Indie Focus: Fatih Akin’s ‘Soul Kitchen’

With his funny, freewheeling new film, “Soul Kitchen,” Fatih Akin discovered the truth behind the old aphorism that comedy is hard. He jumped to prominence on the international festival circuit with the films “Head-On” and " The Edge of Heaven,” heavy-duty dramas that dealt imaginatively with the search for immigrant identity and evolving ideas of community and home, but Akin says “Soul Kitchen” was his toughest to make.

“A comedy like ‘Soul Kitchen’ is really dependent on the rhythm of the film. As a filmmaker you really have to dominate,” says Akin, born in Germany to Turkish parents and whose films capture the cross-cultural vibrancy of his hometown of Hamburg. “The other films, the rhythm kind of just came by itself, there were certain scenes that just had a certain flow. But in ‘Soul Kitchen’ I had to have everything under control, the writing, the tone, and I was not sure about what I was doing. I had to learn.”

The film plays as a sort of shambling hymn to Hamburg, with themes of gentrification easily recognizable to city dwellers elsewhere. The story is based on the experiences of Adam Bousdoukos, who stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Akin. In the film, Zinos (Bousdoukos) struggles to hold on to his run-down Hamburg restaurant — part mess hall diner, part rec center hangout — as his girlfriend (Pheline Roggan) is moving to Shanghai for her work. When Zinos brings in a snobbish, temperamental chef (Birol Ünel) he loses most of his regular customers. Once his freshly paroled brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) arrives needing a job, things seem to go from bad to worse to, eventually, better.

“Soul Kitchen” features a blaring soundtrack of percolating soul, R&B, hip-hop and rock’n’ roll that Akin, 37, is careful to point out was chosen for its connection to the characters, not necessarily just because all the songs were personal favorites. Among Akin’s earlier films is the documentary “Crossing the Bridge,” about the varied music scenes in Istanbul.

“I didn’t want to be a slave to my success,” he says, of his piercing dramas in relation to the breezier “Soul Kitchen.” “I want to do what I want to do, what I feel like doing. After ‘Edge of Heaven’ I was emotionally exhausted from all the serious stuff I did.”

Part of that exhaustion came from the fact that his producer and mentor, Andreas Thiel, had unexpectedly passed away during the last week of shooting “The Edge of Heaven.” After a long period of grieving for the loss of his friend, Akin realized he needed to start afresh.

“‘Soul Kitchen’ was first of all a project Andreas always wanted me to do,” he says by phone from New York. “But I didn’t trust the script and didn’t trust the material. And I was not free of worrying about the opinion of the critics. I was under huge pressure. When I see ‘Edge of Heaven’ today I see the pressure beneath the film, the pressure of the success of ‘Head-On.’ So the last lesson Andreas was teaching me was ‘do your thing.’”

So far, Akin’s unexpected run at comedy has paid off well. Winning a special jury prize and the Young Cinema Award after its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the film has gone on to be his biggest box-office success yet in Germany and other European countries.

Akin would often hang out at the restaurant run by Bousdoukos in Hamburg for some 10 years, a place where, as in the film, the stereo was once taken by the tax office. Yet even while taking a peek back behind the kitchen doors, Akin says that “Soul Kitchen” is also a metaphor for the process of making films as well as food.

“I didn’t want to do a film about filmmaking in the literal sense. I think that can be very boring for the audience,” said Akin, “but I could really symbolize my thoughts about filmmaking through ‘Soul Kitchen.’ Those two worlds, they share the same madness in a way — the owner of a restaurant is like a producer, the chef is like a director, the customers are the audience and dishes are very much like films. And you even have food critics.”

“Soul Kitchen,” for all its differences from his previous films, treats many of the same thematic ideas of how people can create a sense of community, a feeling of home, wherever they may be. (The new film also features many performers familiar from Akin’s other films.) Himself also a DJ and avid record collector — Akin asks if a specific shop in Los Angeles is still open and says he dropped a lot money on records during his recent swing through the U.S. — he finds a musical analogy to sum up the connections between his films.

“Maybe it is a bit early for a best-of, but it felt like a best-of,” he said. “Sometimes I thought if films were like records, this is like a greatest hits.”