Israeli Director Reveals Recipe for Success With Surprise Hit ‘The Cakemaker’

It took Ofir Raul Graizer eight years to get his debut film onto the big screen. Now, fresh from critical acclaim for his sweet tale, he’s baking up an American remake

Tim Kalkhof in "The Cakemaker."
Omri Aloni

NEW YORK – The final days of LGBT Pride Month is the perfect time for the Israeli film “The Cakemaker” to arrive in American theaters.

A gentle, quiet drama, it tells the story of Thomas, a German baker who discovers that his lover – a closeted husband and father from Israel – has died in a car accident. Thomas then embarks on a journey to Jerusalem, where he becomes closely involved with his late lover’s family while keeping his true identity secret.

It marks a directorial debut for Ofir Raul Graizer, 36, who has been living on the line between Israel and Germany for the past nine years.

Graizer – who studied film but also trained in kitchens as a cook and will soon publish his own Middle Eastern cookbook – chose an intimate setting to explore love, family, religion and food, through which he can discuss a broader political reality.

“I see the film as very attentive to its political background,” he tells Haaretz via phone from Berlin. “Through personal, small intimate stories, we can learn something about the political reality – be it the occupation, religion, the socioeconomic situation, and both the history and future of the country.”

Graizer was inspired by the story of a friend whose wife discovered he was leading a double life only after he had passed away. It’s also a semi-autobiographical portrayal of growing up gay in Israel, with a religious father and secular mother.

Sarah Adler and Tim Kalkhof in the film "The Cakemaker."
Omri Aloni

“The connection, or disconnection, between those ideas, worlds and value systems was always present in my life,” Graizer explains.

Even though he had been open about his sexuality since he was 16, Graizer still found himself in different situations throughout life where he had to hide who he was.

That also led him to explore the image of masculinity. “Israeli society is definitely a very macho, militant and patriarchal society, and it’s built in everything – in education, in the courtroom, the way that religion is part of the state,” the director notes, adding that such an approach is “not his thing.”

Outsider’s point of view

Graizer auditioned dozens of actors for the lead role before finding Tim Kalkhof. The 30-year-old German actor was immediately captivated by the script.

“It was brilliantly written, very three-dimensional, without blacks and whites but many gray areas for us actors to explore and sink our teeth into,” he relates from Germany.

Tim Kalkhof in "The Cakemaker." "It was brilliantly written, very three-dimensional, without blacks and whites but many gray areas for us actors to explore," he says.
Courtesy of Nachshon Films

According to Kalkhof, who has a girlfriend and a son, the most challenging part – more than a nude scene or the portrayal of a gay character – was getting slapped in the face by another character toward the end of the film, triggering Thomas’ emotional breakdown.

“In those kinds of scenes you cannot act, there is no method, you have to go all the way,” he recounts. “It’s a thin line between acting and knowing I’m on camera but also not acting. You have to be in control and at the same time out of control,” he says, attempting to explain his captivating performance.

Israeli-French actor Sarah Adler portrays Anat, the widow unwittingly sharing her grief with the German stranger who transforms her small local Jerusalem café, and life.

Adler, who first came to prominence in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique” in 2004, was already in Graizer’s mind when he wrote the script eight years ago. “There was something very convincing about Ofir’s desire and will, which is very strong and determined,” Adler tells Haaretz in a phone interview from Paris.

Thomas is the obvious foreigner in the story, but Adler sees her character – a secular mother and independent café owner surrounded by religious family members – also as an outsider within her own community. “She is trying to be autonomous in a society that inflicts rules and ways of behavior, and she’s trying to break free,” she notes.

Both actors see the film’s message as one of love that knows no bounds or judgment. Adler, who also starred in Samuel Maoz’s acclaimed Israeli drama “Foxtrot” last year, hopes people will come to realize that “the human connection is beyond gender and the definitions that are imposed by society.”

Tim Kalkhof in "The Cakemaker."
Omri Aloni

Far from smooth

Despite its micro-budget (less than $200,000), the film was released in Israel and played at festivals worldwide to rave reviews. Haaretz film critic Uri Klein called it “cinematically mature and wise,” while trade magazine Variety said it was “a tender, tactile and just-sweet-enough story.”

But the film’s eight-year journey to the screen was far from smooth. “To finance a first film is always difficult,” Graizer explains. And people who read the script did not understand it, or thought it too melodramatic, he says. Graduating from Sapir College’s film school in Sderot, southern Israel, Graizer views himself as something of a marginal outsider, and not being part of the Israeli film clique did not help.

Responding to some of the film’s critics, who felt it was not provocative or “gay” enough, Graizer says he had his fair share of “offensive or critical” short films in the past. “It’s a story about sensitivity, sadness, melancholy and love, so I don’t need to show what they expected me to show,” he says.

Now, after being screened in 15 countries from France to South Korea, Graizer’s auspicious debut is set for an American adaptation, produced by Uri Singer’s Passage Pictures.

Graizer himself is involved on the remake, rewriting different versions of the script while working on two other projects. “It’s kind of crazy to see so much belief and connection to the story,” he concludes. “It was very unexpected – especially after it took such a long time and nobody believed in it.”