We travel past various tourist guide images of Berlin – there’s the hot air balloon above Potsdamer Platz, here’s the television tower at Alexanderplatz. Eventually, we enter a cake shop. Just behind us a bearded man is speaking highly accented German with ropey grammar. Before long, he’s making gooey eyes at the man behind the counter, and we’re suddenly fast forwarding to them entering some sort of long-term relationship.
The baker, looking a bit like Marc Zuckerberg if he’d worked out more, is Thomas. The bearded man is Oren, an Israeli who gets to visit Berlin once a month on business. He has a wife and child back in West Jerusalem, but whenever he’s in Berlin, he hooks up with Thomas. Until suddenly he doesn’t. After not getting any reply to repeated phone calls, Thomas goes to Oren’s Berlin office where he learns that his lover has unexpectedly died in a car accident.
Thomas decides to fly to Israel, because – well, why exactly? I mean leaving aside the little practicalities of his job and life in Berlin, what is he actually trying to achieve? I guess the author might claim that he’s going to find out more about the side of his lover he never knew. Yet once he gets to Jerusalem, Thomas doesn’t do much more than hang around the café that Oren’s widow Anat has just reopened. He certainly doesn’t show any interest in digging up Oren’s background.
Anat is having problems getting by, and aims at a clientele of locals, not tourists – hence the certificate that the food is all kosher, although she sees herself as a secular Jew. Nonetheless she sees no problem in employing a German who doesn’t speak any Hebrew. Initially, Thomas is there on basic cleaning duties, but Anat keeps having to solve family dramas and leave Thomas in charge. And what a stroke of luck that he turns out to be an excellent pastry chef.
Meanwhile, Anat is in an ongoing fight with Oren’s side of the family. She may be secular, but they are insistent that the Kosher rules are kept to the letter – which means that the gentile Thomas is not allowed to put any food into the oven. Oren’s brother Moti seems to have particular problems with Thomas, which seem to derive less from the fact that he’s a gentile than his German nationality.
Can we take a quick time out to briefly look at this one? Moti is being built up as a prejudiced religious fundamentalist, but he’s one of the family, so it would look bad if he were an outright racist. If he hated Palestinians, say, this would go against the films’ attempt to avoid any serious conflict. Fortunately this is a film where Palestinians only get a walk-on role. So, instead, Moti has a slightly irrational mistrusts of Germans which makes us take Anat’s side without depicting her relatives-in-law as being real bigots.
Meanwhile, other things happen. Anat and Thomas have a Ghost-Pottery-Wheel-like moment in the kitchen. She then discovers a shopping list and old phone messages which prove that Thomas was her husband’s lover. Moti returns to violently attack Thomas and force him to leave the country. As all this is happening, the taciturn Thomas, as ever, says very little.
The Cakemaker is a strange film, which is both impressive and exciting, often simultaneously. There is a very moving scene in which Anat tells Thomas about her husband’s plan to abandon her and her child. We see the other side of the stories of lovers anticipating a new relationship. We see the people who are left behind. But, hand on a minute? Oren was planning to leave for Berlin and hadn’t mentioned it to his lover? This might work for the film’s plot, but it strains our credulity.
And this is before we get onto the food porn. There is a lot of food in The Cakemaker. Lingering shots of cakes, people reading out menus, or even shopping lists. Look, I know there are people who get off on this sort of stuff, but it left me entirely cold. Why would I be excited by watching other people watching, or even talking about food? Either let me taste it or please just stop the incessant references to things that you’re not going to let me directly experience.
This is neither a good film nor a bad film, but one which contains both good and bad components. The acting is fine, especially Sarah Adler as the grieving Anat (to be honest, seeing as Tim Kalkhof’s remit as Thomas was to silently brood, its hard to know what else he could have done). But the plot creaks so much at vital points that it undermines the serious points that the film is trying to make.
Good that they had a go, but could do better.