sibel is a young woman who feels trapped by her family’s traditional expectations of her. She asks Cahit if he wants to marry her, so that she can escape her parental home and gain independence. Cahit reluctantly agrees to this sham marriage, after which he and Sibel live together as roommates. However, their respective self-destructive tendencies complicate their attempt at happiness.
Gegen die Wand won the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin International Film Festival, which made it the first German film in eighteen years to claim this prize. It has been established as a key text of the early noughties German cinema. The director’s own Turkish background has led many scholars and commentators to focus on the transnational aspects of the film. Indeed, the film overtly addresses the difficulties Cahit and especially Sibel encounter in trying to reconcile the Turkish and German aspects of their identities. Cahit says he has ‘done away’ with his Turkish; Sibel rails against her family’s view of appropriate female behaviour. Daniela Berghahn reads Gegen die Wand as a transnational melodrama and places it against key texts of the New German cinema of the 1970s such as Rainier Werner Fassbender’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun.
But there is another aspect of Gegen die Wand which has attracted less attention. Both Cahit and Sibel are mentally unwell at the start of the film. For both of them, suicide seems the only option. Cahit’s attempt to kill himself by driving his car against a wall seems informed by his general lack of purpose after his wife’s death. This also informs his other self-destructive tendencies like his alcoholism and drug use. For Sibel, suicide is a response to being placed in a situation over which she has no control. She slashes her wrists twice more during the course of the film: once when Cahit initially refuses to marry her, which places her back at the mercy of her father and brother, and once when her chance at a happy relationship with Cahit is seemingly taken away from her forever.
But how, if at all, are Sibel and Cahit’s mental health problems related to their life in the city? Since the development of the modern city in the mid-19th century, social commentators have believed that living in a city places more stresses on mental wellbeing than living in the countryside. Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ explores this relationship. Simmel considered both the increased ‘nervous stimulation’ that people living in the metropolis are subjected to, and the way the city and its money economy forces people to conform to a rationalised means of life. As a result, he argued, the city-dweller becomes blasé and numbed. Sibel and Cahit live their lives intensely and heighten their experiences by taking alcohol and drugs. They are numbed by ‘ordinary life’ and go further and further to experience life as fully as possible. Sibel especially vocally rejects the ordinary, regulated life of her cousin in favour of a drug-fuelled descent into Istanbul’s underworld. At the start of the film Cahit has a conversation with a psychologist who urges him to make changes to his lifestyle. Although Sibel and Cahit try to help each other break out of their habits, they both only succeed in doing this after their lives have hit rock-bottom, and external parties take over the control of their lives. Once they are both ‘clean’ and conforming to ‘normal’ life, the tie that binds them has disappeared.
Although the majority of Gegen die Wand is set in Hamburg, the film uses few establishing shots of the city. Most of the scenes take place inside homes, bars and clubs. The various clubs Sibel and Cahit visit, both together and alone, increase the instability of their lives, whereas the domestic space of Cahit’s flat forms the backdrop to scenes that move the pair closer to a conventional life. The scene in which Sibel cooks Cahit traditional Turkish food is exemplary. For the first time in the film Sibel performs the role of conventional house-wife with pleasure, and their relationship begins to resemble a typical marriage.
But if the film is seen as a melodrama, its narrative structure does not allow for this moment of quiet happiness to last. Instead, the equilibrium is brutally ruptured, making it impossible for the couple to continue as they are in Hamburg. The action moves to Istanbul, this other city that has been constantly present in the sub-text of the film, as well as visibly present in the musical interludes that divide the film in chapters. In Istanbul both Sibel and Cahit have to recalibrate their Turkish and German identities. The music scenes present a picture-postcard view of Istanbul, whereas Sibel’s lived experience of the city again favours underground dives and snack bars. Cahit’s low point comes in Hamburg, but Sibel’s comes in Istanbul, in a mirroring of the dominant parts of their identities. Away from both her family and the ‘nervous stimulations’ of Hamburg she is somehow able to rebuild her life in a way that is healthier for herself – but the film does not show us how. We can speculate that a lengthy hospital stay may have forced a routine onto her, in the same way Cahit’s prison sentence does with him. Or is it that she’s become a mother? Either way, when Sibel meets Cahit again in the suitably internationally named Hotel de Londres both have found their mental wellbeing separately from each other, which prevents them from re-living the intensity of their past relationship.
– Mara Arts – May 2016