Over the past decade, Turkish-German director Fatih Akin has established himself as one of world cinema’s most distinctive voices, mixing sophisticated cultural critiques with a healthy appreciation for life on the edge. He first came to international attention with his 2004 breakthrough feature Head-On, which gained notoriety when the German press discovered that his lead actress, Sibel Kekilli, had previously starred in several pornographic films. The ensuing uproar brought the film to mass awareness, albeit as the object of scandal, but it didn’t overshadow the film’s evident strengths—or Kekilli’s performance, which won several German film awards. After Crossing The Bridge, a boisterous documentary on Turkish music, Akin returned to fiction with 2007’s masterful The Edge Of Heaven, whose German title, which translates as From The Other Side, telegraphs his interest in the permeability of national and interpersonal borders.
Although Akin’s filmography is dense and diverse enough to negate any notion of a prevailing style, his newest feature, Soul Kitchen, still came as a minor shock. After establishing himself as a serious, politically minded filmmaker and a de factor spokesman for Germany’s large Turkish population, he shifted course with a lively comedy about a Hamburg restaurant. The titular dive is a favorite in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, one whose regular customers derive comfort from its reliably flash-fried entrees. But when financial troubles threaten, Soul Kitchen’s owner teams up with a temperamental chef who just stormed out of his high-end kitchen. What follows is at times the stuff of National Lampoon movies, including a sequence where the chef mixes liberal quantities of an aphrodisiac powder into a celebratory dinner, with predictable results. But while it isn’t among Akin’s most political movies, it is one of his most personal. The 37-year-old filmmaker, who recently became a father for the first time, recently told The A.V. Club that he conceived the movie in part as a farewell to the nightlife of his native Hamburg, and to a life he’s leaving behind without reservations, though not without regrets.
The A.V. Club: In a 2008 interview with Der Spiegel, you said you didn’t feel you had the eye for telling stories about Hamburg anymore. What changed?
Fatih Akin: I was wrong. Somehow it was challenging me. I really missed shooting in my hometown. I went to many exotic places—I shot in Turkey, I shot in New York. But because my social life is based in Hamburg, the kindergarten and my physiotherapist and my office and my company, I thought “It’s really not very attractive and not exotic for me anymore.” But I was wrong. There’s always something to discover. The city was always so good to me. I was born in that city, and it always protected me and supported me every time. I felt like I had to give the city something back. With the experience I got abroad, I took it as a challenge not to shoot the tourist places of Hamburg, but to find a way to shoot the personal places of Hamburg—on the one hand, my own places where I have memories, and on the other hand, places that will really be exotic. My set designer Tamo Kunz and I, we really like places that will disappear in the future. Many of them already don’t exist anymore, but I can preserve them with a camera; I can hold them. When you see The American Friend by Wim Wenders with Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz, Wenders shot that in Hamburg, and it’s such a unique, beautiful Hamburg which doesn’t exist anymore. Film can be time travel, and that was the purpose.
AVC: You’re a father now?
FA: Yes. I have a kid.
AVC: You’ve talked about how now that you’re a father and you’re in your mid-30s, your lifestyle has changed. You aren’t going out five nights a week and partying until dawn. So was part of the impetus for this movie to document not just places that will soon no longer exist, but a part of your life that is passing away as well?
FA: It was meant also as a farewell to a certain lifestyle, yes. Preserving the neighborhood is one thing, but also I had a feeling that I had to say goodbye to the streets and to the clubs and the concrete. This thing, the nightlife, was very important always to me, from very early. I started to go out to my first clubs at the age of 12. It was interesting to observe people and to see what’s going on, and I will always like urban culture, but all this poison that comes with this lifestyle, after a while, I really was exhausted. You go out and all of the sudden you’re the oldest person. I go to an electro party, and all the girls and kids are tiny, and I’m in the middle of 30. I think that was the time to me to say goodbye. It was very important to do the film, because I know that Head-On and The Edge Of Heaven were about geopolitical things, but for me, this was very important and very personal, this lifestyle. This film is like a transition, but I wanted to end it with a film, to celebrate it with a film before I get too old. I was almost too old before I did Soul Kitchen. I had to do it at this time, or never. Sometimes filmmakers do films about their past or the good old days. I didn’t want to—now I’m 37, it’s easy to say that I don’t know what I will do in the future—but I like the idea to always be in the same eyeline as my heroes. I hope I can do films for a long time, and maybe one day I’ll be 70 and I still can shoot, and my heroes will be 70.
