Cosmopolitan Filmmaking: Fatih Akin's In July and Head-On

A striking sequence in Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004), Fatih Akin's first feature of his "love, death, and devil" film trilogy, sums up the film's theme of love and fate but also devolves into a story about family and roots. Announced by a closeup of a compact disc, this montage sequence follows Akin's female protagonist Sibel from attempting to commit suicide after her husband's imprisonment, while she is home alone, to her escape from her violent brother in a street scene that concludes the sequence. Rapid crosscutting between shots of the heroine and her family draws spectators into Akin's imaginary worlds of disparate identities. The foregrounding of painful details, which capture the characters' experiences of loss, creates a chilling effect. The extreme closeup of Sibel's cut wrist accords an emotional magnitude to the dilemma of belonging and citizenship in the present-day globalized culture, particularly for immigrant populations.

Applauded for taking both a transnational and a humanist approach, Akin's films have evoked strong reactions from many scholars. Stephan K. Schindler and Lutz Koepnick suggest that Akin's characters represent "existential nomads ready to leave a past of stifling conventions behind" (Schindler and Koepnick 2007: 6). Whereas in Im Juli (In July, 2000) his characters live in an idealized borderless world, transcending cultural differences, Head-On offers a grim portrait of family dynamics and his characters struggle to maintain their roots in a specific nation and culture. Both films question the possibility of simultaneous transnationalism and rootedness.

Contemporary theories of cosmopolitanism also represent this tension and therefore offer a productive framework to discuss Akin's comedy and melodrama. With the recent development of globalization, cosmopolitanism has become a key concept to discuss the specificities of globalization, forms of belonging, and cultural difference. Traditional scholars of cosmopolitanism, such as Martha Nussbaum, advocate the universalist idea of a borderless world while claiming that the emphasis on national loyalty is the cause for conflict, clash of ideologies, and territorial struggle (1994; 1996). As other critics have noted, this model of an imaginary community could result in the homogenization of diverse cultures and identities. In his book Cosmopolitism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006) the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes that cosmopolitanism is neither to be conceived as liberal universalism (i.e., the idea of imposing one's values onto others) nor cultural relativism (i.e., the belief that cultural differences cannot be bridged). Our responsibilities for others, as Appiah suggests, extend beyond those that are connected to us through kinship and citizenship. For Appiah cosmopolitanism represents "the name not of the solution but of the challenge" (2006: xv). Practicing cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, as B. Venkat Mani suggests in his reading of Amanda Anderson (2001) and Rebecca Walkowitz (2006), can mean a "disposition" and "an intellectual practice" by which authors "simultaneously attach ... and detach themselves from both the nation and their ethnicities, and, thus, transform themselves" (Mani 2007: 41). While the aspect of "irony . and negative freedom," to reiterate Mani on Anderson, functions as a preferred mode for detachment, elements such as "triviality," "treason," "mix-up and vertigo"—as discussed by Walkowitz—characterize the "cosmopolitan style" of postmodern authors (Mani 2007: 40).

It is from this perspective that I discuss Akin's In July and Head-On, two love stories that address questions of mobility, belonging, and cultural difference. First my essay examines the changes in media systems to shed light on the connection between the globalization of culture and Akin's cinematic aesthetic. Then I will discuss how his comedy and melodrama present the particularities of cultural experience. Specifically in my reading of Head-On I suggest that the use of music opens up a horizon of references that go beyond the film's narrative time and space (see also the two subsequent essays in this section). In the final part of my discussion I argue that the idea of achieving a "rooted cosmopolitanism," in Appiah's words, drives the narrative of Akin's melodrama.

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