LFF 2017 – The Cakemaker

A quietly intense love story starts in a Berlin Konditorei. Oren (Roy Miller) travels from Jerusalem to Berlin every month, for work. He always stops at the same café, for a coffee and a generous slice of Black Forest gateau; he also always buys a little box of cinnamon cookies, for his wife, Anat (Sarah Adler). She also runs a café, in Jerusalem, and loves those cookies from Berlin. One day, he asks the baker, Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) for advice. What gift should he bring back for his young son? In the glances they share, something strong happens between Oren and Thomas the baker.

Oren lives with Thomas during his stays in Berlin. Their relationship becomes increasingly meaningful, sufficiently so that Thomas openly wishes for more, and asks Oren what would happen if his wife were to find out about their relationship. That will not happen, Oren says quickly. One day, when Oren is travelling back to Jerusalem, Thomas notices on the kitchen table Oren’s keys, and the cinnamon cookies intended his wife, forgotten. Maybe this marks a change. But Thomas cannot find out – after a tense six weeks, while Oren remains uncharacteristically unreachable, Thomas finds out that his great love is gone, dead.

What Thomas does next is transgressive, and moving. He goes where angels fear to tread. He travels to Jerusalem, and somehow becomes part of the lives of Oren’s loved ones. They do not know his secret, that he knew Oren, and that they were lovers. If the transgression seems a big leap, it feels a bit less so because even when Oren was alive, his family was already part of Thomas’s world. Oren talked about them, and about his wife Anat (Sarah Adler), and their intimacy. And perhaps some, in the family, also have a sense of Thomas’s existence, however diffuse.

Oren’s absence is at the heart of his loved one’s lives, and they long for him. That longing, even when unspoken, is explored with great insight and sensitivity by director and writer Ofir Raul Graizer. His film is crafted with the care and love, and patience, of a master baker. The ambiguities he introduces in the story and in the characters are meaningful, add to the richness of his tale. In some ways, it is a fairy tale.

Graizer does not flinch from showing what people do, when they are grieving and try somehow to relive what they have lost; when the re-enactment of that experience comes to be, for a time, a form of fetish, an attempt at magic. He charts, with a gentle and kind touch, a series of restorative transgressions, by Thomas, by Anat, and also, in a lower key, by Moti (Zohar Shtrauss) and Hanna (Sandra Sadeh) – Oren’s brother and mother.

Moti is a devout man, and his sense of unease and sometimes frustration at the presence of Thomas in the family’s life is palpable. When he invites Thomas to his mother Hanna’s home for Shabbat, it is with a certain reluctance but also kindness and a good heart. It’s with feeling that he says to Thomas, that no-one should be alone for Shabbat.
Boundaries are crossed but without darkness, gently, a walk towards some kind of unspoken, unacknowledged resolution. Thomas’s secret grief is quietly acknowledged by at least one person.

This is a theme that Graizer has mentioned during Q&As at the 2017 London Film Festival, speaking of “lovers who are not allowed to mourn”. He identifies Thomas as “the one who is not allowed to mourn, because he is not part of anything”.

Graizer has based his film on a true story. His exploration of love, loss, and restoration takes him across fascinating differences. The sexuality of the characters does not need defining; what the film reveals, rather, is how Oren’s loved ones navigate crossing points into other territories defined by religion, history, nationality. One running theme, in particular, is the uneasy coexistence of secularity and religion. Graizer sets that frontline within Anat’s café, in the kitchen where Thomas ends up baking. For the café to keep its kosher licence, he must take care not to transgress certain rules.

The Cakemaker is lovingly shot by cinematographer Omri Aloni. Remarking on the contrasting colour palette of the film’s two locations, Berlin and Jerusalem, one warm, the other at times quite cold, he has explained that though partly dictated by budget constraints, it was intended that “Berlin would be a bit warm, fairy-tale, like a place that is not really real, and “Israel is a bit more rough, cold, depressing”. When Anat’s café starts selling Thomas’s cakes, a bit of that Berlin warmth is transported to Jerusalem.

As with all fairy tales, after many compelling twists and turns, in the end order must be restored – or perhaps simply reconfigured. The extraordinary moment in time, when Oren’s loved ones attempt to recapture him in varied ways, is deeply affecting, fascinating. And something of this lives on: the cakes in Anat’s café – a memory of a Berlin love, in a corner of Jerusalem.

Director & Writer: Ofir Raul Graizer
Cinematographer: Omri Aloni
Music: Dominique Charpentier
Cast: Sarah Adler, Zohar Shtrauss, Tim Kalkhof, Roy Miller, Sandra Sadeh

First published on Screenwords, October 2017