"Soul Kitchen" is a lively, easygoing farce filled with high-energy music and amusing complications. It sounds like the least likely film to be written and directed by Fatih Akin. Or does it?
Akin, born in Germany of Turkish parents, is best known for way-serious films such as the devastating "Head-On" and the somber " The Edge of Heaven." Though he'd written this film before those two, he admits in a director's statement that after their success, "I didn't find 'Soul Kitchen' important enough." He soon changed his mind and, aside from the desire to remind himself "that life is not only about pain and introspection," it is easy to see why he did.
For though his tone couldn't be more different, "Soul Kitchen" shares with Akin's other films a fondness for offbeat characters who live life to the hilt as well as a thematic interest in the way individuals of foreign backgrounds interact with the dominant German culture. What we're very much enjoying here are Akin's usual concerns displayed in a fooling-around mode.
The fish out of water this time around is Zinos Kazantsakis, a Greco-German who runs a restaurant in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Hamburg. As played by Adam Bousdoukos, whose restaurant ownership inspired the script he ended up co-writing, Zinos is powered by the juices of life and knows no speed but full speed ahead.
Romance, however, is about to provide a speed bump. Zinos' upscale girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is headed off for a multiyear journalism posting in Shanghai, and he would desperately like to join her. But he can't bear to leave his restaurant even though the food he makes never manages to rise to the level of indifferent.
Because this is a farce with endless obstacles, the people Zinos meets further complicate his life. He runs into an old childhood friend turned real estate entrepreneur (Wotan Wilke Möhring) as well as a brilliant but temperamental chef named Shayn ("Head-On" star Birol Ünel) who tells everyone who asks — and many people who don't — that he's an artist, not a whore.
Adding yet another flavor to the mix is Zinos' brother Illias (top German actor Moritz Bleibtreu, the star of "Run Lola Run" and "The Baader Meinhof Complex"). Illias is a con man on a prison work-release program who wants a de facto job with no responsibilities that will leave him free for his criminal pursuits.
These characters, and lots more, interact in endless ways both expected and not. "Soul Kitchen" even finds the time and space to take comic pokes at German bureaucracy, from restaurant health inspectors to tax assessment officials.
And when Zinos slips a disc trying to lift a dishwasher by himself, the film's generous helpings of physical comedy come into play, culminating in a wild scene with a terrifying physical therapist named Kemal the Bone Cruncher, who Akin insists is a real person he has personally patronized.
There is so much going on in "Soul Kitchen" that you'd run out of breath before you could relate it all. That may sound tiring to experience but in fact watching all this plot on screen actually energizes the viewing experience.
Also helping in the energy department is the film's terrific soundtrack. Music is a major interest of Akin's (one of his films, "Crossing the Bridge," is a documentary about the Istanbul music scene), and he's put artists such as Ruth Brown, Burning Spear, Artie Shaw, the Isley Brothers and Kool & the Gang on the soundtrack, as well as generous helpings of rembetiko and Greek soul music.
There's no denying that "Soul Kitchen" is a film that delights in contrivance and improbability, but it does so with such a big-hearted sense of fun that it is hard not to be swept away. No matter what style he chooses to work in, Akin is a filmmaker first and foremost, and that makes all the difference.