Two German films in a row? That’s slightly unusual, but when they’re both excellent movies, I’m not going to complain. I just finished the emotional roller-coaster that was 2004’s Head-On, an unconventional love story in every sense of the word, and if it failed to match the magic and power of Wings of Desire, it should take comfort in the fact that Wings of Desire was a genuine masterwork of a film. Tomorrow (provided I get around to it), I should be watching Fellini’s 8 1/2 so apparently, it’s just a foreign film type of weekend, and aren’t those the best kinds of weekends? Perhaps it’s appropriate that the lead female of the film portrays Shae on HBO’s Game of Thrones because this was the German answer to the Sid and Nancy “mutual destruction” subgenre of the romantic drama field. Head-On is not for the faint of heart, but if you want a bloody and subversive romance, Head-On is what would happen if you took most (but not all) of the graphic violence out of True Romance and replaced it with social commentary about the Turkish immigrant experience in Germany as well as fundamental religious beliefs.

Lonely, alcoholic, and rage-fueled Turkish widower Cahit Tomruk (Birol Unel) decides to end his miserable existence collecting empty bottles at a Berlin concert hall by crashing his car full-speed into a brick wall. When he survives his suicide attempt, he’s committed to a clinic where he meets the beautiful but equally broken Sibel Guner (Game of Thrones‘ Sibel Kekilli), a young Turkish woman who also tried to kill herself to escape her life under the thumb of her strictly fundamentalist family. Almost immediately upon meeting Cahit, Sibel asks him to marry him as a way to get out of her father’s house (where her brother broke her nose as a child just for holding hands with a boy). She doesn’t love him or want to be loved. She just wants an excuse to escape and be on her own so she can finally live her own life. Cahit initially rejects her offer but when Sibel slices her wrist open in a crowded bar to prove how seriously damaged her home life is, Cahit finally gives in. Sibel wasn’t kidding when she said she wanted to live her own life though, and although she and Cahit share a home, they both have sex with other people, and even when they finally begin developing feelings for one another, it only spirals them further into inevitable tragedy.

If there’s one word that I would use to describe this film, it’s “intense.” Sweet lord. Based on its premise, you think it’s going to be an “odd couple” romantic drama where an initially incompatible couple learn to love each other by living together. They certainly become attracted to one another over the course of the film, but it only leads to tragedy and heartbreak. There’s a dark sexuality dripping in every frame of the film and Birol Unel brings a Brando-esque machismo and intensity to the role. He reminded me of a more sympathetic (but equally violent) version of Ray Winstone’s character in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth. He is a force of almost pure destructive energy, and when he’s drawn into the uncontrollable hedonism of Sibel’s life, explosions are practically guaranteed. I’ve never seen Birol Unel in a film before and he immediately made an impression as a foreign talent to watch. However, the real star was Sibel Kekilli. Her performance recalls (but actually predates) both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was the type of raw, naked performance that makes a star and since she won several European industry awards for her performance, others obviously agreed. Her transformation over the course of the film is simply an astounding feat both in the way she physically presents herself but also the subtleties of her emotion and performance. I wish she was this engaging as Shae on Game of Thrones.

While I think this was one of the ugliest shot films that I’ve watched in a while (shaky, unprofessional hand-held footage that did little to immerse me more in the world which is the entire point of shooting a movie handheld), I’m able to forgive it’s technical shortcomings because of how brutal its story was. The movie’s pacing could feel slightly sluggish at time but there were lots of great moments where the film compelled you to keep watching even when you desperately wanted to turn away. There might not have been a single moment which etched itself into my brain quite as deeply as Ray Winstone nearly beating his wife to death in Nil by Mouth (for some reason that was the film that kept springing to mind during Head-On), but there were a ton of moments that came close. Whether it was Sibel’s multiple suicide attempts, a scene in a bar which continually ups the sense of dread and impending apocalypse til the terrible, tragic moment finally arrives, or the small moments of Cahit alone exploding against a world that has done him so much harm, the film paints a tale of violence, lust, and tragic love. The way that it explores how sexual repression by religious families leads to acting out and potentially catastrophic rebellion only hammers home this film’s mission to subvert traditional notions of romance and the traditional romantic film.

If you’re sick and tired of Hollywood fairy-tale romances, Head-On will punch you in the gut and leave you asking for it do it one more time. With a premise that consistently struck me as the building blocks of a Shakespearean tragedy (without the Bard’s subtlety or humor), Head-On‘s wonderful story which more often subverts romantic cliches and tropes than plays them straight is a modern romance for the modern cynic. It’s heavy material and unflinching eye for the brutality of its subjects may turn some off but if you can sit through the most masochistic moments of our “heroes,” you’ll be reward with a stark look at love gone terribly wrong. In a world where schlock like The Lucky One makes reams of money in the box office, you need films like Head-On to remind you that not every story is stale, and that we don’t always need to have a happy ending.

Final Score: B+

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