It’s probably best to go into The Cakemaker with as little knowledge of the plot as you can. Being that it’s such a precise, small drama with very little by way of cinematic flair, much of the appeal comes from plot development and character work, both of which are quite strong. It seems that we’re seeing a recent mainstreaming of dramas based in Jewish culture: Disobedience, Menashe, and now The Cakemaker. This is notable because, while Judaism is somewhat regularly represented in pop culture/media, it’s not often that facets of the religion as a practice are explored in a way that hasn’t been Americanized.
The Cakemaker investigates what happens at the juncture of three different types of orthodoxy: religious, cultural, and sexual. Our titular baker, Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, wonderful), runs a pastry shop in Berlin. Every month or so, a man from Jerusalem named Oren comes to Berlin on business, and the two men have a secret affair. When Oren unexpectedly dies, Thomas puts his life on hold and travels to Jerusalem seeking closure. There, under an assumed identity, he befriends Oren’s widow Anat (Sarah Adler, transcendent), and soon begins working at her cafe. This causes tensions for multiple reasons. First, there’s the nature of their acquaintance. Can Thomas keep the secret he shared with Oren? Should he? Next, the Israelis are naturally suspicious of a German man entering their community. Finally, it is highly important to the success of Amat’s business to remain Kosher, which means that Thomas’s increasingly popular baked goods could be a liability.
As these conflicts intermingle, orthodoxies interchange with heresies based entirely on perspective. Credit to writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer for painting the plight of each character with such empathy so as to not vilify the motivations of any one party. Everyone is coming from somewhere, and all are dealing with a crummy situation from a position of repression. Thomas must keep the secret he and Oren shared. He must also reckon with his alternative desires. Anat must keep her business afloat in the wake of tragedy, while adhering to cultural rules to which she has no personal interest.
And the community must deal with the fact that a non-kosher outsider makes some seriously excellent cake. I desperately wanted to reach through the screen and grab each and every cake on display. If ever a movie made me want to get all fat and sassy on cinnamon buns, it’s this one.
As a feature-length debut, The Cakemaker proclaims Graizer as a filmmaker worth watching. As Judaism makes its way into the thematic material of more and more movies, it’s voices such as his that will keep these stories properly informed. The best movies are the type that draw one into an unfamiliar world, and that’s perhaps what makes The Cakemaker so special: Despite being a world that feels foreign to the broader American audience, it is by no means cryptic or alien. This is an extremely accessible film no matter what angle you approach it from, due in part to the fact that it speaks to universal themes, as well as to the fact that it’s an engaging (and relatively breezy) watch.
I am not Jewish myself, so I cannot speak to many of the specificities of faith which fuel the narrative of the film, but I don’t believe that is the intention of the film anyway. The Cakemaker is not trying to espouse or condemn anything about religious practice. In fact, it is likely my outsider’s perspective which causes me to give such weight to the inclusion of Judaism as anything more than a fact of nature anyway. I’d imagine that a review written by someone who lives in Israel wouldn’t go through such awkward pains to pay lip service to the religion as I have here. But as an American, I do find it a fascinating and fresh narrative device.
So in the end, the inclusion of some cultural knowledge adds some icing to the top of an already delicious cinematic treat (see what I did there?!?!? I’M SO CLEVER), resulting in a simple, yet monumental debut film.
The Cakemaker opens at the Ritz Bourse today,
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.