AVC: Rather than trying to do romantic comedies about teenagers when you’re 70?
AVC: As you say, this movie is less overtly political and generally more lighthearted than the movies you’ve made recently, but it also seems very personal in a lot of ways. You’ve DJed parties like the characters in Soul Kitchen, and the restaurant is based on a place from your life.
FA: All my films are very personal. They’re auteur films, in a way. I’m the scriptwriter, I’m producing it, and I’m the director. Soul Kitchen is more like a diary. The other films were really more like my reflections about the world and my issues. I want to change the world. I want to make it a better world, whatever that means. Soul Kitchen is very liberated from these things. It has other problems; it has other issues. Although it’s very light and silly and we tried to make a commercial hit out of it, which it was in Germany and a lot of other countries in Europe—Greece and Italy. I was trying to make it commercial without selling my soul.
It is like a diary. I was in those clubs; I was carrying this drunken woman home. We always had the temptation, because these people were so beautiful, but they were drunk. I was not stealing turntables, because they were too heavy, but I was stealing records at a time before I could afford them. A lot of the world in the film is really much about the filmmaking. I don’t think I will ever do a film about filmmaking. I think it’s too boring; there’s a lot of insider stuff. The best film about filmmaking, I think, is Day For Night by François Truffaut, and 8 1/2. There’s nothing to add, I think. They told it how it is. I could really use the world of the restaurant as a symbol for the filmmaking. The chef is really much like a director, cooking and improvising. The owner of a restaurant is really much like the producer of a film. The customers are like the audiences; the dishes are like films. You even have film critics with the critics of the restaurant. It was really an opportunity to do a film about filmmaking. It went so far that I was wondering what Adam [Bousdoukos] was acting as, and I was asking him, “What are you doing there?” and he said, “I’m imitating you, man. That’s you.”
AVC: Are you tempted to tell people to go fuck themselves if they want warm gazpacho?
AVC: Looking at Soul Kitchen in the context of your other films, even in this relatively light comedy, it’s still about the conflict between tradition and modernity. The food at this restaurant is lousy, but people like it because it’s what they know, and even if the new food is better, they don’t want it because it’s new.
FA: This aspect is about filmmaking, also. I am not a democrat in many aspects, especially about films. There’s a very bad thing happening all over Europe; more and more arthouse movie theaters are closing. There is still an audience, but less. DVD, Internet, and maybe less education gives them less impact. More and more beautiful arthouse cinemas—certain arthouse cinemas are like churches to me, they are very, very spiritual; watching a film can be a spiritual experience—and what is happening is that other places like multiplexes open up. The multiplexes also play the arthouse films, but these films cannot compete. Certain films need time to get discovered. They need to breathe. They need people to speak about them on the street. They don’t have tons of money to advertise, or George Clooney, so when arthouse films are playing in multiplexes, after one weekend, if they’re not a hit, they’re out. This is such a tragic thing. But this is democracy, this is the market, this is capitalism. If I really had the power, I’d treat the cinema culture like they did in the Soviet Union, I would really do that. I would force the people to see certain films. I took this to the European parliament, I was asking for it. They invited me to speak there about auteurism, and I was like, “Hey, you have the European funding for films. You spend a lot of money for them. But you also have to advertise for them, or you block cinemas, and for that, you need money. You have to support the films.” Making them is just half of the journey—these films have to find an audience.
AVC: You must have known going in that Soul Kitchen had the potential to be the commercial hit that it turned out to be. How was it different to make a movie knowing that many more people might see it?
FA: It was a challenge. I was asking myself, “Can I be commercial without selling my soul? What is the most commercial I can be?” That was one of my targets. I really worked very hard, not just making the film, but also doing all the advertising. We were analyzing how Obama won the election, and we tried to copy his Internet system; we tried to work a lot with Twitter and blogs and Facebook. I’m not really into that world. I’m collecting vinyl, so I had to learn to use these tools, in a way. It became a success in that way. It was not just a bit better than the other films, it almost doubled it. To get all the respect for your work is one thing, but you really want them to be seen. I have a certain amount of people who are watching my films in Germany, but now with Soul Kitchen, it’s almost 1.3 million, something like that.
AVC: Not many people in the U.S. have seen your first feature, In July, but that was a fairly traditional romantic comedy. How does Soul Kitchen compare?
FA: Head-On and The Edge Of Heaven worked somehow better than In July. Head-On had like 800,000, but the thing with [Head-On star] Sibel Kekilli was porno scandal stuff; they were real notorious people, and it made people curious somehow. Not on purpose, but that helped. The next one I’m going to do is more serious and darker than Soul Kitchen, but if the success of that movie helps more people have an interest in what I’m doing next, besides my main audience, that would be nice. Growing my audience is a target of mine.
