Bread: An Everyday Miracle
(Austria, 90 min.)
Dir. Harald Friedl
One unexpected result of the global coronavirus pandemic is that it transformed Instagrammers everywhere into amateur bakers. Pictures of homemade loaves flooded feeds as carbs out-muscled COVID-19 updates for screen time. One lumpy, misshapen, burnt, or janky loaf followed another. More often than not, they looked downright inedible, but they evoked buoyant olfactory memories of trips to the local bakery. The parade of bread porn provided a buffet of comfort food even if the loaves themselves tasted like good intentions.
No doubt capitalizing on the bread bonanza of COVID-19, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema’s latest bun in the virtual cinema oven is Bread: An Everyday Miracle. Harald Friedl’s documentary, like the pandemic of sourdough selfies, reminds a viewer that few foods are as satisfying as a good warm slice of fresh bread. Great bread is both a science and an art as bakers whip up the right combinations of flour, water, salt, and yeast. Similarly, Harald’s film searches for the fine line between artisanal and industrial baking. So toss away the popcorn, bust out the butter, and sharpen your bread knife—quarantine binge-watching and binge-eating have all been building to this!
Bread surveys a handful of European bakeries and laboratories in which artisans, executives, scientists, and assembly line workers feed the global appetite for bread. The film includes the Viennese organic bakery Öfferl where bakers young and old give Friedl a tour of their operations. Georg Öfferl and Lukas Uhl, standing in for the young generation of bread-lovers who go wild for wholesome unprocessed loaves, demonstrate the power of their secret ingredient, a 20-year-old starter they call the “old mother dough” that provides the scrumptious base for their loaves. They share with Friedl the delicate practice of transforming artisanal bread making into a modest commercial enterprise as huge vats knead the dough in place of human hands, yielding bread with true character in larger quantities. Pulling the dough and displaying its well-fermented elasticity, the bakers of Öfferl retain sparks of the earliest practices while adjusting it to the scale of contemporary consumerism.
A purist of the artisanal practice appears in Du Pain et des Idées. This organic Parisian boulangerie looks a cut above the rest as Christophe Vasseur emphasises observation and patience. He talks about dough as a living thing—his ruminations on bread call to mind the monologues about wine from Sideways—and his reflections evoke deeper philosophical questions about the pace and lifestyles of contemporary consumers. For example, he highlights one particularly delicious looking loaf that is roughly the width of a family-sized pizza box. As he cuts the bread and subdivides into loaves, Vasseur notes the dark shade of its impeccably crackling crust. He explains that delivering such a high quality product rich in both nutrients and flavour merely demands time. He speaks about bread the way that some progressive politicians speak about re-imaging life after COVID: slowing down and dismantling the post-war ways that modelled life upon low costs, immediacy, and convenience.
At the other end of the spectrum are the industrialists. Bread goes inside the operations of Germany’s Harry-Brot industrial bakery where CEO Hans-Jochen Holthausen searches for the right formula to maximise quality and output. He takes the camera on tours of the processing plant where bakers, machines, and conveyor belts pump out up to 32,000 loaves per shift. However, when a tasting session with his baker lets him sample a deliciously flaky potato roll, he scoffs at the idea of producing such a good at a low rate of 5,000 per hour. (Friedl’s doc humorously conveys why “bread” is commonly used slang for money.) While he shares a similar appreciation for quality as Öfferl, Uhl, and Vasseur do, his practice for producing par-baked bread (that pre-baked stuff one buys at the grocery store and re-bakes at home) differs with them philosophically. If the industrial model is at odds with the other bakers’ emphasis on time and patience over rapid turnaround, then small local bakeries are here to stay.
The film builds a natural progression towards the deeper questions embedded within the choice between buying one’s bread from the local baker or from the commercial aisle at the grocery store. As one of the most widely consumed goods worldwide, bread has significant stakes in the future of the planet. Favouring loaves reared from locally sourced organic ingredients has long-term benefits compared to the consequences of processed breads that require pesticides and fossil fuels to get mass quantities of food from the factories to the grocery shelves as quickly as possible. There are also long-term health concerns as Vasseur notes the benefits of eating bread rich in whole grain, compared to processed ingredients, as the former leaves a person satisfied while the latter provides short-term nourishment and may lead to diabetes in the long run.
In addition to providing a thoughtful and well-balanced essay on the food we eat, Friedl’s film serves a banquet of bread porn. Cinematographer Helmut Wimmer films the loaves with lip-smacking character as the camera caresses the crackles of the crusty bread and lets the flour that wafts through the bakeries assume a heavenly hue. These money shots of sourdough put the foodie influencers on Instagram to shame.
The doc also takes bread porn to new heights with a truly bizarre opening scene. The film begins with a clip that features a sweaty bare-chested man unpacking a loaf of Wonder Bread. He scrunches it up, squishes it, and kneads his fingers deep, deep into the slices while breathing heavily, illustrating how the commodification of bread inevitably bastardises it. Whichever visual researcher found that nugget truly earned his or her daily bread.
Bread: An Everyday Miracle comes out of the oven July 9 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema’s virtual theatre.