Head Burst, which had Asian premiere at IFFI, is a sympathetic look at the plight of a paedophile

Head Burst is a disturbing, troubling film that's bound to be controversial. There will surely be people who ask, 'Do we need to justify the behaviours of such a man?'

Baradwaj Rangan November 28, 2019 17:02:55 IST
Head Burst, which had Asian premiere at IFFI, is a sympathetic look at the plight of a paedophile

Looking at Markus — the protagonist of Savas Ceviz's Head Burst (Kopfplatzen in German) — you'd think he's a nice, normal guy.

Head Burst which had Asian premiere at IFFI is a sympathetic look at the plight of a paedophile

A still from Head Burst. Twitter

One day, entering the building he lives in, he sees a woman, Jessica, struggling with some boxes. She's moving into an apartment near his, and he helps her. He meets her young son, Arthur. A few days later, she invites him over for a thank-you dinner. She talks about Arthur's father, a drunkard. "I was a single mom even then," she says. You sense she's looking for a new partner, especially from the look on her face when she sees Marcus playing a board game with a clearly delighted Arthur.

But Markus would rather be with Arthur. That's his sickening secret. He's a paedophile. He drops in on his sister and gets a bear-hug from his young nephew. A little later, he excuses himself and goes to the toilet and masturbates. "This sucks," he says — not because he isn't able to get what he wants, but because he hates that this is what he wants. In other words, he's aware. He knows it's wrong. He's not like the other paedophile he chats with online, someone who says he can send a link about how to lure young boys, and ends the chat with a wink. Markus knows he isn't that guy.

The first doctor Markus talks to about this condition is disgusted. After a routine medical checkup, Markus says — with much hesitation — that he has a problem. The doctor gives a kindly smile and motions him to sit. With deep intakes of breath, Markus says, "I love children. I find them arousing. I find them attractive, erotic… I don't want to. Can you help me?" His eyes are lowered, but suddenly, he looks up to check the doctor's reaction. The doctor eventually stands and turns his back to Markus and asks him to leave at once. The scene is staged in a way that the doctor comes off as unsympathetic, and the extent to which the film sympathises with Markus is revealed in another scene, with another doctor.

This time, it's a psychiatrist. He says paedophilia is a predisposition and not Markus's fault. It's a sexual orientation that develops during puberty. "You have to live with this your whole life. I am sorry but that's your fate." He adds that he can help Markus control "it", and that he will hopefully not perform any legally punishable acts. But Markus needs to take control of his behaviour. "If a child is hurt, you are responsible." These words are a comfort to Markus. (He knows at least he cannot help it.) But they are also of little practical use. (If he cannot help it, then how can he not act on his impulses?)

There's no doubt that Head Burst — which draws its title from the desires that keep growing inside Markus until he thinks his head will burst — is a disturbing, troubling film that's bound to be controversial. There will surely be people who ask, "Do we need to justify the behaviours of such a man?" Then there will be others who think of other pieces of entertainment that do, indeed, justify behaviours that we generally accept as abhorrent — say, the television series, Dexter. In that show, the protagonist is born with serial-killing impulses, and his adoptive father helped him "control" those impulses so that he would only kill those who did bad things and "deserved to die". It's like what the psychiatrist tells Markus: I understand that you cannot help it. But it's not right, and you have to find a way...

This sympathy is extended to a metaphor (a tad overwrought, I felt) about a wolf in a cage that Markus keeps coming back to. (I think it's a park or a zoo.) Early in the film, the wolf appears tame. At one point, it even licks Markus's fingers as he presses against the bars of the cage. But in a later scene, it snarls and bares its fangs. Markus, too, is finding it increasingly difficult to "cage" his innate nature. The beast wants to get out. Some of us will feel sorry for him, even if we condemn his thoughts. He has shut himself off from people. A woman from work asks him out for a drink. He makes an excuse and refuses. Male friends ask him to join them for a drink. He refuses. There's lots of silence in the film, as though we are left alone with his thoughts. He is also frequently seen standing by a window in his house, his "cage", gazing outside. One day, he sees a couple in the distance, walking hand in hand. He knows that will never be him.

And yet, we shrink back because the camera makes us see what Markus sees. He doesn't see boys as we do, as just little versions of men. He sees them as little bodies taking a shower after a swim as he stands in the showers opposite them. He sees them as the slope of a neck, as a set of eyelashes curling upward, as blonde hair cascading down in an arc, or as a smiling picture on Jessica's table, which is what Markus stares at when Jessica makes love to him. (He doesn't make love to her. He just does what's expected of him in this situation.) The suspense element is whether (rather, when) someone will find out — and what will happen afterwards. But Head Burst would have functioned just as well as a purely interior drama of a man trapped in a cage.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

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