What at first appears to be simple good-naturedness pervading Fatih Akin’s “Soul Kitchen” starts to seem, as the film rolls on, like something crazier and more generous. The closest I can come to describing it is as a near-spiritual embrace of human failings, their inevitability and the fact that most of us still want to live together in great, messy communities anyway.
For instance: At one point, a character who’s responsible for essentially ruining the life of our hero, genial Greek-German slacker Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), runs into Zinos’ brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu, of “Run, Lola, Run”) in jail, where Illias has been serving out a sentence for burglary. Instead of punching the guy, which seems, in context, not undeserved, Illias gives him a wink in greeting, and he responds by earnestly asking Illias to tell his brother hello. Illias says he will.
Such is life. And that sloppy, joyful love of it, with all its swings of fortune, makes “Soul Kitchen” an exuberant trifle. Akin’s international breakout “Head-On” and his expansive, imperfect follow-up “The Edge of Heaven” were weighty endeavors. “Soul Kitchen” is not. It’s bohemian chaos piled into a sitcom comedy foundation, though it includes many of Akin’s favorite thematic elements of immigrant communities, societal fringes and border crossings.
At the outset, Zinos is running a barely functional restaurant in Hamburg called Soul Kitchen, despite displaying no natural gifts as a restauranteur. He fries up frozen fish fillets and french fries for an undemanding crowd of blue collar regulars in a spacious building he bought on the street and restored — as he points out to a would-be buyer, he “found the furniture in the streets” himself.
Things are going well enough, though he’s struggling with a bad back and his girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is about to leave for a job in Shanghai — they make plans to video chat regularly over Skype.
The plot, such as it is — Zinos’ life seems like one giant shaggy dog story, any section of which could make for an entertaining feature — is set in motion by Nadine’s departure and the arrival of three men. Shayn (“Head-On”‘s Birol Ünel) is a talented, surly chef that Zinos hires after seeing him get fired from a higher-end restaurant after refusing to serve a customer hot gazpacho, whose cuisine, after initial resistance, starts pulling in a new kind of crowd. Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) is an old classmate of Zinos’, a shady real estate agent eyeing the land the restaurant’s on. And Illias returns, still struggling of a gambling problem, in search of a fake job so that he won’t have to spend all his time in jail.
And then there’s the sea captain living in the back of the restaurant; Lucia (Anna Bederke) the arty waitress on who Illias develops a crush; bartender Lutz (Lukas Gregorowicz), whose band starts using the restaurant as a rehearsal space; and a whole array of other characters who come and go as Zinos becomes the accidental proprietor of Hamburg’s hippest eatery and event space.
The Hamburg of “Soul Kitchen” is a grey, grimy-looking but vibrant place of looming construction cranes, squats, department stores turned nightclubs and shiny condos perched next to old neighborhoods. Soul Kitchen itself is a cavernous raw space treading the line between edgy and legitimately dilapidated, through which the camera wanders to take in the almost uncontainable goings-on, sometimes in wide-angle, all the better to see everything.
It’s all reminiscent, at times, of parts of Brooklyn (the restaurant’s even located in an area called Wilhelmsburg), though while you could argue that “Soul Kitchen” is a saga of gentrification, Zinos is anything but a hipster. Ragged, bewildered and lacking all calculation, he’s just along for the ride — and therein lies his, and the film’s, unkempt charm.
“Soul Kitchen” opens in NY on August 20th.