Alex Dewing examines Ofir Raul Graizer’s emotional debut.
Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer isn’t holding back in his poignant feature debut: The Cakemaker tackles everything from sexuality to religion. As the first images of the film appear, presenting the Berlin bakery where protagonist Tomas (Tim Kalkhof) works, with jazz music playing in the background – and setting up the romance between Tomas and visiting Israeli businessman Oren (Roy Miller) through gratuitous shots of the two sharing a delicious-looking Black Forest gateau – you can’t help but be reminded of a Woody Allen film. But this is no comedy. It takes less than ten minutes for the tragic sudden death of Oren to occur, shattering the hearts of Tomas and the audience alike, and sending him on the journey this film follows. Instantly you know it’s going to be a bundle of fun.
Tomas, seeking closure, travels to the hometown of his short-lived lover and finds work, and penance, in the small Kosher café of his grieving widow, Anat (Sarah Adler). He tells nothing of his relationship with Oren, and finds solace in baking the famous cinnamon biscuits which help Anat transform her café into an overnight sensation. The bond that forms between the two, like the narrative itself, develops at a confidently gradual pace and, through it, Graizer explores grief, the clash of cultures, and most importantly, the fluidity of sexuality. It is love, the purest idea of it, that both Tomas and Anat are in search for after their mutual heartbreak and labels such as “gay”, “straight”, or “bisexual” won’t stand in their way. In a wistful flashback, airy scenes of Oren and Tomas in bed together are intertwined with those of Oren and Anat. Later, in a moment reminiscent of Jerry Zucker’s Ghost, Tomas teaches Anat how to knead dough, and as the flour floats into the silent air the sexual tension is palpable. Throughout the film Graizer tackles these deeply complex themes with a delicate hand, remaining neutral towards all his characters’ actions and their consequences.
It is not only through the relationship between Tomas and Anat that Graizer questions the morals of his characters – and by extension his audience – but also through the complicated one shared by Anat and her brother-in-law Motti (Zohar Shtrauss). For all intents and purposes, Moti acts as the antagonist of The Cakemaker. He criticises Anat for not being able to properly look after her son Itai, disapproves of Tomas baking in the café, and threatens both for not conforming to the Jewish customs of the town. But Graizer refuses to create one-dimensional characters and makes use of the food motif to show both the conflicts and the connections between characters, and especially Moti. In an irony-filled scene where we see Tomas seated at Oren’s place at the dinner table, with Anat and her son cheerfully at his side, Moti’s presence and power emerge as Itai refuses to try a slice of Tomas’ legendary Black Forest Gateau with the words, “He told me not to”. Yet we also see him bring Tomas plastic boxes filled with traditional meals, along with an invitation to dinner, so as to ensure he does not forgo the celebration of Shabbat. To an audience’s eye, the leisurely close-ups of enticing cakes, biscuits, and homemade meals may seem to supply mouthwatering filler by cinematographer Omri Aloni, but it goes further than that. There is a surreal glow surrounding these sequences which, in turn, contrast with the stark and mournful reality that Graizer depicts so sensitively.
These themes are intrinsically linked to the narrative and are brought to life through the outstanding performances of the cast. Adler’s Anat walks the line between remaining strong for her son and herself, standing against her brother-in-law to defend her ways of running the newly prospering café, and grieving for a lost love, the pain always hiding somewhere in her expression. But it is Kalkhof who carries the film, and he does so by portraying the character of Tomas with a subtlety that avoids any theatricality, any stereotypes. Late in the film, we see Tomas kneading dough in his new, upgraded apartment in Israel, and crying. Kalkhof holds nothing back; he sobs, he is a hopeless man, and it is devasting to watch. This shot resembles those of Tomas’ ethereal bakes. Dominique Charpentier’s simple yet moving score fades into silence and the camera never moves, leaving the audience, just like Tomas, to face up to reality. This is the genius of Graizer’s debut. He presents a beautiful and sorrowful narrative that asks the audience to consider and reconsider their own morals and beliefs. The Cakemaker has been created with astounding simplicity, and yet nothing is simple about it.
The Cakemaker is out now in select UK cinemas. Trailer below: