Soul Kitchen (2009)

By Michael T. Dennis

The gentrified outskirts of Hamburg, Germany serve as a compelling backdrop for Fatih Akin's “Soul Kitchen,” a film that touches on many different issues, by a director better known for his darker, serious features.
Akin is the Turkish-German director responsible for such searing dramas as “Head-On” and “The Edge of Heaven,” which deal with introspection and national identity.
With “Soul Kitchen,” Akin takes a break from his “Love, Death and the Devil” trilogy to make something light, a throwback to the down-home Heimatfilm genre of the 1950s and 1960s. Like the films it draws from, “Soul Kitchen” is about the lives and relationships of ordinary people.
Zinos Kazantsakis is a Greek-German restaurant owner, whose Soul Kitchen is a cheap, greasy diner in an old railroad warehouse just outside hip, historic Hamburg. His neighbor is an old man, Sokrates, a true relic from the homeland. His customers are blue collar Germans, who happily swill beer and eat the frozen supermarket food that Zinos passes off as his own.
Predictably, all is not well in Zinos's world. His girlfriend, Nadine, is on her way to China to follow a career path that doesn't involve tending bar or bussing tables. At work, he's beset by the tax collector, the health inspector, his recently-paroled, gambling-addicted brother Illias, and an enthusiastic real-estate agent with visions of buying Soul Kitchen to tear it down and put up a shopping mall.
Besides presenting a caricature of upwardly-mobile German yuppie culture, Neumann, the villainous real estate agent, is emblematic of the greater forces working against Zinos. Soul Kitchen's neighborhood is the hottest spot for land speculation, with an influx of young people pushing out the old immigrants.
Akin comments on the issue of gentrification, portraying anyone who wants to profit from the whims of young people or the expansion of a city as a land-grabbing despot. But Zinos is himself part of the gentrification, bringing retro American soul music and an idealistic dream to a place where most people are content just to survive. Unfortunately, Akin does not explain the plight of the neighborhood's residents, whose own homes and businesses would presumably be targets as well.
Zinos spontaneously hires a new chef, recently cast off by a high-end restaurant where his eccentricity didn't make for a good fit in the kitchen. Culinary whiz Weiss (played to great effect by the gritty Birol Ünel) brings both comic relief and a new way of realizing the potential of food. Revamping Soul Kitchen's menu to fine dining drives away the loyal customers, but soon a new crowd with money to spend comes in their place.
Renovating the kitchen and paying off back taxes can't help Zinos solve the problems with his girlfriend or brother. As an all-too-obvious sign of his lingering conflict, Zinos spends much of the film wincing and walking with a limp from a back injury he sustains in an early scene. 
For a presumably light film, “Soul Kitchen” is alarmingly dark, with misfortunes heaped on a character that is never particularly likeable. Zinos is largely a victim of his own impulsiveness, as when he decides to fly to China to win back Nadine, only to learn a hard truth about the woman he thought he loved before he even gets on the plane.
Occasionally, “Soul Kitchen” resorts to cheap jokes, like a man choking on a button or a casket falling into an open grave to reveal a dead woman's stockinged legs. Zinos also finds a new last-minute love interest, seemingly plucked at random from the cast of background characters.
Zinos Kazantsakis—Adam Bousdoukos
Illias Kazantsakis—Moritz Bleibtreu
Shayn Weiss—Birol Ünel
Lucia Faust—Anna Bederke
Nadine Krüger—Pheline Roggan
Thomas Neumann—Wotan Wilke Möhring
Lutz—Lukas Gregorowicz
Anna Mondestein—Dorka Gryllus
Corazón International, Dorje Film, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), and Pyramide Productions
Distributed by IFC Films
Directed by Fatih Akin
Written by Fatih Akin and Adam Bousdoukos
Producers, Fatih Akin, Paolo Colombo, Alberto Fanni, Ann-Kristin Homann, Klaus Maeck, Christian Springer, Fabienne Vonier, Jeanette Würl, Flaminio Zadra
Cinematographer, Rainer Klausmann
Editor, Andrew Bird
Casting, Monique Akin
Production Designer, Tamo Kunz
Art Director, Seth Turner