Director Fatih Akin follows up Head-On and The Edge of Heaven with a comedy about food, family, and gentrification in Hamburg. It’s a delightful dish!
Most of the time, a bonus of seeing a film at a film festival is the opportunity to hear from the director and key players in the film. But when Soul Kitchen had its U.S. premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, film fans were disappointed: Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin was not able to attend due to travel disruptions caused by the erupting Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajokull. It’s a shame, because those who know Akin from his darker—and critically acclaimed—films Head-On and The Edge of Heaven were certainly curious to know: What caused him to go in a decidedly lighter direction for his latest film?
Soul Kitchen is a heartfelt and buoyant love letter to Akin’s hometown of Hamburg, Germany. Though the harbor city is often regarded as rainy, gloomy, and gritty, Akin scratches the surface to reveal a bohemian community of artists who support one another through tough times; open themselves up to sensual pleasures (food, alcohol, music, and more); and yes, are the bearers of a great deal of soul.
Akin finally made it to New York last week, as Soul Kitchen was about to make its way into theaters (it opens this Friday at IFC Center). At last were able to catch up and get the answers to all those questions we wanted to ask during TFF 2010.
Tribeca: Soul Kitchen is a departure for you, in that it’s a little lighter than your usual fare, and funnier. What made you want to tell this story?
Fatih Akin: This was an old script of mine; I wrote it in the editing process of Head-On. I was broke after making Head-On, and I had the naïve idea to shoot something very fast—I desperately needed a project. Adam Bousdoukos—the lead actor in the film—had a restaurant, and his girlfriend had left him, and [I had the idea to] do a film about him and his restaurant, which was just around the corner from where I lived. So I wrote a first draft very fast—I wrote it in five days.
Tribeca: Is that unusual for you?
Fatih Akin: Well, in the end it took five years. Life is what is happening to you while you have other plans. This is a naïve dream I have—that [I write] the first draft, and I just shoot it, but it’s never like that.
Andreas Thiel, my producing partner, liked the first draft, so I went to an island in the Northern Sea and wrote the second draft in another five days. We got pre-financing for the film in February of 2004. And then we went to Berlin with Head-On, and we won the Golden Bear—we didn’t expect that. And suddenly everything was upside down—my life, my world, the film thing. It overwhelmed me, and I didn’t trust the script of Soul Kitchen anymore—I worried it wasn’t good enough, so I put it away.
I felt the pressure to confirm the success of Head-On, so I did other films—Crossing the Bridge, The Edge of Heaven—and Andreas was always like, “Let’s do Soul Kitchen! It’s funny! We could have some fun, and make some money!” And I was like, “No, I have to do the stuff for the ‘career in cinema.’” I was wrong, but I had to learn this. People can try to teach you, but you have to make your own experiences and learn from them.
And then in the last week of making The Edge of Heaven, Andreas died; he had a brain stroke. We had founded the production company together, and he was my mentor. Filmmaking was his life, and everything I know today, he taught me. When he died, I was sad for a long time. I could not go on with the 3rd film of the [darker] trilogy; I was emotionally exhausted. Suddenly, I decided to do Soul Kitchen: to light my own life up, and because he always wanted me to do that. This was how I overcame the grief I had.
Tribeca: It’s a nice elegy.
Fatih Akin: I’m so happy I did the film. Not just for him, but for me. That was the last lesson he taught me: to not be a slave to your success.
Tribeca: So tell me more about Adam’s story.
Fatih Akin: Adam was the actor in my first film in 1997. He was a waiter at the time in a restaurant, and with the fee he got from making the film, and with some money from his parents and friends, he bought the restaurant, and he had it for about 10 years. I was hanging around there, every day for 10 years.
Tribeca: Was the film shot there?
Fatih Akin: No, no, no. At first I wanted to shoot it there, but then the story grew and when we had the idea to do the film about gentrification, we changed the ‘hood and the location.
Tribeca: I don’t know Hamburg at all. It seems like the neighborhood Wilhelmsburg, where the film is set, is similar to NYC’s Williamsburg: a neighborhood home to immigrants, now full of hipsters and fancy restaurants?
Fatih Akin: Yeah, Hamburg is definitely not New York, but there is a New York influence in many aspects: it’s a harbor town, and the river divides the city, like here, in a way. Hamburg tried to seed Wilhelmsburg, to make it attractive for artists—the rents are really low.
But I think in ten years it will be like the place where I am living now. 15-20 years ago, my neighborhood was a very different place: working class people, foreigners—a lot of Turkish people; I was born there—punk people, and artists. But in the last 15 years, it became so hip and so expensive. I can afford it because of the success of my work, but…
Tribeca: It doesn’t have the earthiness anymore?
Fatih Akin: You can still find it, but in the past it was everywhere. Adam and I, we know the city, and we were like, “Wilhelmsburg will be the next place.” In 5-10 years, it will be very hip.
