'The Cakemaker' ('Der Kuchenmacher'): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2017

Not kosher.

Rookie director Ofir Raul Graizer casts newcomer Tim Kalkhof as a German pastry chef who travels to Jerusalem to get closer to the wife of his dead lover.

After the death of his part-time boyfriend, a taciturn German pastry chef moves to Jerusalem to work in the cafe of his lover's widow in The Cakemaker (Der Kuchenmacher), the debut feature from Israeli writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer. This is the kind of polite, hushed melodrama that might have a theoretically bisexual protagonist but that's been made — or should that read neutered? — for the widest possible (straight) audience. To paraphrase the critic Jay Weissberg, this is the kind of queer film that won't ruffle the feathers of a granny in Manitoba, though it's bound to make more discerning audiences groan.

Not only is there hardly any lushly shot food porn here — sawdust-dry cookies just don't look very sexy and are even less appealing when decorated with chemically colored toppings — but there's hardly a soupcon of the physicality of queer desire at all, whereas heterosexual kissing gets long and luscious close-ups. And instead of plumbing the depths of the potentially bottomless thematic well that is the intersection of grief and desire, this is the kind of respectfully muted drama that makes being queer and being in mourning look equally dull.

Nonetheless, the romance and food angles make this easy to market as the cinematic equivalent of liberal comfort food, even though more discriminating LGBTQ audiences will rightly accuse Graizer of having his cake and eating it, too.

Thomas (newcomer Tim Kalkhof), the baker of the title, is a very aloof person with apparently zero family and friends in Berlin. How this emotionally distant loner ever managed to become the lover of married Israeli businessman Oren (Roy Miller), who is in the German capital at least once a month, is conveniently lost in an ellipsis. What's also lost is any idea of the passion or depth of feeling the duo shared; Graizer fades to black even before the two men's lips have touched in the film's single same-sex kiss and their bond isn't explored further until an unprompted and very short flashback much later.

After learning that Oren has died in a car accident, Thomas travels to Jerusalem on a one-way ticket (what happens to his coffee-and-cake shop in Berlin, which he seemed to run on his own, is never explained — can he afford to just close it for an indefinite time?). Thomas knew about Oren's wife, Anat (Sarah Adler), and their kid son, and despite the fact he doesn't speak Hebrew and is German, Anat, who has no idea who Thomas is, hires him to work at her coffee bar. (About the only thing we thus know about Oren is that he clearly had a cafe-owner fetish.) Here, too, there are questions of logic that don't add up: Thomas' baking skills will help make the initially frequently empty cafe a success, but if business wasn't going so well when Thomas appeared on her doorstep, why would Anat hire anyone, especially because she doesn't yet know that Thomas turns out to be an excellent pastry chef?

Thomas is, of course, a fish out of the water in Jerusalem and clueless about the rules that need to be respected in order to keep the cafe's kosher certificate, which becomes an awkward metaphor for the secular and religious forces at work in Israeli society. Indeed, in some ways the film seems to want to talk about overlapping and intersecting labels — Anat identifies as a secular Jew, for example, who prefers to keep her kosher certificate because it is good for business — but then Graizer tiptoes around the elephant in the room: Thomas' sexuality. He never identifies as gay, bisexual or fluid, which makes it even harder to understand what the evolving relationship with Anat really means to him.

Since his character isn't an open book to begin with, and he doesn't have anyone to talk to about his unusual predicament at home or in the Holy City (where he doesn't seem to interact with anyone who's not part of Anat's family), it's even harder to get a handle on his feelings. Does he want to be with Anat because she's the closest he can get to his now-dead lover? Did an Israeli wonder-woman perhaps turn a gay German man straight? Or would he have fallen in love with her regardless of her connection to Oren? How does he feel about having to hide his status as Oren's once-lover to his widow? When his character stares into the mid-distance once again, it seems like Kalkhof might be asking himself some of the same questions.

The director's commitment issues also extend to other areas of his debut film. Thomas, for example, finds a red Speedo that used to belong to Oren and that he subsequently wears in one shot, and Anat decks out her new employee in Oren's clothes when Thomas has come over for a Shabbat dinner one rainy night and he arrives wet. But the director doesn't push these setups to their logical conclusion. We are looking at characters in mourning, one of the most potent and churningly confusing feelings known to man. And these people are confronted with the clothes of their dead lover and yet there's no drama, no sexual flare-ups and no inappropriate or at least confused behavior. Graizer doesn't even suggest the metaphorical meaning that's so obviously there for the taking, as Anat's idea to dress Thomas in Oren's clothes could visually suggest how he might be taking over Oren's role in her life. So why include these scenes at all?

Graizer too often seems afraid to potentially offend anyone (but especially straight audiences along for the ride) and too polite to explore the darker recesses of grief, desire and sexuality. One doesn't even need the more explicit approach of someone like Joao Pedro Rodrigues, whose Odete touches on many similar themes; a tonally hushed film like Lilting, which also looked at secrets, gay desire, being stuck between cultures and how the memory of a loved one can inform actions in the present day, felt much more emotionally transparent and honest and thus affecting. But after The Cakemaker's over, audiences will shrug, instantly forget the wishy-washy characters and not even run to the nearest patisserie.

Aside from the weaknesses of the screenplay and Kalkhof's stiff performance, the rest of the cast and technical contributions are fine.

Production companies: Laila Films, Film Base Berlin
Cast: Tim Kalkhof, Sarah Adler, Roy Miller, Zohar Strauss, Sandra Sade
Writer-Director: Ofir Raul Graizer
Producer: Itai Tami
Director of photography: Omri Aloni
Production designers: Daniel Kossow, Yael Bibelnik
Costume designer: Lilu Goldfine
Editor: Michal Openheim
Music: Dominique Charpentier
Sales: Films Boutique

In English, Hebrew, German
No rating, 104 minutes