When Ofir Raul Graizer set out to make The Cakemaker, nobody at first wanted to support it.
After eight years of trying to make the film, which opens at The Parkway Theatre in Baltimore Friday, the Israeli filmmaker’s debut opened in theaters nationwide last year after receiving praise from critics and showing at festivals.
He’s still struck by the overwhelmingly positive reactions the film has garnered, including a rare 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“People find themselves in the film in different ways,” he wrote in an email from Berlin. “It deals with such basic, simple and urgent feelings like love, loss, grief, and I think that every human being can relate to that.”
The film, in German and Hebrew with subtitles, is a tender and wrenching look at loss and how people process it in their own ways.
It follows Thomas, the titular cakemaker in a powerhouse performance by Tim Kalkhof, a baker in Berlin who begins an affair with Oren, an Israeli businessman who frequently visits Berlin and makes sure to stop in Thomas’ shop for his excellent cakes and cookies — and then some.
Oren, who has a wife and son back home in Jerusalem, is then killed in a car accident, and Thomas, seemingly seeking a way to grieve and maintain a connection to Oren, decides to visit the Israeli city.
With the help of flashback scenes, it is clear the two had deep feelings for each other — Thomas in particular, as he leaves voicemails for Oren, before knowing his lover has died, proclaiming his love for him and asking when he’s coming back to Berlin.
In Jerusalem, Thomas meets Anat, Oren’s wife, who recently opened a cafe. Eventually, and at first reluctantly, Anat hires Thomas to help out, unaware of his connection to her husband.
The two become dependant on each other; Thomas starts baking cookies and pastries — at first with some concern from Anat’s religious brother, as he fears that will violate the cafe’s kosher status — that lead Anat’s business to blossom, and she begins inviting him over for Shabbat dinner and entrusting him to spend time with her 6-year-old son, which makes the time leading to the inevitable discovery of who Thomas really is all the more tense.
Even as the two become intertwined, it was still important to Graizer that the film was Thomas’ story.
“This starts as his story, and even though the point of view shifts and it slowly becomes the story of Anat, The Cakemaker still remains the reason for everything,” he wrote. “After the death of Oren things could have stayed the way they were, but when Thomas comes, he influences everything, from the way the family deals with the loss to the way the kitchen works. And he does it with his cakes. He is the maker of cakes, maker in the sense of making, creating, crafting. It’s a strong word, to ‘make.’ And I think that after the film ends, Anat will never forget him.”
Making the cakes is as visually delectable as the closeups on Thomas or Anat. The use of the camera zoom becomes particularly effective in highlighting critical moments in the story, from Thomas’ hands kneading dough, to a lingering shot of his face as he tries to hold back tears when Anat talks about Oren’s death.
The story was inspired by a real event, Graizer noted. A man he knew had a “double life,” with a wife and children and having affairs with men on the side. One day, Graizer received news from the man’s wife that he had died.
“I immediately wanted to make a film about that woman,” he said. “She suffered a double tragedy — on one hand she lost her husband, on the other hand she also found out that he betrayed her all these years. How can you mourn for someone who lied to you? This was the main theme I wanted to touch. In order to create the story I placed it in settings from my own life. My father is religious and my mother is secular, I grew up as a geeky gay outsider in a very machoistic and patriarchal society, and I have a strong connection with Berlin and Jerusalem.
“And I love food!”
(On a set with a film heavily centered on food, he admitted they ate “a lot… too much!”)
As much as Oren and Thomas’ relationship plays a key role in the story, their sexualities do not. The fluidity of the characters’ sexual identities was not a plotline; it was just part of the plot. The viewer can feel more connected to their relationship, rather than the labels that tend to be associated with it.
This, too, was important for Graizer.
“Sexuality is important, and sexual identity is a question that many are facing, especially in machoistic, patriarchal and conservative societies,” he said. “In open healthy societies this isn’t a question, it’s not important. That is why in the film it’s not important. It’s about people facing mourning and yearning for love, and it doesn’t matter to what gender, and it’s not about sexuality.”
Between the quietly powerful performances and the cinematic details as seemingly delicious as the pastries — the lighting and piano score in particular — the film offers a chance to not only tell a moving story, but convey that there are many ways to process grief and loss.
“I wanted to make a film that creates a feeling, which is [on] one hand tragic and melancholic, but on the other hand passionate and full of life,” he said. “So if there is anything to be taught here, it is that everyone is entitled to have their own personal way to grieve and it should not be dictated by society.”
Mostly, however, Graizer is happy to see the film resonate with viewers.
“What I enjoyed the most were these moments on set when everything fell into place, and the camera rolled, and the sound, the colors, the art, the acting and the lenses — all worked as they should,” he said. “These moments are my greatest joy in filmmaking.”