It’s a necessity. It’s an obsession. It’s the feeling that there’s nothing else I want to do with my life but make films.
What would happen if that someone who was finally putting a spring in your solitary life steps suddenly disappeared without notice? What would we all do with the stony silence that remains?
In Ofir Raul Graizer’s The Cakemaker, we’re introduced to a Berlin bakery where German pastry chef Tomas (Tim Kalkhof) and out-of-towner Israeli businessman Oren (Roy Miller) first meet. It’s not long before casual pleasantries turn into a long distance, clandestine affair. And all too soon, Oren’s unexpected death disrupts their still-infant romance. Seeking closure, Tomas travels to Oren’s home in Jerusalem, to the kosher café run by his widow Anat (Sarah Adler). Tomas says nothing of his past and instead finds solace in baking the confections that will help Anat throw her business into a lucrative surge, in the midst of their own blossoming attraction towards each other.
So was Oren bisexual or closeted? Does Tomas return Anat’s advances because he’s bi? Does Tomas want to reconnect with Oren somehow through Anat? Who knows? This is the film’s flavor. Graizer’s subversive debut feature explores themes of unnamed sorrow, shared grief, and the fluidity of sexuality, while remaining neutral towards its characters’ actions and consequences.
Anthem sat down with Graizer at the Sands Hotel & Casino during the Macao Film Festival & Awards, ahead of The Cakemaker’s Centerpiece debut at the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival.
The 27th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival runs from January 10 to 23.
We’re at a young festival that’s only in its second year. What’s your impression of Macau?
I honestly can’t say that I have an impression because I haven’t really seen the city. I did one organized walking tour yesterday. I have curiosity. It’s an interesting place, for sure. You have on one side this richness: huge casinos, lights, and the Eiffel Tower wannabe [at The Parisian]. On the other hand, you have a lot of people who have normal lives. The world of the casinos and gambling is like a different planet. But they’re coexisting. Then there’s also the fact that it’s my first time in Asia. It’s a completely different culture for me in every way, except I know some Asian foods that I love. This is a chance for me to get to know a little bit about something that’s far from me.
Is it very difficult to be a vegetarian here? What have you been eating?
This is a big challenge. There are five restaurants in the hotel and I always have to explain, “I don’t eat fish, meat, chicken, or seafood.” There isn’t a single dish that doesn’t contain one of those so it’s very difficult. But I manage. I just eat a lot at breakfast. [Laughs] It’s noodles with nothing, rice with nothing, and rice with broccoli. Today I had very good Indian food around the corner. It was very good quality. I heard there are some places I can go to, but I have to go discover them.
So I understand that The Cakemaker is based on a real story that you heard firsthand, about a married man with a wife and child who was having affairs with men on the side. In your story, the man’s lover and his wife also get together. How much of that was your invention?
That was entirely invented. The affair was also an invention because I didn’t know any specific affairs he had. I only knew what his reality was: a man leading a double life. He had a wife and children on one side, while fucking men on the other side. Maybe he was not just fucking and also falling in love, having an emotional affair. I don’t know. But he was gay, for sure. It was not bisexuality. It’s the classic scenario where you want to have a “normal” life where society tells you to get a wife. [The real guy] was also older. He was around 50 when I met him so it’s a different generation. He was from a very Catholic family and environment. This was in Italy, actually. Creating this lover and his relationship to the wife is my own invention. It’s completely fiction. But all the elements in the film—the food, the religion, the Jewish and Christian conflict, Jerusalem, and Berlin—is my life. That’s completely autobiographical. I put myself in all the characters.
This is a very personal film.