Tribeca: Do you see similarities between running a restaurant and making movies? With all the moving parts and the pressure coming in from all sides? You’re trying to give people something, but you don’t know if they will want it…
Fatih Akin: Soul Kitchen is my film about filmmaking. That’s what it really is: the customers are the audiences, the films are the dishes—you work really hard for a film, and then it gets eaten up in 90 minutes [laughs]—you have critics who give you stars… or don’t give you stars. To own a restaurant is like being a producer, being a chef is like being a director… It’s the mood of the worlds, too that is similar: filmmaking is a lot about celebrating—there’s always a reason to get drunk. [laughs]
Tribeca: Can you talk about the music in the film? It’s wonderfully eclectic. Did you have a music coordinator?
Fatih Akin: Adam and I chose the songs together. He had turntables in his restaurant. When he took it over, it was a Greek place, and he kept the kitchen, and the dishes, but he changed the mood of the restaurant. He said, “I want to listen to what I want to listen to.” There was a lot of soul music.
I have a huge musical horizon, so it’s not “the music of the director.” It’s the music of the film; it seemed to be the perfect music for that material, and I wanted to find a soundtrack for the city. Hamburg is very much a soul place—I think it’s because of the post-War occupation: the British and the Americans were based in Hamburg, and the GIs brought their musical culture. We also have a lot of children from Afro-American and German marriages (from the GIs), and they have inherited the soul or hip-hop culture.
Also, The Beatles became famous in Hamburg! There always was this beat culture in a way; it was close to London, somehow. Much more than in Berlin, which is more an electronic place. I am a kid of the 80s, and I was raised up with hip-hop, so I have a lot of soul. [laughs] I have like 500 hip-hop vinyls, and after a while you start to look for the origins of that. So in the 90s I discovered James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, the Isley Brothers, you name it. I like that sort of music.
Tribeca: Soul Kitchen was at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring, but you weren’t able to make it?
Fatih Akin: I wasn’t able to come because of the volcano! I really wanted to come. I’ve been in New York so many times, but I have never been to the Festival. I was really wondering how the New York audience would react to Soul Kitchen—I was very curious.
Tribeca: What has been your most memorable screening of Soul Kitchen so far?
Fatih Akin: The opening in Venice was really emotional in a way. I was very nervous; I didn’t know what sort of film I’d made. Is this good? Is it bad? Does it have worth? I did the film I wanted to do, the film I had to make, but I really expected bad reviews. And then there was a standing ovation, and this warm applause! And people were laughing at the film! I didn’t know if it was funny or not—it’s my humor, but I didn’t know if other people would find it funny, especially outside of Germany.
Venice was a tough festival—very serious films, and my film screened very late, and people were thankful for something light. [laughs]
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about the German films from the ’50s from which you drew influence? The “Heimat” films?
Fatih Akin: After the 2nd World War, Germany in 1945 was done; they called it “Hour Zero.” It was completely bombed; people had lost the war, and they were surrounded by ruins. In the 50s, with the support of the Americans (who occupied Germany), Germans started to produce films that were not about the war, films that dealt with the countryside, the forests, the mountains—family dramas with very beautiful landscape surroundings. They tried to find a way to love the country again, on a visual level.
These were very important films, in that they were huge successes. There were very few films about WWII in the ’50s; they had just came out of the war, and they were not ready to reflect. (The generation after this—Wenders, Fassbinder, Herzog—they were the ones who did the films about post-War Germany.) And when you see the films of the 50s, they are very kind of Technicolor—the greens are greener. These films worked.
Tribeca: Were they government-funded?
Fatih Akin: The Americans helped to finance the films, to build the studios in Munich, so they could produce again. These were not very worthy films—they were not masterpieces. All the masters left before the war: Wilder, Fritz Lang, Preminger—they all had to escape. But those directors there felt a collective need to love their country again. Heimat means “home.”
Tribeca: So is Soul Kitchen about the warm feeling of Heimat?
Fatih Akin: I don’t know if there is a collective need for Soul Kitchen, but I really wanted to do a film about my hometown. The city was always good to me, and I wanted to do a film there. With other films, I was looking for exotic places, and I felt that Hamburg was not a sexy place to shoot. But then I realized—I could drive to the set on a bicycle, I could sleep in my own bed, which was great! To work out of your own home can be like working in your castle… What I learned elsewhere, I used in Hamburg—not to look at it touristically, but to appreciate it in a new way.
Tribeca: Can you share a bit about the casting process, once you had Adam in place? I love Moritz Bleibtreu, and he’s been in your other films as well. Was the idea to create a community in your cast?
Fatih Akin: My wife did the casting, and the idea was to have a “best of.” Many characters were written for specific actors I had worked with before—my brother is in all my films, Adam, Moritz, one of the actresses—but some of them are new to us.
Soul Kitchen was a farewell to a certain lifestyle—partying and clubbing, I think I’m done with that. It was a very important and exhausting period of my life: more than 20 years I was out there! So it was like, I wanted to make Soul Kitchen before it’s too late to do a film about that—I don’t want to be an old man doing a film about my past.