At the recently concluded 24th Jewish Film Festival of Berlin and Brandenburg, the top prize in the feature film competition went to Ofir Raul Graizer’s The Cakemaker.
It was no surprise that an Israeli film won the competition, because the festival founder and director, Nicola Galliner, decided that this year, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, all the films competing in this category would be Israeli.
I had the privilege of taking part in the festival as a jury member in this competition, the first time I have served on a film-festival jury. My fellow jurors – Alissa Simon of Variety and Katja Nicodemus of Die Zeit – and I were impressed by The Cakemaker, which seemed ideally suited to this particular festival. Graizer’s film is set in Berlin and Jerusalem and tells the story of a married Israeli man who works part of the year in Germany and has a passionate affair there with a young, male German baker. After the Israeli is killed in a car crash, the baker, feeling lost, goes to Jerusalem and befriends his widow, eventually getting a job in her cafe and forming a complex connection with her. The film illuminates the connections between Berlin and Jerusalem, Germans and Jews, heterosexuality and gayness, betrayal and forgiveness, religious faith and secularism, and love and loss.
The refreshments at the festive German premiere of the film – it is currently being shown throughout the US and was released in Israel last year – at a lovely, new theater, the Delphi Lux, included slices of Black Forest cake, a treat which plays an important role in the plot. Graizer, who has lived for years in Berlin with his husband, said he was happy that the film would be opening throughout Germany soon. The film is being remade by producer Uri Singer for an American version.
Israel was a key component of this year’s festival, which opened with a screening of Alison Chernick’s very entertaining documentary Itzhak, an intimate portrait of renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. A significant portion of this film detailed his childhood in Israel, and featured a visit to the country in which he reconnected with an elderly expert violin maker in Tel Aviv.
Israeli cinema has had a strong year, which was evident in the number and quality of the films in the competition. The other Israeli films that took part in the competition this year were Yehonatan Indursky’s Driver, Eran Riklis’s Shelter, Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, Savi Gabizon’s Longing, Matan Yair’s Scaffolding and Shady Srour’s Holy Air. Ran Tal’s documentary about the Israel Museum, The Museum, was also shown at the festival.
Eliav Lilti’s documentary Kishon, about Ephraim Kishon, the beloved late humorist, director and writer, whose works are so popular in both Israel and Germany, had its Berlin premiere at the festival. The film combines rare archival footage, interviews and animation to paint a portrait of this complex and creative icon.
Other highlights of the festival included the German premiere of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a documentary about the Austrian-Jewish actress who became a Hollywood sex symbol, who few realize invented a prototype of wi-fi technology that was used to help to defeat the Nazis. Several of Lamarr’s best-known films were shown at the festival, among them the sexy drama Ecstasy by Gustav Machatý, in which Lamarr’s nude scene caused a scandal, and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. The JFBB is unusual among Jewish film festivals in that most of its audiences are non-Jews, since Berlin has a small Jewish population for obvious reasons.
Although there is much sorrow in the history of German Jews, this year’s festival brought in some humor with a screening of #JewsNewsToday, short, satirical news episodes by Moritz Richard Schmidt and Max Czollek, which were produced in 2017 for the occasion of the Radical Jewish Culture Days of the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin. This year’s festival took the motto No Fake Jews, and this engendered some debate about what this slogan actually meant, and naturally, whether or not it might be offensive. Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary The Last Laugh, which had its German premiere at the festival, also examined the boundaries of how Jews can laugh at their history.
At the festival opening at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, a number of politicians and other distinguished guests spoke in support of the festival. These included the prime minister of Brandenburg, Dr. Dietmar Woidke; the minister for finance in Berlin local government, Dr. Matthais Kollatz-Ahnen; Ambassador Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany; Kent Logsdon, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Germany; Caroline Peters, an actress Israeli audiences will recognize from her starring role in Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water; and Volker Beck, a politician who has done much for Jews in contemporary Germany. Peters and Beck are seen as the “godparents” of this year’s festival. All of these guests expressed their conviction that it is vitally important to support Jewish cinema in Germany today.
Among the festival’s sponsors are Land Brandenburg; Medienbord Berlin Brandenburg; the Lotto Stiftung Berlin; Audi; and the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, an organization that includes most Jewish groups in Germany.
This vibrant and varied film festival highlighted just how important a place Jewish cinema has in the cultural life of Germany today.