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Odd Couple: Grizzled Birol Ünel helps oddly cheery suicide girl Sibel Kekilli.

Drunk Love

In the brilliant German comedy 'Head-On,' love hits a frail pair with full force

By Richard von Busack

A VERY GOOD punk-rock club in San Francisco called the Chatterbox used to have a life-size fiberglass statue holding up the bar. He was a '50s greaser in sunglasses, leather jacket, jeans and T-shirt; at the end of the night, you'd always see some drunkard in earnest conversation with him. Seeing the lead in Fatih Akin's Head-On reminds me of that statue. The grizzled Birol Ünel's character, Cahit, seems like someone who came to see a punk-rock show in 1980 and stayed ever since. Cahit is an assimilated 40-year-old Turkish immigrant who does menial cleanup work in a bar in Hamburg in the rowdy St. Pauli district. When drunk, he cuts an ominous figure who only comes to life when he gets the urge to break some glass. In a tailspin one night, Cahit soaks up some beer and goes for a drive, whamming his car into a wall.

In the hospital, he meets an oddly cheery girl named Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), in for a failed suicide. Even after Cahit counsels her on the correct way to slash her wrists, so she'll get it right next time, she doesn't lose her bewitching eerie grin: "You're Turkish? Marry me." Her plan is to get out from under the thumb of her traditional family, especially her seething brother, who once broke her nose because he caught her holding hands with a boy.

Cahit goes along with the mad plan, shaving off his wino's beard and meeting the in-laws. Director Akin adds a new phrase to the world's vocabulary in the moment when Cahit gapes at the way his new bride has refurbished his apartment: "It looks like a chick bomb went off in here."

But Sibel is about 20, and she wants a young man's privilege—to sleep around, snort coke and stay out all night long. The emotionally frozen Cahit, still in dark mourning for an incident in his past, begins to feel again—with all the trouble that phrase entails. His awakening gives you the same inner thrill of seeing where a patch of grass has broken through concrete.

Head-On earns an easy spot on the 10-best list for 2005. The car crash at the beginning sets the tone. This bitter comedy, with tragic highlights, is about the force of love hitting frail human beings. This is a German movie, in touch with what John Updike calls "the ancestral wisdom of pessimism." The last third turns alternately brutal and poignant. The pain for American optimists is lessened by a framing device—a sextet, Selim Sesler and her orchestra, perform on a mat of Turkish carpets on the opposite shore of the Bosphorus from Hagia Sophia. The music is a consolation, suggesting that Head-On is essentially a cinematic version of a sad love song in the traditional Turkish manner. The music recommends Head-On. So does Kekilli—a bewilderingly pretty, astonishingly talented newcomer, picked out of a crowd at a Cologne shopping mall. This doomed romance shames Hollywood chick bombs. And the eventual renewal of the scarily hilarious Cahit—as self-destructive as a barload of Bukowskis—even gives the pessimistic a boost.

Head-On (Unrated; 121 min.), directed and written by Fatih Akin, photographed by Rainer Klausmann and starring Birol Ünel and Sibel Kekilli, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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