Director Ofir Raul Graizer on ‘The Cakemaker,’ Escaping Button-Holing and the Beauty of the Zoom

Israeli director’s feature debut adds to the cannon of New Queer Cinema

The Cakemaker
Courtesy of Laila Films

First features sometimes offer hidden gems beneath as-yet-unpolished language. Not so “The Cakemaker.” Even a brief conversation with its director suggests that this is a thoroughly crafted and thought-through debut melding near-documentary and melodrama.

With a palette and plot at times reminiscent of Almodovar, though with none of the extravagance, the film turns on Thomas, a German pastry chef at a small Berlin cafe. After the death of Oren, his married Israeli lover whom he dotes on, he travels to Jerusalem to locate Oren’s wife and son and begin a process of healing. Pre-sold well by Films Boutique and starring Tim Kalkhof, not known beyond German TV, “The Cakemaker,” which takes its own time with shots and narrative, dwells on love that has no gender politics and on reconciliation in the context of an orthodox Jewish system that leaves almost no space for people living under its yoke.

Variety talked with “The Cakemaker” director, Ofir Raul Graizer, who boasts a short but notably multi-laureled film curriculum.

As in what has been called New Queer Cinema, the protagonist’s homosexuality is not a central issue of “The Cakemaker.” Can you comment? 

I am gay, and the origin of the story is a man I knew who, while having a family, was meeting men. There are many people like this. Then I learned from his wife that he died. That struck me. It was not really interesting to me if he was gay or not. It’s a question of how you define yourself in terms of not just facts but culturally as well. The people in the film – the protagonist, his lover, and his lover’s wife – what they all have in common is that they don’t want to be defined in a certain way. They want to be, though it might seem kitsch to say this, they want to be  human beings, not defined by sexuality, observance of religion

or nationality. These things are not important.

One interesting aspect of the film’s style is the length of its shots. One could almost feel when most directors would cut, and yet you maintain shots one or two seconds longer – which is crucial to how we perceive the characters in their loneliness. What was your approach to those sustained shots?

I like aesthetics and having things planned and the character moving where I tell them to. But I also really love a documentary gaze. I was always fighting on the movie over the approach of whether I wanted it to be more commercial or art house. For me this shot length was a possibility to look at the characters in a documentary way even though I placed them in designed sets set where everything was planned. It was a strategy to tell myself that I wasn’t going to think about the film in terms of commercial or arthouse: I was going to do it according to my instincts. My instincts told me: Everything is set and ready so let’s take the time. Let’s not stop and cut. In editing, everyone said ‘chop chop, cut cut, it’s too long.’ But it felt right. I’m proud I managed to fight for it.

Regarding the film’s color palette, there’s a balance between a more realistic and very aesthetic approach. How did you work with your cinematographer on constructing the aesthetics?

I met my d.p., Omri Aloni at film school. We did two shorts tiogether, my graduate film and another. We both like to work in the same ways. I wanted to create through colors and other recourses a shift in the point of view of the film. To start it with kind of romantic colors, or even those of fantasy as it turns on the protagonist and the love story. Then to make a strong cut when the film gets to Jerusalem. There it’s rough, cold, grainy. Then when Jerusalem starts to become part of Thomas’ life and reality is changing for Oren’s widow Amat, it becomes warmer, more colorful, more vibrant, though some of the roughness remains.

When we flashback to Germany, there’s the warm color: Complete kitschy melodramatic fantasy, and I love it. I was very lucky to shoot with different cameras. In Berlin, an Amira, in Jerusalem we got a Sony F7 which is much more grainy. It was perfect.

You make striking use of the zoom. In the first 20 minutes, you zoom in on the protagonist. Then you stop for like half an hour, then once again the zoom appears. Why?

The zoom in is for me the most amazing cinematic tool. It’s a pure cinematic thing. You don’t have it anywhere else, not in stills, theater, dance or painting. Zoom is cinema, the greatest cinema, of the ‘70s. The Italian Golden Age, the most wonderful filmmakers and there will never be films like that again and they used the zoom all the time. Zooming in gets inside characters from far. You get into the protagonist’s eyes and soul in one take, one shot. Whenever there is some kind of moment of realization or a moment where the character is coming out of their comfort zone there is a zoom. It’s moments where the characters have some kind of understanding of reality. This is for me the most amazing moment to use this beautiful tool. I love it.

Many of the big plot points of the story, such as Oren’s death, happen off screen. Why that decision? And the film has very little dialogue, so fore-fronting its sound design….

Yes. The fact you don’t see Oren’s death is because this is Thomas’ journey. There is not so much dialogue but it is a very loud film – you even hear the refrigerator in the kitchen. The sound editor sometimes asked me if it was a bit too much and I said: ‘No, no, go up.’ The only time there’s real silence in the film is the Shabbat, where everything just stops and the protagonist is alone.

John Hopewell contributed to this article