"Love in a Time of Suicide"
Review by Verkin Kasapoglu Arioba
The seeds of love can be planted anywhere, from the gutter to the palace on the hill. In Fatih Akin's film, Gegen die Wand (Against the Wall) the seeds are sown in a sanatorium where Cahit (Birol Unel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) first meet to find that their common ground lies in their pursuit of death. Sibel lands there after slitting her wrists while Cahit drunkenly drove his car into a wall. Set in modern Hamburg and Istanbul, the film has set off brush fires of debate as it portrays the modern Turkish Gast-Arbeiter (guest-worker) subculture, imported by Germany for post war reconstruction. Akin, who both wrote and directed this brilliantly subtle and edgy look at an ethnic underworld, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, knows the subject well, himself a Turk born in Hamburg.
The movie dives right into the often dirty trenches where cultures intersect. Traditions are often sawn off as a useless appendage in the back alleys of graffittied streets or gripped tightly by the collar and held as a weapon, a guard dog ready to charge any who threaten. Akin reveals the western utopian fantasy of the melting pot as just that, "fantasy" The immigrant world kicks it into the gutter where it belongs, because people in dire need have more important things to think of when stuck in the mire of their own transitioning lives. No ideal is safe in his film, as the fidelity of marriage itself is pulled down into the fires of slit-wristed drug induced passion, but like the Phoenix, it rises to take on a stronger unforeseen form. In this portrait, wounds of lost love and violence are bathed in booze and Neolithic sex, but Akin skillfully weaves a subtle thread of compassionate camaraderie as Sibel and Cahit navigate their togetherness.
In another sense, the movie is a shamanic quest for identity by two seekers caught under the dark cloud of disenfranchisement. What light there is under this cloud often emanates from an even darker source, leaving the searcher fumbling around in search of deliverance of any kind, unsure of what's ahead, even unable to see at times where life is even going. Early on, Sibel and Cahit show no fear of death, and as any shamanic tradition states, only those who come to terms with death truly live. Being Turks, and not born from European judeo-christian stock, only subjected to it, their traditions lie thousands of miles and years distant, given birth by a mythos where love and death come from the same source. This source demands attention, even from those uprooted from its traditions, as Sibel and Cahit find out the hard way. Sibel is a young woman who wants the freedom to explore her surroundings and sexuality, while Cahit, in the beginning, only seems to want the freedom to drown in drink. Sibel is forced to live under the despotic and abusive banner of a conservative Turkish family. She tells Cahit how her brother once broke her nose just for seeing her holding hands with a boy, and views marriage as the only alternative to death in her attempts to escape her family's tyranny.
Whereas Sibel is at least membered in a cultural tradition, though one she can't live with, Cahit portrays the drunken drop-out syndrome often found in those who can't find 'home', or won't. He lives in a no man's land, capable of tossing anything into the nearest dumpster, being neither a German, by birth, nor Turk, by cultural upbringing. He decides to try and help Sibel and perhaps this action is a first step back to the land of the living, or maybe he's only gathering another set of eyes to witness his own destruction. He's not a bad guy, only lost, and though he doesn't see himself as 'rescueable', the gesture of help he extends to Sibel so she can have a chance at life, without wanting anything in return, betrays the softness and benevolence of his troubled soul.
During the darkly stern but comedic courtship scene where he manages to clean himself up enough to uncomfortably meet her family, Sibel's brother grills him about his poor Turkish. Cahit's only reply is "I threw it away."
The film manages to capture, with unwavering integrity, both the complicated webs of condemnation and redemption, and the no-holds-barred grit and sanctity woven through the human tapestry of existence. Driven along by a brilliant story, rivetting acting, direction and diverse music, from punk to traditional Turkish, its rawness and simplicity are used to its advantage, something big budget films can only counterfeit. Perhaps the film's biggest triumph lies in not making any grandiose judgments or statements regarding a topic full of political undertones. Instead, he puts modernity itself on the witness stand, where the pursuit by Europe to be a functional family of tolerance is exposed as myth, and their ideals of minority inclusion are left a lie, since Turks have been living in and rebuilding Germany for over 40 years and only now are just starting to begrudgingly receive citizenship. As the two seekers find love in a most unlikely place, their new found powers give them the strength to reject both the European hypocritical hedonistic mythos, which leaves many emptily pursuing fulfillment in bottles, syringes and sex, and their own culture's modern conservative faith, which harshly condemns any truancy. Being free of both burdens, but utilizing the lessons learned from each, the heroes initially find redemption in love and later within themselves, as their adventure unwinds in modern time, walking hand in hand with their ancient heritage's spirit of transformation.
"Gegen die Wand"
(Turkish/German, with English subtitles)
Writer and Director: Fatih Akin
Director of Photography, Rainer Klausmann
Editor: Andrew Bird
Artistic Director: Andreas Thiel
Producers: Ralph Schwingel, Stefan Schubert and Wüste Filmproduktion; released by Strand Releasing. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is not rated.
Cast: Birol Unel (Cahit), Sibel Kekilli (Sibel), Catrin Striebeck (Maren) and Guven Kirac (Seref).