By Tom Ue.
Israeli-born film director and video artist Ofir Raul Graizer lives and works in nexus of Berlin, Uckermark, and Jerusalem. In 2015, he co-directed with Teresita Ugarte the 15-minute narrative film “La Discotheque” in the project Chile Factory, which premiered at Cannes Director’s Fortnight. His first feature The Cakemaker premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, in the Main Competition section, and was picked for release in USA, Canada, Spain, Argentina, and Chile. This deeply moving film follows a German pastry maker (Tim Kalkhof) who travels to Jerusalem to connect with the widow (Sarah Adler) and son (Tamir Ben Yehuda) of his diseased lover (Roy Miller). The film has since earned The Ecumenical Jury Award at Karlovy Vary and the Critics Award at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. Graizer discusses how the film came to be.
Congratulations on The Cakemaker! The beauty and strength of this film conceals the eight-year process that it took to make it. In what ways has the film developed in your mind during this period?
Thank you, Tom. The story went through all sorts of versions, styles, narrative directions, but somehow it had always remained loyal to the very first five-paged synopsis I wrote at the start. Some scenes, like the swimming pool, Thomas (Kalkhof) baking at night, Anat (Adler) crying and laughing on the bed, and mostly the last scene of the movie – I had these already in the beginning. I had the shot, the cut, and the colors in my head. Even though the story changed, eventually I returned to the starting point. It was necessary to go through this process, and yet never forget why I am doing it and what is important for me, to tell this story the way I feel it should be told.
Though not autobiographical, the film encapsulates so many ideas important to you, such as the role of religion in society and gender. What in particular inspired it?
Mostly this double-life phenomenon. As an openly gay guy from a half religious family and a very macho society, I have often encountered people who run a double life, or people who live in a lie. I still do. There was one specific case that pushed me to do this film, but the reason I connected to this theme is because of all these questions of nationality and religion and sexual identity and social responsibility, all of these are related to the idea of double life. It’s like someone is incapable of having one existence so they need to create another. I am very familiar with that feeling. It was a part of me all of my life.
You are an expert on food, having trained as a cook and been at work on a cookbook. Are there particular challenges to filming food?
I am not an expert of food! Why is everyone keep telling me that…? I worked in restaurants since I was 16 and I teach cooking but very simple homemade food. Nothing fancy or special. And this was the challenge actually. Because aesthetically, we wanted the cakes not to look too beautiful, not too teasing. Not like a TV ad. To make it melancholic, raw, yet beautiful and nostalgic. It was also, real natural foo. The cakes were real. I didn’t want to use and strange wax sprays or things that they use in publicity, to make it look “perfect”. The main challenge was not to eat all of it – which we didn’t really manage to keep.
There’s an elegiac quality to the film, owing, at least partially, to the music and the cinematography. Have you thought about telling this story using other registers? For instance, by making this into a detective story?
I think it is a detective story! At some point, I would say, first for Thomas and later for Anat. The notes, and the image of the café, the finding of the old keys, and recognition of the taste of cookies… Even if there is not one truth that they are seeking, and they have no ‘goal’ or killer to find, I still think that, throughout the film, the two of them are looking for something. I really tried to put these elements in the story because these are one of the things I love to see in cinema. Crime and thrillers and film noir… I admire these kinds of films! This mysterious search for the truth, the little clues, then the discovery… I love it.
The cast—Sarah Adler, Roy Miller, and Tim Kalkhof – is immaculate. How did you arrive at this perfect ensemble?
I knew I want to have Sarah Adler many years ago, and had already pitched her the project six years before. So when I wrote the script I was thinking of her. Then when I casted Tim and Roy, even before we made the final deal with Sarah, I had already had her in mind and I just knew it will work. I just saw it in my head. Their appearances, their differences, and the way they are as people and not as actors. Those were crucial to build this triangle. The only big things I had to do is to get Tim to gain 8 Kilo, because I wanted him to be a bit chubby, like a lost little baby. And he cooperated. They were fantastic together once they met, so I knew it will work in front of the camera.
Time plays a central role: Oren and Anat are both older than Thomas. What do you think attracts them to him?
The simple question would be that he makes wonderful cakes. But if I mean it as a metaphor or a symbol, he makes happiness, he makes life, he creates things that both Oren and Anat didn’t have perhaps. Yet I think that both are attracted to him mainly because they see in him something else, of a different world, a way into a different life. A refugee of comfort and sweetness. To build a life outside of religion and nationality. Something pure, naïve and sweet.
We come to know Oren (slightly) better with time, and it’s only until much later in the film that we see his intimacy with Thomas. Why structure the film in this way?
I see this story, in many ways, as a coming-of-age story. From Thomas’ point of view, he has a certain idea of who Oren is and what he is. He is aware of the marriage and the child, and he accepts his place as number two. But when he arrives in Jerusalem, he starts to realize the complexities of religion, of the country, and the responsibility of family, that he himself never had. Only after that scene in the kitchen, where he took a step too far, I wanted him – to contemplate the past, and reveal the essence of this love into the story. To let Thomas tell who he is, finally. Only in that point. It changed things.
Have you thought about what might have happened if Oren hadn’t died or died at a later time?
Sure, but it would have been another story. Oren had to die. I had to kill him.
Is there a sense in which Oren will remain a crux notwithstanding Thomas’ and Anat’s efforts to understand their lover?
I think that Oren is there all the time, although he is dead. He is there, in the kitchen, at home, like a ghost. And I think eventually we could understand what he did and why he did it. But I am not objective…
The condoms that Thomas discovers in Oren’s swimming pool locker suggest that he is having other affairs, and yet this does not seem to affect their love. Why?
It might not have affected the love when Oren lived, because I think it was carnal. We already know that Oren wasn’t monogamist. He managed to lead a totally double life. We don’t know what he did in the locker room, we can only assume, but it surely affects Thomas’s perspective of the love. He might have realized it wasn’t only about him, at that point of the film, but later on – well I don’t want to spoiler too much….
Are you optimistic for Thomas and Anat?
I am, for sure; because whatever happens to them, they are not the same people they were when they first met. I believe they managed to overcome many things, but it’s for them to live their lives now. I can’t dictate that anymore…
A remake of the film is in the works. Will you be involved?
I am involved in the writing of the treatment. As for what happens next, we will see. We wish to make a different film, more of an adaptation, but it’s still all in the creative process.
What is next for you?
I am developing a couple of projects, one in Israel and another one in Italy. They are two completely different stories, but both very personal. I have a lot more in my mind. I hope to be able to shoot something soon.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.