Shortly after pretty, 23-year-old Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) meets dissolute, 40-year-old Cahit (Birol Unel) in a psychiatric ward, she asks him to marry her. They may be utter strangers, but they have several things in common. Both are Turkish Germans living in Hamburg, and both have recently attempted suicide--he by driving his car into a wall, she by ineptly slashing her wrists. Sibel needs a Turkish husband to escape her suffocatingly traditional Muslim family so she can pursue a full-throttle Western lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Cahit, who has the reckless charisma of a wasted rock star, will be free to self- destruct his own way, with booze and drugs, but at least he'll have someone to clean up his slag heap of an apartment. As designs for living go, it could be worse.

This is the setup of Fatih Akin's "Head-On," the extraordinary German film that just won the European best-film award over such highly touted movies as "Bad Education," "The Sea Inside" and "Vera Drake." It also took top prize at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and swept the German equivalent of the Academy Awards. It's not hard to see why. "Head-On" begins as a pitch-black punk comedy of self-destruction--violent, anarchic and queasily funny. That this marriage of convenience between two cultural misfits will eventually lead to love may sound like a Hollywood contrivance, but that's not at all the way it plays. Akin's raw, powerful, multileveled movie takes us places we never expected to go, leaping from Germany to Istanbul and from the personal to the political as it explores what it means to be caught in the schizoid grip of clashing cultures, to live in a world of ambiguous psychic and geographical borders. Like Cahit and Sibel, whose lives are transformed in unforeseeable ways, the movie metamorphoses into a love story of surprisingly epic proportions.