Israeli filmmakerOfir Raul Graizer moved to Berlin 13 years ago, shortly after he finished his film studies at Sapir College in Sderot, a city in southern Israel which has been since 2001 the target of repeated missile attacks by Palestinian militants, due to its proximity to the Gaza strip.
Graizer found living in the war zone exhausting for more than one reason: “Not just from running away from missiles, but also dealing with aspects of nationalism and violence from the Israeli side,”
What he discovered in the German capital was completely different: “Berlin was vibrant, fun, young, fascinating. It was nice to have some kind of calm life, it was a relaxed place. So, I ended up staying.”
‘One of the safest places for Jews’
Many Israelis are moving to Berlin to find peace — a striking twist of fate, knowing that some 90 years ago, Germany was a life-threatening country for Jews.
Among his “very small experiences” of antisemitism in Germany, Graizer recalls passing by a group of teenagers listening to Nazi music and giving him nasty looks.
But he rather describes other incidents he experienced, such as the harsh reaction of a law enforcement agent after hearing the Israeli’s accent, as being more “anti-foreigner” than antisemitic: “I don’t think anyone can look at me and say, ‘oh you’re Jewish.’ But my accent and appearance are obviously not white German,” he explains.
For the filmmaker, antisemitism and hatred against foreigners “exist everywhere in the world,” and Germany is no exception. But he nevertheless sees the country as being at the forefront in “promoting human rights, artistic freedom, education and arts. It’s good to be a part of it,” he adds.
“Today, Germany is one of the safest places in the world for Jews,” says Graizer, laughing lightly. “I’m saying this with humor, but I feel much safer here as a gay leftist.”
Breaking free from religion
The 42-year-old filmmaker grew up in Ra’anana, an affluent city in central Israel with a considerable modern Orthodox community.
With his father being religious, and his mother secular, Graizer went to a secular school, but was brought up religiously: “We were kind of strict; we had to eat kosher, and we wouldn’t take the car on Shabbat,” recalls Graizer. “It created a lot of conflict. I hated it, especially when I was a teenager.”
Graizer came out as gay at the age of 16: “It was not an easy journey; it took some years. But now my parents accept it. A lot of people become softer when they grow older,” says the director.
From ‘The Cakemaker’ to ‘America’
Graizer is best known for his feature debut film, “The Cakemaker” (2017), which won the Ecumenical Jury prize following its premiere at the Karlovy Vary film festival, along with seven Ophir Awards — Israel’s version of the Oscars — and numerous other prizes in festivals worldwide. It was Israel’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2019.
Still, success did not come easily for Graizer. It took him eight years to make “The Cakemaker.” After being rejected by 19 film funds, he managed to make the film on a shoestring budget of $90,000 (€82,000).
With the success of his first film, Graizer secured funding for his second film more easily, but this time he was faced with new challenges: “America” was shot in 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic.
He struggled to film under lockdowns, and the entire cinema industry was unsettled by the pandemic rules: “‘America’ is a film made for the big screen. All the theaters and cinemas were shut down and we didn’t even know if we would ever be able to show it,” recalls the director.
But Graizer kept pushing forward. “Every movie has its journey. You need thick skin, finding the people who believe in what you do and not to take things personally. “
“America” tells the story of an Israeli swim coach who returns from the US to Israel after his father’s death. Tragic circumstances lead to a complex relationship with his best friend’s fiancée, a florist.
The Israeli, German and Czech co-production premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and won the best actress award at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2022.
Graizer’s film, which will be released in Germany in 2024, is now being screened at the Israeli film festival Seret International, held in Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne from September 3-11, 2023.
The Israeli master of melodrama
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz compared “America” to Pedro Almodovar films, as it features bold colors and a melodramatic plot, though Graizer’s work is more restrained and quiet than the Spanish filmmaker’s typically exuberant movies.
Other critics have compared Graizer to German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “It’s an honor, but I never say that my work is like this or that; I do things the way I imagine them from my subconscious. I’m influenced not just by drama or melodrama, but also mafia, horror, and espionage films,” explains the director.
There are many similarities between “America,” and “The Cakemaker,” which is also a romantic melodrama with a love triangle driven by grief.
In “The Cakemaker,” a young gay German baker loses his Israeli lover in a car accident. Shortly after, he travels to Jerusalem and gets a job at a café owned by his lover’s widow. A tender relationship develops between the two, until his identity is eventually revealed.
On food and culture shocks
Certain aspects of Graizer’s personal life are echoed in his films. For example, his husband, a German the filmmaker met three years after moving to Berlin, is a production designer and florist, and he is the one who designed the lush flower shop and flower arrangements in Graizer’s latest film.
Graizer’s second passion is cooking. He has worked as a cook in restaurants, as a private chef, and as a cooking instructor in Berlin hot spots such as Goldhahn and Sampson, where he teaches how to cook Israeli vegetarian dishes.
Through the workshops, he has developed certain observations on the Germans’ palate: “The average German eater likes to try new things, but is scared of tastes that are too strong or too bold,” he points out.
“But once you show them how to do it, they fall in love with it,” he adds. “A lot of people were shocked to find out how amazing roasted eggplant can be or roasting pine nuts, which brings out all their flavor. Small things that anyone can do in their own kitchen,” adds the foodie, who has also published a book of recipes and family stories about food, “Ofirs Küche” (Ofir’s Kitchen), which came out in 2018.
Asked about his most notable culture shock experiences in Germany, the first thing that comes to his mind is also food-related: “the taste of cucumbers and tomatoes,” he humorously complains — a deception certainly shared by many Mediterraneans who are used to produce that ripens on the plants. “But it’s getting better,” he adds.
Otherwise, he notes that he is still troubled by the discrepancies between the clichés about his adoptive country and how things actually work: “We have this stereotype that in Germany everything is planned and on time, but then it takes 20 years to build an airport and the train never arrives on time.”
Then, perhaps in an attempt to show that German quirks are not the only ones to drive him mad, he quickly adds that many other things drive him “even more crazy,” such as, in Israel, sitting in “a bus across a soldier with an M-16 aimed at your crotch.”
“America” will be screened on Sunday, September 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Moviemento, Berlin, and 7:30 p.m. in Kino 813 in Cologne.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier