The Breakthrough: Head-On

With the release of Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004) Akin achieved his final breakthrough. The media coverage on the occasion of Akin being awarded the Golden Bear for Head-On is therefore of particular interest. The attention drawn by the convoys of Turks in their cars in Akin's hometown Hamburg, the debate about a Turkish renewal of German filmmaking as well as Akin's designation as the new ambassador of German cinema may shed light on Akin's cultural categorization between the poles of his proposed ethnic Turkishness and his presumed role in pioneering a new, young German cinema.

In the reviews of Head-On, discussion widely focuses on the portrayal of Akin's hometown Hamburg, more specifically the district of Altona. Even though some of the critics explicitly quote Akin's refusal of a cultural categorization, they do this precisely by repeatedly referring to him as Akin, "born and living in Hamburg" and "of Turkish stock" (Mehlig 2004). Holger Mehlig explicitly tells us that the only thing that Akin would like to read about himself in the press is that he strives to be a good filmmaker—that for him, origin and the like are all hollow words. However, statements like these do not seem to impress many critics, who continue to pigeonhole Head-On into the genre of "new Turkish German film," thus promoting Akin as the spokesperson for a new, internationally successful German cinema.

Yet there are other, more conservative voices to be heard in the hymns of praise for Head-On—voices that represent the exclusionary strategies in the debates about a German Leitkultur and remind us of the dangers of Islamist fundamentalism in Germany, subsuming—especially after 11 September 2001—German "Turks" under the broad category of Muslims and warning us about honor killings, forced marriages, and patriarchal oppression. Peter Zander's review in Welt Online (2004) provides probably the best example of this attitude, as he declares without hesitation that Head-On is an explicit comment on the recent debates about headscarves: "After all, this debate tends to neglect the fact that Turkish women in Germany often do not have a choice; that orthodox Muslims try to prevent their daughters' participating in sex education and swimming lessons at school. Fatih Akin offers in the character of Sibil [sic] a clear and passionate alternative: a young woman who grew up in Germany and wants to live like a German as well." According to Zander, not only Sibel's father but also Cahit represent the "violent Muslim." It is not surprising that Zander's article was published in the conservative newspaper Die Welt, which has been at the forefront in recent years when it comes to warning Germans about the dangers of Islam. Articles in the conservative press often mention reservations about Turkey's EU membership and the dangers of Islam for Europe in the same breath.

Other critics explicitly address the question of what Akin's being awarded the Golden Bear for Head-On means for the self-definition of German cinema and of Germanness in general—a question that preoccupies Hanns-Georg Rodek in his article "Gegen die Wand ist durch die Wand" (Against the wall is through the wall), also published in Welt Online (2004). "We are somebody again," states Rodek—but who are "we," the Germans, if (as Rodek reminds us) the director of the award-winning film (Siegerfilm) is called Fatih Akin and his stars Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli? Rodek continues in a rather unsettling tone: "We have already become used to Poles (Miroslav Klose), Brazilians (Kevin Kuranyi), and even a black man (Gerald Asamoah) wearing the colors of the German national soccer team—but a Muslim (who completed his compulsory military service in a regiment of German armored infantry) as a representative of German high culture raises this trend to a qualitative level." According to Rodek, the existence of a growing "enclave" of Turkish German film production must be considered against the backdrop of the especially strong clash of cultures that confronts Muslims in Western Europe. "Turkish" and "Muslim"—for Rodek, these labels are interchangeable. This particular clash of cultures, Rodek continues, makes an evaluation of one's own identity (eigene Standortbestimmung) even more pressing than, for example, for Italian immigrants in Germany. On the other hand, Rodek stresses that for the sons of Turkish immigrants, there is no return to their parents' country because they have found a new Heimat—namely Hamburg, in Akin's case.

Contrary to Rodek, Katja Nicodemus in Die Zeit (2004) celebrates Head- On as a turning point in Turkish German cinema and in German cinema in general, moving beyond the cliche of the guestworker and the desire for a German Leitkultur and stressing the fact that Germany has indeed become a country of immigration. Nicodemus's article therefore provides a good example of a liberal stance toward questions of German identity, migration, and transnationalism. Even though Nicodemus, like many other critics, highlights the impact of Akin's personal background on his films, she clearly distances herself from the sentimental, marginalizing, and patronizing attitude of other critics. Like Rodek, Nicodemus stresses the meaning of Akin's success for a reevaluation of German cinema, yet from an entirely different angle, suggesting a cinema of migration that self-confidently moves between the worlds and finally depicts Germany as the country of immigration it resists becoming. Unlike the banlieue films from France, the focus of the young Turkish German filmmakers is, according to Nicodemus, much broader and defined by a focus on pluralism and hybridity which, in a globalized world of migration, has become entirely normal.

Oliver Huttmann in his article in Spiegel Online (2004) goes even further, stressing that despite being a Turkish drama in Germany, Head-On—due to its filmic style and topics—could take place in Asia or Latin America. Huttmann is also the only film critic who explicitly identifies Akin as a European filmmaker. Others, such as Andreas Busche in Zeit Online (2004) and Lars-Olav Beier in Spiegel Online (2004), also go beyond cultural stereotypes, arguing that Head-On deals with general, human questions such as love and self-destruction, which are only catalyzed through the Otherness, i.e., the Turkish heritage of the protagonists.

Hence, contrary to the conservative papers, the liberal press highlights the transnational perspective of Head-On, painting a picture of Germany as an open-minded, multicultural society with a global perspective—a picture which, to be sure, corresponds exactly to the image of a "normal," progressive, globally oriented Germany promoted by the Schroder administration. However, such a liberal stance does not overcome identitarian discourses. According special status to a multicultural auteur conforms to readers' expectations and makes him more marketable, as the film critiques of Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005), Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven, 2007) and Soul Kitchen (2009) will show.

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