The debut feature of Berlin-based Israeli writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer, the film stars German actor Tim Kalkhof as baker Tomas, a shy, quiet guy who owns and run a bakery in Berlin. His life is transformed by the arrival of a married businessman from Jerusalem, Oren (Roy Miller), who lives a second life while on work trips to the German capital. And then, just as suddenly as Oren appears, he is lost in a tragic accident.
In his maddening grief that once again sees Tomas retreat into his shell, he is inexorably drawn to Jerusalem where he seeks out Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler). A secular woman, she continues to work in the cafe she owns rather than grieve quietly at home, much to the chagrin of her religious brother Moti (Zohar Strauss). Moti is even more irked when Anat hires Tomas to help out in the supposedly kosher kitchen, but all the while the grieving pair grow closer.
“They both have a different conception of the man they loved,” Graizer tells me, speaking over the phone from Prague while touring the film internationally. “They both have this really lonely, tragic feeling inside of them and these are things that we have to be silent about in order to contemplate them. It’s also about the lack of communication, because of the language barrier and the culture.”
An emotionally rich and nuanced film that says so much in long stretches of silence, emotion flickers across Tomas and Anat’s taut faces, lingering on their hands as they knead dough together, love and loss hanging heavy in the air.
The Cakemaker draws on Graizer’s personal experiences. He was friends with a man who, like Oren, lived a double life. A Catholic man based in Italy, he had a wife and three children but was also having an affair with a man on the side. Graizer had met his wife and one day received an email from her informing him he had died.
“I hadn’t spoken to him in three years,” Graizer says, “We were connected, but then I started to study film and we lost touch and suddenly boom, I get this email that he is gone.”
Graizer wondered if she had known about the other man, and the seed of The Cakemaker was sown. “It struck me, this situation of her having this double tragedy. On one hand losing somebody you loved, on the other finding out you can’t really mourn them because you are angry at them because they lied to you, but you can’t confront them because they are gone.”
From the outset, Graizer, a married gay man who splits his time between Berlin and Jerusalem, though more often the former, always knew he wanted to tell this story from both perspectives, that of the wife and the lover. “Tomas cannot show any grief. There is no funeral; there is no family to talk to. He’s a nobody, he doesn’t even exist.”
Graizer came out at 16 and though his parents took a while to adjust, his religious father more so than his secular mother, he says his sexuality wasn’t that big a deal. “Israel is a relatively open place, quite liberal if you come from the right family. To have a marginalised concept of political or religious questions, this is much more problematic. It’s about not being a macho guy, or not being a patriot, or not being let’s say Zionist, not being mainstream.”
These conflicts are brought to bear through the character of Moti, though there is a strange ambiguity in his relationship with Tomas too, particularly when the German answers the door dripping wet in a towel.
“Of course you know most people will not see it, unless they are sensitive to this subject,” Graizer agrees. “Moti is not a bad guy, he wants to protect his family, to make things right and he’s suspicious about Tomas for the right reasons.”
Taking home the Award of Ecumenical Jury at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, as well as two awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival, this delicate, painful, beautiful film has garnered much deserved critical praise, though the complexity of Tomas and Anat’s connection, so wonderfully conveyed by Kalkhof and Adler, has been criticised by some, perhaps unfairly.
“It’s easy to think about a straight man who suddenly realises he is gay or a married women 50 years old coming out as a lesbian,” Graizer says. “We all know this story, but let’s say a different situation where a gay man starts to develop something with a woman, I feel it’s almost a taboo. I got some comments, ‘how dare I make a queer film which is not queer enough?’”
As he sees it, the bond between Anat and Tomas isn’t straightforward. “I’m not saying they fall in love and have butterflies and flowers, what’s happening between them is much more complex and tragic. It’s more a comforting thing for them, more than it is about love and sexuality in the classical way… they are people who don’t want to be a part of some definition, they just want to explore their own ways to overcome their grief and suffering.