AVC: It’s refreshing that you’re so honest about it. A lot of directors will make a more commercial film and then come up with all kinds of ways of not admitting that’s what they’ve done.
FA: Cinema is a collective experience. Many people sit together, there’s a lot of seats, and you want those seats to be filling up. I’m not that egoistic, to say “No, I only want to do a film for me, I don’t care.” That’s not true. For sure I do them for me, but I hope I can share it with as many people as possible. I can’t hide or fool you, anyway—everything is there.
AVC: You said you want your films to change the world somehow. What do you mean?
FA: I mean I reflect the world which is surrounding me—which I put a kid into. I can’t accept the world how it is. There are certain things I don’t want to accept, and I reflect these things. I know that the cinema or art can change things. Rock ’n’ roll changed things. Rock ’n’ roll was not just Jimi Hendrix playing guitar. Rock ’n’ roll was much more; the new Hollywood culture was rock ’n’ roll too, and it really made me think about a lot of things. Through films I had discovered, certain things inspired me to read certain books, and these books made me think in certain directions. I’m not the only one. I’m one in a million. I don’t believe that cinema can change the world with a huge impact, but maybe one drop. Maybe this talk is naïve, maybe I will speak different in five or 10 years. Maybe my opinion about the world will change. But right now, I have the status quo I have. I say this because you have the Dennis Hopper guys and then you have the rumors like, “Hey did you know that these people are right[-wing] now and they’re voting for the Republicans?” And I say, “I don’t believe it!” but maybe it will happen to me. I don’t know, but right now I don’t want that to happen to me.
AVC: Tbere’s a power just in that kind of determination.
FA: Filmmaking is entertaining, and should stay entertaining. Literature and music too. Bob Dylan changed so much just through his lyrics; just the things he was singing about made a lot of people follow him. I think after a while, he was scared about it, and then he was plugging in an electronic guitar. When I was a kid, 10, 11, or 12 years old, I was how boys are or should be—I was into war. You had to become a soldier. And Hollywood knows this, and they work with that with films like Top Gun, which came out when I was 12. The girls in my school were falling in love with Tom Cruise, and that’s why all the boys wanted to be in the Navy or become soldiers. I was one of them. But not so long later, when I was 14 or 15, I discovered films like Platoon, or Mississippi Burning by Alan Parker. I was 16, and I remember watching Mississippi Burning, and the next thing I did after I left the cinema was become a member of Amnesty International. Film has an impact.
Definitely I don’t want to preach with the films. I want to entertain, I want people to see the stuff and to be entertained with it, but you can smuggle stuff in there with it. There’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the John Ford film, Liberty Valance one night breaks into a newspaper and beats up the newspaper guy. They really almost kill the guy, and the last thing he says is that it’s very important to keep the freedom of press. This is a political message in a Hollywood Western. Look to Iran or China: Filmmakers in China get arrested just because they do films. That means people see your films. Hollywood used that. The Pentagon isn’t going to give Francis Ford Coppola helicopters because of his opinion about the war in Vietnam. They support Stallone, and that means he can get the helicopters. It means that there is power. You don’t have to be a preacher.
AVC: It also means that every action movie has to be favorable to the military in some way, or they won’t get to borrow tanks.
FA: I think the Pentagon has an office in Hollywood where you can send your script and ask them for support, and they have script doctors, and they tell you what to do or not to do. And the military knows about the power of cinema.
AVC: Of the projects you’ve mentioned doing in the future, one is a movie about immigrants coming to the U.S., and the other is a life of the great Turkish filmmaker Yilmaz Güney. Where do those stand?
FA: I’ve been working for a long time on Güney. I interrupted my work for a while because of another show. I love Güney and his cinema. I think his personality is very fascinating, but this is like a good DJ track. When you first start, you need to have one record on the side that you know will work, so when nobody is one the dance floor, you play that track. Güney is something like that. Güney is the track I need to save. If nobody’s liking my films anymore, I need to go to the Güney. I’m writing several things. I can always change—sometimes something will interrupt my plans and change things. Soul Kitchen wasn’t on my map, actually. I was working on The Devil when I decided to do Soul Kitchen. I still write about immigrants, and I still write other stuff, and I’m not sure what will come next. It’s a bit like gambling in Vegas. You put a lot of coins in different machines, and you hope that one will make it.