Very personal. It’s material that I know. I was specific about not being specific. This is what I was interested in: sexuality doesn’t need to be a part of it. For me, there was an idea beyond it. The characters don’t want to be defined. They lack definition. Sexuality, nationality, religion, even gender—these are all definitions. What I think is common to all the characters in the film, including the grandmother, is that they don’t want to be defined. They find their own ways to be who they are. It might be kitschy. For example, Anat is not religious. She says to her brother-in-law, “I don’t want to be religious. I don’t give a shit about this culture.” On the other hand, with the Shabbat dinner, she asks her kid, “Do you want to do the blessing? If you don’t, we don’t have to.” And he says, “Yes,” and they do it. So she’s doing it in this respectful way and telling her kid to sit nicely. She’s in a way still connected. It’s about finding your own way to do things and not saying it has to be this or that. This is how I live my life in every aspect of it. I don’t define myself as gay. I’m not attracted to women in any way. But I can definitely imagine a situation where I’m very connected to a woman, enough to want to have sex with her. Maybe. People are fascinating and complex. People are complicated, especially in emotional situations when we’re in mourning, trapped in some kind of social jail, or having personal issues. They’re emotionally more complex.
Were you worried at all that the audience might find Tomas too unlikable? He knows that Oren is married and has a child, but carries on with the affair anyway.
I think in some ways he is unlikeable. When you see him at the beginning you tell yourself, “What the fuck is he doing? He’s lying to her. He’s manipulating her. He’s getting into her life?” It’s not nice what he’s doing. It’s a dark thing to do. On the other hand, there’s a reason why he’s doing it. There’s such pain. There’s so much a need for him to be there and you can sympathize with him. It’s the same thing as not wanting to be defined and to look at things in a complex way. There’s no one meaning to it. You could say that all the characters in this film, or most of them, have a duality about them, even with the brother-in-law. On the one hand, he’s this conservative guy. On the other hand, he brings Tomas food for the weekend and tells him to come over for dinner with his family. He finds Tomas an apartment. They all have their own pain. They all lost Oren and it’s what connects all of them. They want to protect each other and help each other. It’s complex.
As you said, the film is about exploring the grey zones that exist outside external labels tied to sexuality, nationality, and religion. Is it validating to make a film like this and have people understand where you’re coming from? Is it cathartic to get all of that out in the open?
I’m not sure if it’s cathartic. I mean, I’m happy to do it. I enjoy it in a way. It’s the ego.
We all have them.
I find it extremely comforting and touching that people, especially from around the world in different cultures, watch the film and get emotionally attached to the characters. It’s very, very important because you can make movies that are arthouse and sophisticated and cinematic, but at the end of the day, we still need to feel something. For me, the biggest challenge is that people will feel. One of the fears is always that you won’t feel for the characters. People tell me that they’re touched emotionally. I now get reviews and reactions from people who saw the film in Macau, Hong Kong, and China. Before that, I got them from the Czech Republic, USA, Germany, and Israel—the edges. It’s important, more than anything else like my ego or the money that I don’t make. [Laughs] It’s more important than prizes or awards or recognition or sales. It’s a film that really manages to give you some kind of an emotional experience. For me, it’s an achievement.
You never know how people will react, especially with a film like this where you work on it for so many years. You watch it so many times: when you shoot it, when you edit it, when you do the sound design, and when you color grade. You’re so much into it so there’s no objectivity. You can paint or take a still photo and remain objective for a longer time. With film, at some point, I can’t. I watch the film now and I can’t feel anything, except for some scenes that I really like. It’s very distant from me so I have to trust what other people say. It’s an interesting and fascinating thing about film that you give it to somebody else. The critics say good things and bad things. The audience can like the film, hate the film, or cannot feel anything about the film. It’s no longer mine.
You told the audience last night that the film took eight years to make. It’s not uncommon for an indie feature. What does it take for a filmmaker to stay with something for that long?
It’s a necessity. It’s an obsession. It’s the feeling that there’s nothing else I want to do with my life but make films. This is my first feature and I put everything into it, so I had to finish it. If I fail, I don’t know how I would live with myself. It was not easy. All films are hard to do and all filmmakers have troubles. I can tell you that my producers and I went through very difficult moments making this film. There were a lot of question marks and there was a lot of sacrifice. There were moments where it was really too much, like two weeks before shooting with everything set and almost saying, “We can’t do it.” But then we would solve it. I went to where I had to go, no matter what. I talked to the right people, sold my soul, and we managed to do the film. It’s like that again, and again, and again, and again, and again—then another brick in the wall.
I understand it took some time to find Tim Kalkhof. This is his first leading role. I also learned that his real-life dad is a pastry chef. Do you see that as a sign when you cast him?
