In the German summer of 2003 filmmaker Fatih Akin was flat broke. The son of Turkish immigrants had finished shooting what would become his fourth feature, Head-On, but he had no funds left for the post-production process. Being a lifelong resident of Hamburg, a port city known for its hardy working class residents, he tossed around various plans in his head to make a quick Euro or two.
Most of his scheming was done at the restaurant owned by his best friend, Adam Bousdoukos, a rundown joint with an Albanian chef, a Greek menu and a clientele who didn't really care because they came to drink and dance. Looking around his second home, Akin realised that it was the perfect subject for another film, an antic straight-to-DVD comedy that he could shoot on credit and sell quickly, manufacturing an editing budget for Head-On. Based on the venue's perpetual soundtrack, the name suggested itself: Soul Kitchen.
As it turned out Akin came up with funds for Head-On without having to mount the guerilla production, and the finished film proved to be his breakthrough both at home and abroad. Winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, Akin's acutely observed story of culturally and emotionally displaced Turkish Germans resonated with critics and audiences. Funding would no longer be a problem.
But after he followed up Head-On with the scarifying The Edge of Heaven in 2007, Akin wanted a change of pace. He kept coming back to Soul Kitchen and eventually asked Bousdoukos, who'd been an actor until he used his fee from Akin's first feature, 1998's Short Sharp Shock, to buy the restaurant he was working as a waiter at, to write a comic screenplay with him. It was a trade-off, Akin recalls. They wrote about Bousdoukos' life, but then Bousdoukos played the fictional version of himself, Zinos Kazantsakis, as Akin.
“Adam's my closest friend,” recalls Akin, speaking from his Hamburg office. “I've known the guy since I was 10 years-old and we were in the same class at school. When we were teenagers we dreamed about doing films. Once he took over [the restaurant] his acting career didn't go on seriously, but I always wanted to work with him. He was in Edge of Heaven but I cut him out because he was too funny; he was the barman, a small part, in Head-On.”
Beset by a dodgy back (“dancing will ease the pain,” he's told, a motto the entire film takes to heart), a nefarious brother (Moritz Bleibtreu's Illias) on day release from jail, and competing visits from the tax and health offices, Bousdoukos' Zinos is the perpetually put upon owner of Soul Kitchen. His cooking is amateurish, but it pleases the locals, who disapprove when he hires the combustible Shayn (Birol Unel) after watching the chef be fired at a fancy dinner Zinos attends to mark the departure of his girlfriend, reporter Nadine (Pheline Roggan), for China.
Shayn doesn't win over the regulars – “Cut your small talk,” one yells, “I want my schnitzel!” – but he does satisfy the counter-culture denizens who arrive when Zinos good heartedly lets a waiter's band plug in and turn a rehearsal into a gig. In Soul Kitchen, adversity comes with a comic edge and it's met with a shrug of the shoulders, a shot of something stringent and a new venture. Everything goes wrong, but occasionally it also goes marvellously right.
“You can see my soul in this film, like all the others,” explains Akin. “The film is about home – that's the general theme. My previous films have talked about home, leaving home and the idea of gaining an identity, but this film is one where the word home really makes sense. Zinos isn't looking for a new home, he doesn't want a new identity. He knows where he belongs and he has to fight for that and protect it.”
On set Akin found himself paying attention to various conventions for the first time in years. He used more lights, moved the camera. Akin thought about the conventions of comedy, about what a story needed, about what was actually funny.
“I challenged myself to have a lot of characters, but keep it balanced and not overrun the audience,” he adds. “It was skill, some exercise for heavier stuff in front of me, but it's definitely important for me. Life is funny, it's important not to lose that.”
The movie is also, palpably, a valentine to the city of Hamburg and its various inhabitants. From the no-nonsense waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke), who Illias pursues, to the crusty dock worker living behind the restaurant, they speak their mind, often profanely, have little time for the prevailing social system, and know how to let off steam.
“It's a declaration of love to my hometown,” Akin confirms. “I used the city of Hamburg in my previous work, but it's interchangeable. The Hamburg of Head-On or The Edge of Heaven could be another German city, but this time I put a focus on the background. This story could happen anywhere, but the locations and the mood of the people are not changeable.”
Akin and Bousdoukos show us the different sides of the city. Zinos might find himself visiting an unlicensed Turkish chiropractor named Kemal the Bone Cruncher, but he also knows Neumann (Wotan Wilke Mohring), a cocky young property developer who specialises in buying up the old Hamburg, via various means, and turning it into apartments for the new.
“It's a real struggle. Many of the locations in the film no longer exist, or right now they're boarded up awaiting permission to demolish. I live in the city, I was born here, so I try to protect certain spaces,” says Akin.
“I like it if film has real life identities. The cinema is a place to travel: seeing certain works of Wong Kar-wai is to travel to Hong Kong. If I see certain work of Sidney Lumet or Woody Allen it's like going to New York. If I see Mad Max by George Miller I am in Australia. I try to let me audience come with me to hometown to give an idea of how Hamburg feels.”
And as the squats and derelict factories give way to expensive lofts and retail outlets, Akin also sees Soul Kitchen as a continuation of a tradition begun by an earlier generation of German filmmakers.
“When I see certain Hamburg films, such as [1977's] The American Friend by Wim Wenders, it has incredible images of Hamburg, but certain of them do not exist anymore,” the director explains. “For me that film is like time travel, and that makes me sad, so Soul Kitchen is also a way of preserving places for the people who see it years from now.”
Akin is less concerned about his own place in history. We spoke the day after the death of Werner Schroeter, an actor (for friend Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and filmmaker (Palermo or Wolfsburg) who was an integral part of the New German Cinema in the 1970s. Akin had only met him briefly, but was respectful towards a man whose work he had studied as a film student in Hamburg. Of that previous generation Akin is particularly inspired by Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum, The Ninth Day).
“He's my man!” Akin exclaims, sounding just like Zinos when he hears a good DJ.
And how does Akin deal with the current film students who might address him as their hero? “I guess there are students who might be silly enough to think that, but I still consider myself a student of film,” he replies with an affable laugh. “I'm still learning. I learn everyday and with every film. It's less responsible, and more relaxing, to have your own heroes than to try and be one.”