Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer’s debut feature is a deceptively wicked take on romantic transference in that his strikingly unusual plot devices don’t seem that striking when they happen since they are so seamessly woven into the fabric of the story. Put bluntly, The Cakemaker is a love story between a young German man and not one, but two Israelis, a man and a woman, and while Germany as a country has done its best to reconcile with the Jewish people over its genocidal actions during World War II and is now a staunch supporter of Israel, the scenes where the German character interacts with Israelis on the latter’s home turf show how the relationship is still fraught with uneasiness. But it’s the second plot device, which connects directly to the first, that makes this movie more than a cross-cultural study. For those of us who know about Israel only through the news, it’s an eye-opening revelation, though to Israelis it’s everyday life.
Our German protagonist is the title character, Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), who plies his wares in a small bakery in Berlin. One day an Israeli businessman, Oren (Roy Miller), stops by for some strudel and then buys some to bring home to his family in Jerusalem. Oren has regular business in Berlin and stops by the bakery whenever he’s in town. Eventually, he and Thomas, who is much younger, embark on an affair. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the viewer sees only this side of Oren’s life. Thomas, it’s implied, is lonely and alone, and it’s only gradually that we learn he was raised by a single, now-deceased grandmother, who taught him how to bake.
And then Oren stops showing up, and Thomas is perplexed. After two months he gets up the courage to visit the company Oren was doing business with, ostensibly to deliver a cake, and learns that Oren was killed in a traffic accident in Jerusalem. In the next scene, Thomas is in Jerusalem, and while the suddenness of the progression is disconcerting, it obviates the need to explain Thomas’s motivation, which is important because he boldly seeks out the cafe recently opened by Oren’s wife, Anat (Sarah Adler), and wrangles himself a job as a dishwasher, without letting on that he knew her husband.
This is where the second plot device makes a difference. Thomas is a preternaturally reticent individual, and it’s difficult to understand his purposes in getting close to Anat, but he smoothly moves from utility help to the cafe’s resident confection maker, a role that threatens Anat’s kosher certiication, since he’s not Jewish. In the film’s second most dramatic scene, he bakes cookies for Anat’s son as a surprise for his birthday, and then has to throw them all out after Oren’s orthodox brother, Motti (Zohar Shtrauss), discovers he’s used the kosher oven, which is forbidden. As it stands, Anat is not religious. She only sought the kosher certification because of the greater potential for customers, and as the story progresses she finds herself caught between her regard for the quiet, thoughtful Thomas—whose creations, augmented by the novelty of his nationality, attract crowds—and her caustic, domineering brother-in-law, all the while never knowing why Thomas is there in the first place.
Though there’s much about The Cakemaker that tests credulity, it’s such an emotionally assured work that the eventual reckoning becomes unbearably wrenching, and it’s thanks mainly to the chemistry between Kalkhof and Adler. Though Thomas’s actions are unforgivable, Kalkhof makes him such a sympathetic figure that you dread the moment of truth as much as you would if you were waiting for him to die. And Anat’s ambiguous relationship with her family, including her late husband, lends her a tragic complexity. Even if Graizer can’t quite resolve all these elements in a satisfying way, he shows vividly how culture and character clash, not only interpersonally, but within the same person.
In English, Hebrew and German. Now playing in Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).
The Cakemaker home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Laila Films Ltd. 2017