Returning to his native Hamburg, Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin rediscovers the verve of his early “Short Sharp Shock,” tempered by a mature warmth, in “Soul Kitchen.” Nicely cast ensembler, centered on a hopelessly disorganized eatery owner and peopled by a weird collection of lovable eccentrics, is pacey entertainment that hardly puts a foot wrong. This is not the fest-laureled Akin of weighty fare like “Head-On” and “The Edge of Heaven” — more the one of “Solino” with a grungy, down-to-earth Hamburg edge. Offshore sales, at least in Europe, look to be lively.
Clearly made as a change of pace after “Heaven,” the pic is labeled by Akin “an audacious, dirty Heimat film.” But for him, a Heimat film isn’t Bavarian blondes in dirndls; this is northern, grungy, multikulti Germany, with Greeks, Turks, rock bands and drifters.
Zinos Kazantsakis (Greek-German thesp Adam Bousdoukos) owns and caters a warehouse restaurant in the Hamburg nabe of Wilhelmsburg, where the working-class clientele like deep-fried schnitzels and burgers with their beer. Always running behind the eight-ball, Zinos even arrives late for the farewell dinner of his better-off g.f., Nadine (Pheline Roggan), who’s leaving for a job in Shanghai.
When Zinos’ larcenous younger brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), is let out of jail on day release, he asks Zinos to give him a fake job so he can get out more often. Zinos also has the idea of hiring a professional chef, the temperamental Shayn (Birol Unel), whose nouvelle cuisine alienates his regulars but eventually becomes a hit with the in-crowd.
With a tax inspector (Catrin Striebeck) and health officer (Jan Fedder) on his back, Nadine nagging him long-distance to join her, and a real estate shark (Wotan Wilke Moehring) trying to force him to sell the place, Zinos signs power of attorney over to the unreliable Illias and decides to set off to China. But he doesn’t get further than the airport.
Incident-packed script manages to juggle a large number of characters and cameos without leaving any of them feeling underdeveloped. As the pieces fall into place in the final reels, there’s a nice sense of community among the group of dreamers, losers and getting-byers, a feeling of how “home” is where you’re most comfortable rather than a specific country, culture or place.
Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with Akin and was in the helmer’s “Short Sharp Shock,” has a slightly goofy, dumbkopf appeal that’s just right for Zinos, and he teams well with Bleibtreu as his younger brother. Moehring and Unel are fine as the property trader and prima donna chef, respectively, but the real discovery is Hamburg-born Anna Bederke as Lucia, Zinos’ hard-drinking waitress, who, in a beautifully played sequence, falls hard for Illias. As Zinos’ physical therapist, Anna, Hungarian thesp Dorka Gryllus (“Irina Palm”) is also aces in a key but gentler role.
Though several sequences feature cuisine, “Soul Kitchen” is not a foodie film a la “Mostly Martha.” Music, just as much as food, is the way into the souls of these characters, but the rough-edged city of Hamburg — always there in the background — is what brings them together. Pic is as much a love letter to the place as to its people.
Technical package is deliberately on the grungy side but blooms when necessary under the camera of Akin regular Rainer Klausmann. Tight editing by Andrew Bird brings the pic in at a flab-free 98 minutes, and end titles are especially inventive.
The film is dedicated to Akin’s brother, Cem, who plays one of Illias’ buddies. It also features one of the last performances of Bleibtreu’s mother, Monica (who died in May), in a comically explosive cameo as Nadine’s grandma.