Whoever said the Germans don’t have a sense of humor is wrong. But there just might be a truth to the beer-nuzzling and kinky German stereotype, at least according to Soul Kitchen, a comedy from Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, which opens in theaters today.
Viewers who have never watched Akin’s previous works might be surprised to find out that his two previous award-winning films, Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, dealt with serious topics such as loss and depression. Not to say Soul Kitchen doesn’t deal with loss and depression as well — it just handles the subjects in a light-hearted way, meeting the characters’ anguish with only more chuckles.
Soul Kitchen is the name of the restaurant run by Zinos Kazantzakis (Adam Bousdoukos). The movie centers on the ups and downs of this creaky diner in an obscure area in Hamburg, where the extensive menu offers 40 different kinds of dishes — all of which are frozen, dehydrated and smothered in the same cream sauce. Every night, Zinos, the lone chef in the house, frantically plops frozen fish sticks into a household deep fryer and spoons out store-bought potato salad onto mismatched plates.
Things could be better, but Zinos is satisfied. He has a loyal gathering of customers and he forms a comfortable alliance with his two loyal employees. But unexpected trials start confronting him in a continuous chain, testing Zinos’ opportunistic nature. Each misfortune, however, is injected with slapstick comedy and lewd humor.
His gorgeous girlfriend, Nadine (Pheline Roggan) leaves for Shanghai, resorting to steamy Skype sessions to keep their relationship going. He breaks his back while trying to move a broken dishwasher. His crooked brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) turns up, paroled, begging for a job so he can stay out of jail. But that’s not the end of it.
Soul Kitchen, the only thing Zinos really owns, is in trouble. A tax collector shows up and confiscates the sound system. Zinos hires a new chef, Shayn (Birol Unel), to cook while Zinos mends his back, but the unshaven, salt-and-pepper-haired chef is a temperamental food snob who was fired from a high-end restaurant after he answered a customer asking for microwaved gazpacho with a butcher knife.
When faced with Zinos’ processed-food-loving crowd, Shayn denounces the group as “culinary racists,” telling it to get pizza at the supermarket instead. Unsurprisingly, all of the few customers Zinos had leave in a huff, presumably to the nearest supermarket.
Then Zinos’ thuggish old friend Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) shows up in his gleaming Audi and uses every unscrupulous way imaginable to coax Zinos into selling his restaurant so he can flatten it to build a brothel.
It’s drama after drama. From robberies to sibling betrayals to a funeral crashing — and even a full-out orgy party thanks to an aphrodisiac dessert overdose. All of this is hilariously interjected with Zinos’ crippled hobble and plenty of shot glasses.
The most engaging quality about this movie, however, is not the brisk, enthusiastic plot but its endearing characters. No matter how wicked, flawed or exasperating the characters are, every one of them is so real and sincere that one can’t help becoming emotionally invested in them.
Shayn, despite his hotheadedness, is passionate about his craft, and patiently teaches Zino how to properly julienne zucchini and whip egg whites to a stiff peak. Illias might be a thief and compulsive gambler, but he has sweet, goofy moments that touch the audience’s heart. And of course there’s Zinos, the 21st-century Job, who bears all calamity with as much dignity as he fails to muster.
Akin also has a way with handling the camera that moves seamlessly with the characters. It twists and turns together with the character’s movements, sometimes abruptly zooming in and out to add an element of surprise or suspense. But when it is focused on a female character, the camera turns soft, almost seeming to caress their curves and natural faces with a seductive glow, as if to defy Hollywood’s rail-thin beauty standards.
The music — a vibrant, eclectic mixture of blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop — is also appropriately chosen to fit the movie’s modern, multicultural spirit. For non-German speakers, the movie has English subtitles, but it’s worth listening to the deep, throaty language, which suddenly loses the crude harshness that German is mistakenly known for. Instead, the language takes on a delightful, soulful quality that befits the expressive moods and emotions of the characters.
Soul Kitchen might be based around the restaurant, but it really is a fine-tuning of the different tastes and seasonings of each character’s personality. Shayn has a favorite saying: “The traveler hasn’t reached his destination yet.” That’s what the movie is all about — a soulful, continuous journey in savoring all that life has to offer.