In 'The Cakemaker,' Grieving Is Baked In
At first, we barely get to know the baby-faced, blue-eyed gentleman from Berlin, except for his recipes: golden cinnamon cookies, a lush and creamy Black Forest cake. This seems to be the way Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) likes it. He works at a traditional German bakery and largely keeps to himself, an oddity in a city with some of the wildest nightlife in the world. He even loves quietly, so much so that we can't read on his face when someone truly special enters his life. But his hero's journey will take him to a place where making his sweets breaks religious law. So what world does Thomas belong in? Only the strudel can say for sure.
The Cakemaker is another one of those movies about a chef where familiar kitchen tasks, like layering chocolate and squeezing out frosting, take on sensual meaning once they are being done with, or for, another person. But the film is not the overwrought dough-riser you might be picturing. Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer, making his feature debut, is quiet, naturalistic and patient with his goods.
The film is really a love triangle with a ghost: In Germany, Thomas begins an affair with Oren (Roy Miller), a married Israeli businessman who travels between Jerusalem and Berlin for work. Weeks after Oren has stopped showing up at the bakery, Thomas discovers his lover has died in a car accident. The next thing he knows, he's packed all his things and moved to Jerusalem, staking out the restaurant that Oren's widow Anat (Sarah Adler) has recently opened, asking if she needs any "help" in the kitchen. The two develop an intimacy that is both verbotenand treif, not only because Anat has been holding onto a box of Oren's things that would out Thomas's past if she ever leafed through them, but also because Thomas's very identity as a German goyis out of whack with his new adopted land. Forget not speaking Hebrew; he can't even turn on his new employer's oven without violating the city's strict laws governing Kosher food preparation.
The scenes between Kalkhof and Adler are truly something special. Inhabiting such a small space, speaking a mutual language of grief without really saying anything, the actors seem to each float in their own orbits barely aware of their surroundings. (This could explain why Anat's son goes missing at one point.) It would be wrong to say the two have "chemistry"; in fact, rarely has an onscreen pair been required to make fewer sparks fly. But there is still an understanding being communicated, one that offsets the frustration of having such a cipher for a protagonist. Eventually Anat invites Thomas over for Shabbat dinners and helps set him up with an apartment, though even in a home of his own he's restricted by Kosher law — Anat's strictly observant and deeply distrusting brother (Zohar Shtrauss) makes sure of that.
So this is all obviously more than just pastries. Graizer is musing on contemporary Israeli-German relationships, and all the emotional baggage that comes with them. The only detail we learn of Thomas's past is that he was raised by his grandmother; we are left to speculate about what someone of her generation might have thought about him falling in love with a Jewish man. Likewise, Oren works for an urban planning group, and so all throughout Thomas's strange aliyahin his lover's shadow, we are thinking about which bridges are being built on his path and which are being destroyed.
The film seems slight, and in many ways it is. This much passivity can only take a narrative so far. But Graizer knows how to hint at a deeper pain: The many, many scenes of silence and isolation hang in the air like unbaked clouds of flour. As the siren rings throughout Jerusalem calling all the Jewish families to Sabbath dinner, our German friend whose cooking can break your heart sits alone in his spotless apartment, dipping into takeout hummus.
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