Mostly Martha (2001)

2002-08-16 (Limited release)

Celebrity chef Martha (Martina Gedeck) is the darling of culinary Hamburg. Adoring fans come to worship at her stylish and popular restaurant. The inner drive keeping her at the top of her game, however, is also sealing her off from life. She is rigid and unforgiving. When customers at her restaurant complain about the food not being to their liking, she storms out from the kitchen to rail at their “philistinism.” In the world of the food fetishist, there is no middle ground. You either get it or you don’t.

Sandra Nettelback’s first feature film, Mostly Martha, caters to this sensibility. Martha is obsessed with food. On her therapist’s couch, it is the sole topic of her monologues. When she’s not cooking, she is home alone. We get an indication that she is not wholly content with her solitude when she invites her new neighbor, Sam (Ulrich Thomsen), for dinner. When he asks who she is, she answers, “a chef,” and then remembers to tag on her name. Sadly, Sam has an appointment. As a romantic interest, Sam is, in fact, a bit of a red herring. He seems only to model what a successful artistic person — he’s an architect — can make of life. He listens to loud music, plays with his children, and is a laid-back example to our lonely chef.

Martha’s solitude is soon shattered, however. Her sister dies in a car crash, leaving Martha in custody of her 9-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste). While Martha struggles with her grief and new responsibilities, her employer hires an itinerant sous-chef, Mario (Sergio Castellito), to ease her responsibilities at the restaurant. He injects a stereotypically Italian brio into his work and relationships — he brings laughter into the kitchen, coaxes the grieving Lina to start eating again, and most importantly, awakens Martha to the joys and imperfections of life, all to a personal soundtrack of Dean Martin and Louis Prima. (Mario literally carries music with him wherever he roams, in the form of a portable cassette player and mix tapes.) His top-notch gnocchi and mascarpone secure his place in the restaurant, and Martha slowly relents under his kindness and evident interest in her. Mario is uninhibited, he lives large, and is scruffily goofy-looking. When he and the reserved Martha kiss, it’s like watching Chico Marx make love to Margaret Dumont.

The love of food keeps the mismatched pair together, and this same love obviously fueled Nettelback to make this movie. Her cinematic debts are obvious. Movies like Big Night and Babette’s Feast have paved the way for the food extravaganza movie. Food is a status symbol in this kind of movie, separating the truly sensitive from the poseurs, who may have money to eat in classy restaurants, but who will never truly understand that salmon poached in basil can be easily botched, that pheasant becomes “dry,” not “tough” when overcooked, and that chefs are not mere slicers and dicers, but creative artists deserving of adulation. When, early in the film, Martha’s sister casually suggests that they order a take-out pizza when she comes to visit, the discerning viewer knows that she has to die.

This mindset is exemplified by the final scene of the movie, in which Martha’s longsuffering therapist treats her to a lemon tart he’s baked himself. Martha tastes it politely, but for all his slavish adherence to her recipe, Martha’s delicate taste buds revolt. It seems that he has used regular sugar instead of Belgian sugar. “Do you mean to tell me that you can tell what kind of sugar I used?” he demands. “No, of course not,” Martha answers, “but I can tell what kind you didn’t use.” He leaps off the couch and storms away. This scene comes, mind you, at the end of the movie, when Martha has loosened up.

The many examples of Martha’s highly-strung food snobbism got the biggest laughs of the movie, but her sincerity cannot be questioned. Certainly, it cannot be denied that there is something very pleasing about watching other people preparing beautiful food. It’s like a Gourmet magazine spread brought to life. The wine glasses gleam, and the napkins are blindingly white. Interestingly, there isn’t a beer stein in sight. Pigs’ trotters and kraut are not, it seems, photogenic enough to qualify for Nettelbeck’s loving camerawork. There’s nary a bowl of kartoffelsuppe to be seen. The food is mostly French, sometimes Italian, but never native to Hamburg.

Perhaps the cultural homogenization so feared by anti-EU activists is becoming a reality. Where last year’s Amélie was criticized for presenting an idealized France, a clichéd vision of bistros, Erik Satie, and croissants, Mostly Martha has to be one of the least German movies ever to come out of Germany. If it had been dubbed into English, and lacked its clipped German diction, it would be almost impossible to know that movie is set there. The atmosphere is generically European, with national characteristics preserved in the stereotypes of the emotional Italian and the orderly German.

Martha’s metamorphosis takes her in a direction beyond her stereotype. Her engagement with the world is complete when her hair, worn for most of the movie in a tight knot, is finally undone. Even though the perfectionist in Martha finds fault with the therapist’s lemon tart, her newfound humanity warms the scene.