The Jamesian sadness of lingering at the altar of the dead pervades The Cakemaker, an Israeli-German drama of understated power. One afternoon Israeli businessman Oren (Roy Miller) wanders into a Berlin cafe owned by Thomas (Tim Kalkhof). Nothing in their exchange or backgrounds suggests they will hook up because, as Marvin Gaye sang, that’s the way love is. Then on a return trip to reunite and presumably tell his wife and son that he’s leaving them Oren is killed in a car accident. A numb Thomas follows an impulse: he will travel to Israel and meet the wife.
What ensues has the inevitability of a dream, and perhaps that’s the point of writer-director Ofir Raul Grazier’s film. Perhaps Thomas and Oren clicked in part because Anat (Sarah Adler) recently opened her own bakery in Jerusalem. Applying for work in the cafe, Thomas eventually learns that Anat takes the kosher certificate she was awarded seriously enough to get paranoid about baking non-kosher items, or maybe the paranoia is for the sake of her in-laws, who take their Judaism far more seriously than she does, including brother in law Motti (Zohar Strauss). Unthreatening yet persistent enough to wear down Anat’s resistance, Thomas is first hired as a cashier; his sweets impress Anat enough to turn over the baking to him, although not before freaking Motti the hell out out by using the kosher oven unknowingly. Thomas’ gentleness of manner with her son and docility wear down the defenses of the lonely Anat; one of The Cakemaker‘s shrewder script decisions is showing how she had already tasted Thomas’ baking unwittingly when Oren brought back a roll of Thomas’ cinnamon cookies to Israel with him. In the midst of preparing a giant takeout order requiring every spare second, they tentatively – then hungrily – kiss.
Because Grazier offers no clues about Thomas’ background before Oren, sexual or otherwise, he forces the audience to reckon with a bisexual character, or a character who at the very least uses his lover’s widow to taste, even secondhand, his lover again. This is, again, a Jamesian notion, at once devious and generous, and devoid of cynicism; call it a kind of psychosexual diplomacy. To that end, Grazier stages one of the better rendered kissing scenes I’ve seen in recent months. Although set in the kitchen, there’s no 9 1/2 Weeks-inspired gastronomic calisthenics: it’s cramped, awkward, hesitant. Kalkhof, who often resembles American musician Jason Isbell, suggests the character’s awareness of the abyss into which he’s falling, with no reason to stop. And Adler rewards Grazier’s ravishments, especially in a couple of smiling closeups, as if chuckling to herself of good times past and perhaps to come.
But will Anat and Motti learn the truth? A plot contrivance answers that question. Implausible it’s not, but it stretches credulity all the same; it’s not a spoiler to point out that Anat wouldn’t have waited as long as she did before succumbing to a certain temptation. But The Cakemaker ends on the right note of pathos: the damage is done, but the cookies remains fresh.