Coming off directing two of the most emotionally devastating and formally rigorous films in recent memory (the near masterpiece The Edge of Heaven, and the absolute masterpiece Head-On), you can forgive the prodigiously talented Turkish-German director Fatih Akin for wanting to ratchet the intensity down a notch or two (or a hundred) and have some fun. Which is exactly what he does with his latest film, Soul Kitchen, a breezy, shambling comedy that manages to be a complete 180 from his previous films, while still displaying the same signature style and energy that put Akin on the map as one of Europe’s best young directors.
Zinos (a perpetually shambling and harried Adam Bousdoukos) is a young German hipster of Greek descent, trying desperately to keep his ramshackle warehouse restaurant afloat, despite the fact that he’s not a very good chef, has no real staff, and few customers. He’s also trying to keep his recently paroled brother on the right side of the law; keep his relationship with his girlfriend together as she leaves for a new job in China; keep the tax officials off his back; keep the health office from shutting him down; and keep gangsters from stealing away his suddenly valuable waterfront property.
All these burdens become, understandably, quite crushing to poor Zinos, and he struggles mightily, as the film progresses, to walk upright in spite of all the pressures (quite literally, as one of the film’s early, literal gags has him throwing his back out moving an ancient dishwasher, thus hobbling him with a hernia for the remainder of the film). An endless string of screw-ups and disasters revolving around his love life, his brother and the restaurant ensue, and keep the film humming along at an agreeable pace. Though some fairly unpleasant (and predictable) misfortunate befalls Zinos along the way (loses his girlfriend, loses his brother, loses his restaurant), the film is too good natured and light to court the tragedy that Akin evoked in his previous films.
In fact, it seems at times that Soul Kitchen is a refutation of, or at least the antidote to, the miserabilist fatalism of Head-on and Edge of Heaven, finding a joy, or solace, in the absurdity of Zinos’ plight. Akin’s primary concerns haven’t changed – family, national identity, displacement and home – but in Zinos’ crappy little restaurant – full of friends and chaos and rhythm and soul – he may have found a safe, happy haven from the crushing weight of the world.
So even though Soul Kitchen feels (somewhat ironically) weightless at times, its screwball comic sheen does cover a more serious interior if you want to dig a little bit. Akin’s focus on the immigrant/expatriate experience in Germany (here, Greek instead of his usual focus on Turkish immigrants) is, as always, never far from his mind, nor is his concern with issues of family, both biological and “adopted”.
The denizens of the kitchen are a typical rag tag bunch of misfits (of the sort that inhabited the café in Amelie, if a little grittier), including a psychotic, Gordon Ramsey-ish chef (Biro Unel, the lead from Head-On) who has an unfortunate tendency for going after diners with his chopping knife; a hipster manic-pixie-dream-girl type waitress, who falls for Zinos’s ne’er-do-well brother; and a crusty sea captain who rents the front part of the restaurant to store his broken fishing boat. It would probably be all a bit to twee if they didn’t all seem so damn cozy and right for each other, propping up Zinos and keeping him from falling completely into despair.
Boasting a great old school ‘60s and ‘70s soul and R&B soundtrack that belies the films gritty look and setting, Soul Kitchen’s unexpected looseness and abrupt about face in tone just further cements my already held belief that Fatih Akin is one of the most confident directors and humanists working in world cinema today.
The only special feature accompanying the DVD release of Soul Kitchen is a 35-minute behind the scenes feature, a good portion of which is just director Fatih Akin and star Adam Bousdoukos (who were fast childhood friends) shooting the shit about the origins of the film. Turns out a good portion of it is taken from Bousdoukos’ own past career as a fledgling hipster restaurateur, to the point that Akin jokes that Soul Kitchen is more appropriately a documentary than anything.
A good portion of the footage comes from on-set as well, filming various key scenes of the film, and it generally looks like it was as much a blast to make as it is to watch. A loose, party atmosphere pervades the whole production, which I wouldn’t have expected from Akin, who seems such a rigorous perfectionist director in his other films. I was also shocked to learn that somehow Soul Kitchen, despite its modest scope and limited setting, ended up being his biggest budget film, even though it lacks the continent hopping and stylistic ambition of his other films. Akin attributes most of this to his choice to use Super 35 film stock for shooting.