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Jakob the Liar

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 24 September 1999

Directed by Peter Kassovitz.

Starring Robin Williams, 
Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, 
Hannah Taylor Gordon, Michael Jeter, 
Armin Mueller-Stahl, Liev Schreiber, 
Nina Siemaszko.

Written by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin, 
based on the book by
Jurek Becker.

Columbia Pictures is touting this poor man’s version of Life Is Beautiful as an Academy-Award contender for Robin Williams, with an opening weekend print ad calling the star’s performance Oscar-worthy. That the blurb is clipped from an obscure radio-based website will probably portend that the only award acknowledgement this remake will garner is that the 1975 East German original (Jakob der Lügner) was nominated for a foreign film Oscar (losing to France’s Black and White in Color).

Williams, in his restrained, serious mode here (he’s also executive producer), is often a better actor (Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam) than this under-written material brings out in him, a “prestige picture” softening some of World War II’s harsher moments into gritty comedy shtick. But in dragging out the basic story premise about a former “illustrious” pancake maker whose reluctant lies bring distant hope to his fellow victims, there’s a definite lack of dramatic cohesion. The film feels draggy in developing the standard expectations of World War II Nazi atrocities of the Jews in Poland. Honorable may describe a good intention or a virtuous screenplay, but it doesn’t always translate into an enjoyable film.

This English-language feature debut for Hungarian-born director Peter Kassovitz shows a bittersweet approach to the Holocaust, a dramatic fable using material from a book by Jurek Becker, which actually was based on the screenplay for an unproduced 1965 film. His opening scene steals from the feather-in-the-air sequence of Forrest Gump, but there the similarities end, story-wise, actor-wise, otherwise. The drabness of an unidentified ghetto during the Winter of 1944 places a pall on the entire film, the barren, gray-embossed scenery of Poland and Hungary created by production designer Luciana Arrighi  and effectively captured by cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi, evoking the appropriate mood for the time and place. Edward Shearmur’s klezmer-style clarinet score capably embellishes the joyous and stifling moments.

We are told that the Jews survive on humor, everything else having been taken by the Germans. Seemingly by providential winds, Jakob Heym (Williams) finds himself inside the local Nazi headquarters after curfew, a resourceful mensch among Gestapo monsters, starring at uneaten meals in deserted rooms and overhearing a radio broadcast of Russian advances against the German forces. Left to return under darkness to his “home,” in the rail yard bordering the ghetto, he is found in the shadows by ten-year-old Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), an Anne-Frankish escapee from a death-camp train and probable orphan-to-be. He becomes her surrogate father, hiding her in the roof eaves of his former restaurant from his friends and the authorities, using the news he heard broadcast as a springboard to hide her presence and, inadvertently, to raise the hopes of his incarcerated friends.

Mischa (Liev  Schreiber), a brawny ex-boxer who has taken a few too many punches to his head, misinterprets the information and soon the entire ghetto, in the typical fashion in which rumors evolve, believes Jakob possesses a contraband radio, risking death to bring news and hope to his comrades. Mischa’s misplaced attempt at humor revolves around banging at his friends’ doors claiming to be the Gestapo, summoning a Peter-and-the-Wolf routine that seems out of place in the film. Others among Jakob’s inner circle are his best friend Kowalsky, a suicidal barber (Bob Balaban); the proud-to-the-end cardiologist Kirschbaum (Armin Mueller-Stahl, who appeared, as Herschel, in the original German film; that role is now taken by director-writer-actor Mathieu Kassovitz, the director’s son); and mistrustful Shakespearian actor Frankfurther (Alan Arkin) whose daughter Rosa (Nina Siemaszko) becomes Mischa’s lover.

Jakob, the liar, is torn between the truth and false hope, the latter resulting in a dramatic drop in the number of suicides although enhancing his chances of being caught by loose lips. Forced to escalate his story to include American tanks “straight off the boat from Chicago,” he spins entrancing tales of imminent rescue, to the point where he almost believes his own material.

Opportune power outages kept the adult skeptics at bay, but when Lina becomes ill, Jakob suckers her well by promising her a listen on his radio. She recovers, of course, and Williams the comedian does a stand-up bit convincing the child she is hearing a BBC broadcast of Winston Churchill, which leads to further delusions around the encampment.

Much is left to the power of imagination, certainly heightened by the horrifyingly desperate situation. Conditions ripen for an uprising, with Jakob hailed as the hesitant leader, but the Germans, realizing the Allied forces are truly at hand, began a last-ditch crackdown on locating the banned receiver and breaking the spirit of the survivors. Jakob the Liar is a heads-you-win, tails-you-lose film, proud and hopeful to the bitter end. As noble an effort this is, released a week after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, it will only receive second-class accommodations from the movie-going public.

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