Up and Down and Head-On
reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, March 28, 2005
The European establishment long silenced discussion of immigration by demonizing restrictionists, such as the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, as racists. Last November's execution of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-born Muslim extremist, however, has finally made the topic central to European politics.
Immigration in Central Europe is explored in "Up and Down" and "Head-On," two memorable movies with forgettable titles.
While the high-velocity "Head-On," a jolting love story about cocaine-sniffing young Turks, looks at assimilated immigrants in Hamburg, the more staid "Up and Down" examines the impact of new immigrants on native Czechs in Prague.
"Up and Down" is the kind of ensemble comedy-drama that appeals more to critics than audiences, who want star vehicles and happy endings. With a title recalling "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Up and Down" deftly traces the unexpected intersection of a troubled upper middle class family out of a Milan Kundera novel about heroic dissidents with deplorable sexual morals and a lumpenproletariat network of illegal immigrant smugglers and skinhead soccer hooligans.
While lecturing on immigration, a professor -- revered for his costly defiance of the old Warsaw Bloc puppet regime -- collapses. When told he needs a potentially lethal operation, he announces to his teenage daughter and her beautiful mother that he wants to see his son, who hasn't written to him since emigrating to Australia, and to divorce his wife.
The abandoned wife learns that her husband won back in the post-Velvet Revolution courts the beautiful house the Communist Party threw the two of them out of as punishment for his anti-Soviet activities, and he has been living in it with his mistress, while she has been stuck in a neighborhood recently overrun by thieving Gypsies. Normally a cheery soul popular in Prague's traditional beer halls, this woman scorned is outraged to hear that her husband's chic girlfriend works for a government agency that subsidizes the asylum-seekers who steal from her.
Meanwhile, a working class wife with an Amélie haircut and an infertility problem is desperate for a baby, but her loving husband, a dim security guard played endearingly by Jirí Machácek, is ineligible to adopt because of his soccer riot assault conviction. So, she buys a dark-skinned South Asian baby from two illegal alien traffickers, to the anguish of her harelip husband. He fears he'll be excommunicated by his quasi-fascist soccer fan buddies, who worry that blue collar lugs like themselves are being forced out by low-wage Asians newcomers. (As in "American History X," in which Edward Norton played an evil skinhead, the script gives the xenophobes most of the good lines.)
Soon, though, the big oaf is infatuated with his tiny brown son. Sure, the dumb brute with the heart of gold is a cliché, but that's because he's such an emotionally resonant archetype.
In Fatih Akin's funny and disturbing "Head-On," a suicidally glum busboy at a Hamburg punk rock bar, who has almost forgotten his native Turkish, agrees to a fake, sexless marriage to a pretty but slutty Turkish girl. She needs a Turkish husband to move out of her patriarchal father's house, so she can sleep around and take drugs.
"Head-On" begins as a raucous reworking of "The Odd Couple" as a punk romantic comedy. When the bride nicely redecorates her pseudo-groom's squalid apartment, replacing his Siouxsie and the Banshees poster with throw pillows, he snorts, "It looks like a chick-bomb exploded in here." (Modern love stories need these kinds of plot contrivances to delay consummation.) But her Carmen-like promiscuity leads to tragedy and an impassioned coda in Istanbul.
Many pundits advocate assimilation as the sure cure for any problems caused by immigration, but few ask: "Assimilation toward what?" In America, for example, immigrant kids often assimilate toward gangsta rap norms. German culture, still despised and depressed 60 years after 1945, lacks the confidence in its own coolness that African-Americans possess, so Hamburg's hipsters, both German and Turkish, assimilate instead toward the decadent styles of the old London and New York punk scenes.
True-believers in assimilation assume that young Turks educated in Germany will naturally want to write a new Eroica Symphony or found the next Mercedes-Benz, but "Head-On" suggests that they actually want to re-enact "Sid and Nancy," Alex Cox's 1986 classic about Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and junkie-groupie Nancy Spungeon, the two most worthless people ever to fall madly in love.
"Head-On" isn't quite as stunning as "Sid and Nancy," but it's close.
Both are rated R for sex and violence.
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