MovieMaker’s series “Foreign Contenders” features interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January.
Cooking is a cornerstone of writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer’s worldview.
Both his understanding of audiovisual storytelling and the interpersonal conflicts that entice him are influenced by the profound emotions we attach to food and its preparation. The Israeli moviemaker finds baking relaxing and wakes up in the morning thinking of what he’ll have for dinner that night.
“The kitchen is the most important room in the house,” he declared during a conversation with MovieMaker at Strand Releasing’s offices in Culver City. The well-regarded art house distributor has found astounding box-office success with Graizer’s debut feature The Cakemaker, a drama about indefinable love and mutual grief where kitchens are prime locations. Though most of his short films include cuisine as a narrative element, this keen interest of his fully rises to the top with The Cakemaker.
Inspired by a deceased friend’s double life as a man in a heterosexual marriage who was simultaneously having homosexual affairs, the film operates on the belief that meaningful connections can transcend labels, as well as the belief that delicious baked goods can act as spiritual links. Rather than tell the conflicted husband’s account, Graizer examines those left behind after his death: his widow and male lover.
In Berlin, Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) is an introverted baker whose peaceful existence revolves around crafting tasty confections and tending to his small establishment. But when Oren (Roy Miller), an attractive Israeli businessman, enters the bakery, Thomas’ world is rattled. An episodic romance unfolds each time Oren is in town, but back home in Jerusalem, Oren’s wife, Anat (Foxtrot’s Sarah Adler) raises their young son and manages a strictly kosher coffee shop.
Oren’s untimely and tragic death early in the movie prompts a heartbroken Thomas to travel to his beloved’s homeland to learn more about him and attain closure. The German cakemaker’s culinary skills serve as his pathway into the widow’s colorless life, who is herself trying to fulfill religious expectations. Soon their unspoken and shared mourning transforms into a layered companionship of the soul—one that defies classification.
According to Graizer, Thomas’ story is about how baking defines him as a person. “I just wanted to create this person who is lonely and sad, and through baking food, he manages to connect with the world.” Besides the quiet naiveté required for the turn, actor Tim Kalkhof —who normally has an athletic build—gained nearly 20 pounds to build his character from a physical standpoint. “I wanted him to have a baby face, a fragile, doughy face that you can knead,” said the director. Though baking proficiency wasn’t a prerequisite, Kalkhof kneaded the dough and decorated the cookies himself, even the ones he doesn’t ice on camera.
Graizer had a very specific list of the cakes and pastries that Thomas would bake in Berlin, as well as a list of those he would bake in Jerusalem. “Most of the recipes are very simple and traditional like ones every grandmother would make. They’re not fancy things with cream and different layers,” he added. This choice reflects Thomas’ background story, which is not overtly discussed in the film but is marked by his love for his grandma, who taught him how to bake. “She was the only person he had in his life, so he’s basically baking her recipes.”
Only one sweet delight in Thomas’ repertoire deviates from this pattern: the Black Forest Cake, a classic German cake with an intricate structure. On the inside it’s an uncomplicated sponge cake with a bit of jam, sweet cream, and cherries. Outside, however, the cake is a royal looking dessert with chocolate shavings and meticulously arranged cherries.
“The Black Forest Cake is like a person in a way. Like Thomas. He is a very basic, simple and naïve person, but he is able to create wonderful things. The Black Forest Cake is a complex pastry, with many different layers. We humans have many different layers as well, both sweet and sour,” said Graizer.
In regards to filming the edible creations, Graizer and his cinematographer Omri Aloni were clear about what they wanted to avoid. “We didn’t want to do food porn, and we didn’t want to shoot it like a commercial. We wanted the food to look like the face of a person. We wanted the close-ups of the food to look like the close-ups of our characters,” said the director. He was after subtle beauty as opposed to the saturated and artificial depiction of food in television. “You always feel like it’s a real cake in a real kitchen, not a studio fantasy.”
Zoom lenses were one of the key tools in achieving the intimate aesthetic of the The Cakemaker, and without which the movie wouldn’t be as endearing. “There are things you can only do with a zoom lens; you cannot do them with a dolly or with a crane—only a zoom lens,” he noted. “We also couldn’t afford to use the dolly. You have to build the tracks and you need like 10 people to use it. Still, I didn’t want it, I preferred the zoom. It’s beautiful. You stay far away from the scene, but your point of view, your perspective, is close. It’s a fantastic thing. You can only have it in cinema.”
The Cakemaker takes place between two distinct cities in two separate continents with a seemingly obvious divide between tradition and modernity. Graizer hoped to flip the script on these preconceived ideas about both cultural centers’ visual language. “We have two different visions, one of Jerusalem and one of Berlin, each with its own palette. As the film goes along, however we break this palette and blur the differences,” he explained.
“Berlin was very warm, kitschy, almost like a fairytale, and Jerusalem was very blue, melancholic and realistic. This was the feeling you get in the beginning, but then we break it, and Jerusalem becomes warm and colorful, with the market and the food, and Berlin becomes sad, melancholic, quiet and grey. The idea was to build a certain understanding of reality, and then you break it apart. You tear this understanding up, and you build a new understanding which is fluid and open and not just one thing.”
Setting this non-traditional love story in Germany and Israel added a general context regarding guilt, shame, and the need to acknowledge the past. “It’s a political idea, but it’s connected to the personal story here. The characters here are dealing with the past and their history.”
The natural fluidity Graizer mentions applies equally to Thomas and Anat’s passionate friendship. Two people that lost their loved one—in this case the same person—and eventually find each other for solace. “Their sexual, religious, and national identities are not important. It’s about two people, and their ability to connect after their loss.”
On a more pragmatic note, the way Graizer approaches baking, one of his favorite hobbies, tends to mirror his directing style: there are certain ingredients that are indispensable in the making of a movie. Then there are the spontaneous and unpredictable changes that happen due to human elements. The result is never exactly the same in baking, nor in filmmaking.
“When I organize a scene and work on a shot, I know what the frame has to look like. I know the colors in the frame, the lens, what we’re going to do with the sound design, where the characters can move and where they should be physically—these are the ingredients. But when we shoot, I let the actors work through the dialogue in their own way, with their own rhythm.”
He compares the physicality of baking bread, where the bulk of the work is done by hand, with the moviemaking process. With cakes, the specifications are more rigorous. With bread, however, there is room for original invention. “With cakes, for example, you have to be very precise about the amount of baking powder and spices. With bread, of course there are recipes, but you never need to stick to the recipe. When I make bread, I always do a little more of this and little more of that. Something about the work itself is flowing and spontaneous in a way.”
Once all of the components are in place, the variations, in both a scene and a loaf, are what give the product a singular flavor. “You can play a little bit; you can have your own interpretation, and you can cook it a little more or a little less,” he added. “Take your time. Let things be natural.” Graizer’s philosophy is evident in his nuanced and gently simmered drama. MM
The Cakemaker is Israel’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film, courtesy of Strand Releasing. All Images Courtesy of Strand Releasing.