He only told me this afterwards. I met with Tim twice. The first time was more like an interview. I just talked to him and tried to understand who he is. The second time was a real casting session for 45 minutes. After we finished that second session I knew, and I think he knew that I already knew I wanted to take him. Well, he told me he knew. So it was not a consideration at all. Then I had to teach him how to clean the dough and how to make the yeast. I taught him how to do those things.
I actually found the YouTube clip of you guys working with dough.
[Laughs] Yeah, this was in Prague. Tim’s a TV actor, basically. He usually plays detectives or the sports guy. This is the first role he had that’s completely different from who he is. I found him by chance because I had all these showreels. I saw many actors and narrowed the list down. I just wasn’t 100% sure. Then I watched some more showreels and looked at websites of agencies when I was back in Germany. There was this one agency where all the men looked in his age group. I didn’t know who he was so he was completely anonymous to me. It was a really impressive showreel. The showreel had a monologue and it was perfectly made. I already had this monologue scene in the film where Tomas talks about his childhood so I said, “I want this actor to do the monologue for me.” In the end I had a choice between Tim and another German actor who’s much more famous. If I got the other one it could help me get money for the film, but I chose Tim.
Do you ever talk about who the other candidate was?
No, I never say it.
It’s not fair to.
No, it’s not fair. It’s not important. It was just another actor. He was much more established and more known, but I felt like Tim was more right for the job. That’s it. It’s really interesting with huge blockbusters where you know the actors by name and you want to know. You see Brad Pitt or whatever in a movie so you’re curious to know who else they tested for the role. That’s interesting. But on a small independent movie like The Cakemaker, who gives a shit? [Laughs]
Kate Winslet recently revealed that Matthew McConaughey tested to play Jack in Titanic.
Her screen test is up on YouTube. You see her do a screen test with another actor [Jeremy Sisto] auditioning for Titanic. It’s bizarre and fascinating. You can see everything on YouTube now. It’s amazing. You can see the original auditions from all the movies. It’s crazy.
You made several short films prior to The Cakemaker. There are also a lot of editing credits to your name. How come you didn’t want to edit The Cakemaker yourself?
Well, actually, I did. [Laughs] I did the first cut and the fine cut. Somewhere in the middle we took on an editor because I had some other business to take care of and couldn’t do it. We collaborated and worked together to finalize the film. But for the first two or three months, I worked alone.
I’m curious to know more about your film school experience. You studied at Sapir College in Israel. How did you end up going there and what were some of the bigger lessons for you?
Oof—it’s complex. This film school is situated in the south of Israel, right on the border between Gaza and Israel. It’s in an area that’s quite poor. It’s also not far from the desert. In the desert, you have all kinds of indigenous communities without electricity. Bedouins are—how can I say it in a politically correct way… They’re all kinds of minorities who have different rights because the country doesn’t recognize them. I’m talking about people who have no water. They don’t give them this water because they’re Arabs. So in this place where they built the school, one of the studies was film. I had a couple of options to study in Israel, but Sapir was far from the center and I wanted to get away from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I wanted to be somewhere where I would live with other flatmates and have a complete student life, which is extremely important for film studies because you have to devote yourself completely. In a big city with bars and cafés, it’s difficult.
Yes, distractions. It’s also much more expensive. If I was in Tel Aviv for film school, I would probably end up living with my parents, which would also mean I would kill myself. [Laughs] I already left home and stopped living with my parents when I was 25—it was never going to happen like that. It was my main decision to go far and it was the most amazing place to be in. It was amazing because we had, first of all, this location where you connect with all these different people. The social and economical problems are in your face, all the time. It’s important to be exposed to that and not live inside a bubble. One of the other things is that, politically, it was a very complex area. It’s right on the border so there’s still war. I’m talking about missiles and rockets falling in that city. I actually lived in a war zone for five years. I’m talking about alarms in the middle of the night, running down the hallway in your underwear, and sitting quietly in the only safe place with five other people. You hear bombs dropping in Gaza. It’s crazy. This was my life for five years. This is also something that affected my films. My short films were influenced by it.
