Though Germany is a stalwart political supporter of Israel, the revival of far-right extremism in Germany and the widespread European outrage over Israel’s activities in Palestinian territories has foregrounded some of the longstanding, emotionally charged tensions between the two nations. The Cakemaker works some of this deeply rooted emotion into its story about everyday Germans and Israelis. But while the film may be understood as a kind of transnational allegory, the primary strength of Ofir Raul Graizer’s first feature lies in allowing its characters to be more than embodiments of their national cultures, to own and feel the grief, guardedness, and loneliness that only later we may notice speaks to broader German-Israeli issues.
The film opens in Berlin, where on his visits to the city Israeli businessman Oren (Roy Miller) frequents a bakery run by Thomas (Tim Kalkhof). Oren, despite having a wife, Anat (Sarah Adler), back in Israel, seduces Thomas, and the two begin an affair that lasts until Oren’s sudden death in a car accident a year later. Grief-stricken, Thomas sojourns to Jerusalem, trying to track down Anat’s recently opened café, subsequently maneuvering his way into a job washing dishes at the establishment, and without revealing who he is.
What’s behind Thomas’s compulsion to make the trip and engage in such deceit is left unspoken in The Cakemaker, but it’s clear that he’s seeking a kind of closure. Thomas exploits the first opportunity to impress Anat with his baking, and Anat, growing fond of the taciturn Thomas, takes him on as a baker, but to the chagrin of her devoutly Orthodox brother-in-law, Motti (Zohar Shtrauss). This spells trouble, not only because of the inevitability that Anat will discover Thomas’s true identity, but also because Thomas’s presence in the kitchen threatens her café’s official kosher status.
With its representation of familial conflict, web of secrets, and deferred grief, the film deals in standard melodramatic scenarios, and in some moments its deployment of these tropes is cheap. One in particular, in which Anat blithely explains that her baking was never able to please Oren, and Thomas instructs her on adequately handling the dough, delivers a baroque sexual metaphor, in the service of too-obvious dramatic irony, with far too straight a face. But for the most part, The Cakemaker doesn’t paint in such broad strokes. Far more developed than this one equation of sex to baking, for example, is the film’s contrast between Thomas’s approach to food as a sensual, private activity and the Israelis’ approach to it as a religious and communal one.
Like the film’s multilayered, symbolic cakes, Kalkhof’s performance avoids over-simplification, even though the silent-sufferer character he plays is a classic melodramatic archetype. Thomas is reserved to the point of impassivity, and yet, from his first appearance on screen, we can perceive the lonesomeness that compels this attitude. Kalkhof’s smooth-featured face works as a mask behind whose stereotypically German neutrality we catch only momentary glimpses of feeling: Thomas registers a moment of discomfort when listening to Anat describe her deceased husband, and, in flashback, to Oren describe his wife and child. Although it eventually does so, The Cakemaker never needs to give Thomas a backstory underlining that Thomas is lonely, that perhaps lonesome despair motivates his inexcusable decision to deceive Anat and her family. Moreover, Kalkhof’s curious combination of inscrutability and woundedness helps to invite our empathy for Thomas even when the character is at his most deplorable.
Kalkhof’s subtle performance lays the groundwork for The Cakemaker’s affecting climax—a final discharge of suppressed emotions that’s hardly surprising but very much earned. Despite some obvious moments, Graizer’s film is a complex mix: Binding its narrative to fascinating explorations of national identity, sexuality, and, of course, food, it avoids being limited by its use of allegory and melodrama. Instead, it deploys elements of each to craft a poignant film about mourning and forgiveness.