What’s happening with The Dream of the Shepherd right now? Is that your second feature?
It’s a script that I’m trying to develop now as a second feature. I actually have three features in my pocket that I’m developing. But I don’t have money for any of them right now. So I’m doing other things, too, like writing a cookbook. The Dream of the Shepherd is quite different from The Cakemaker. It’s a very political film that’s in your face, although The Cakemaker is also very political for me. It’s about—how can I say this in a nice way… It’s about a strong conflict between a man and the world. It’s about a person who has a lot of demons. Let’s say there are a lot of fucked up things about this character and he’s taking it out on other people who are weaker than him because he’s in a position of power and has responsibility over refugees. He can decide whether to allow these refugees to enter Germany or not. He’s a clerk in an immigration office and because he has some personal issues, he takes out his anger and hate onto these people. He postpones requests and treats them like shit. He sends them home without permits or just denies them. Then something happens to him and all of his life shifts, more or less. So that’s one story.
You have a very interesting calling card. There’s an obvious but apt comparison to be made between food and filmmaking. I looked up your cooking classes at Goldhahn & Sampson in Berlin: “A Culinary Journey to Jerusalem.” Did you ever want to become a chef?
No, never. I wanted to become a filmmaker since I was six years old watching Jaws and Freddy Krueger. This was my inspiration. [Laughs] Later when I was around ten, it become more and more about watching Fellini movies at night. I wasn’t allowed to watch movies so late, especially quality movies because they had sex and nudity in them. I always wanted to make movies. Food is something I did just as a job to earn money when I was still very young. I love to do it. I love to cook and talk about food. I can talk about food for hours. It’s something I’m passionate about. But I never wanted to be a chef. I will never be a chef. If one day, after I make ten movies, I open a restaurant, it will be very simple homemade food and it will cost very little money. For me, food is about home, about family, about friends sitting together and cooking together, and eating together. It’s not about being fancy. A lot of the famous chefs today try to be very extravagant.
So you won’t be putting any gold leaves on your dishes.
[Laughs] They forget that the best food they ate, the food that makes them the happiest, is what their grandmothers made them. They forget that.
I’m curious about your personal taste when it comes to contemporary cinema.
This is a difficult one. When I was young, or when I got more into the idea that it would become my profession, I had a very strong passion for the Golden Age of Italian cinema. I was fascinated by [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, [Michelangelo] Antonioni, and [Luchino] Visconti. I was very much in love with those directors. But I was also fascinated by Tim Burton—his early movies. Let’s say everything he did up until Batman Returns. Everything else is garbage. And the early films of Spielberg even, like The Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These fantasy movies, which are adventurous, fantastic, and dream-like. E.T. is a wonderful movie. The kid is friends with an alien? It’s a genius idea! This question is difficult I have to tell you because I don’t watch a lot of movies. When I go to festivals, I never go watch the movies in the official program so I don’t know what’s going on. People tell me names—“Have you seen that movie?”—and I’m completely ignorant.
Do you do that on purpose?
No, no. I want to see more. I just don’t get a chance to do it. I saw Moonlight after everybody saw it. I still haven’t seen La La Land and everybody was talking about that last year. I’m not particularly interested in a musical with Ryan Gosling. I don’t take these huge Hollywood movies seriously. It’s about glamour and trailers and salary. They’re so far from what I do. But I should watch more contemporary cinema. I would say that I’m much more curious about television. Television is something that doesn’t demand any effort and it’s fascinating right now. Game of Thrones is not what it used to be, of course, but it still has cinematic qualities. The battle scenes in Game of Thrones are much better crafted and directed in their use of music, editing, sound, acting, and visual effects than every shitty Avengers movie. You see that they’re really building a scene. There’s mise-en-scène. They have an idea of angle. They have an idea when to put the music and when to use only sound. Television is just providing a much better experience. I also think a lot of filmmakers are trying to reinvent cinema to be special, to be very cool—I don’t care about that. I care about getting involved in the story with feelings and emotions. It’s much more important.
Would you want to direct an episode of Game of Thrones?
[Laughs] I will not come to that. Let’s hope it will be finished soon.