The Yiddish accent, some Jewish jokes, Jewish history at his fingertips: Robin Williams plays the role of a Jew well. Ask him about his latest movie, in which he plays one Jewish role (Jakob Heym, ghetto prevaricator) and he will tell you about Jews in Poland in 1997.
Williams, who is not Jewish, was in that Eastern European country two years ago for the filming of "Jakob the Liar," which opens today. He saw swastikas scrawled on the synagogue in Lodz, where the cast stayed ("You saw swastikas all over the place," he says) and heard stories about a drunk Pole coming out of a bar yelling "Jew!"
"He was happy to see us marched away again," Williams says Tuesday during a press briefing here for the Columbia Pictures film.
"Maybe I have payes in me," he says. "I don’t know."
"Jakob the Liar" is certain to reignite a controversy kindled last year by Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning "Life is Beautiful": Does humor have any place in a film about the Holocaust?
"Life Is Beautiful," part slapstick love story, part heart-wrenching drama, was by anyone’s definition a comedy. "Jakob the Liar" is a serious film with some funny moments and wartime Jewish jokes mixed in.
Adapted from Jurek Becker’s 1969 novel by director Peter Kassovitz, the screenplay tells about a widowed cafe owner, played by Williams, in an unnamed Polish ghetto who spreads stories about the advancing Russian troops based on a hidden radio he claims to have. His lies boost morale in the ghetto.
Humor is as proper in stories about the Holocaust as it was in the Holocaust, Williams says. The jokes told in the camps and ghettoes are well documented.
"How you go on in the face [of brutality] is with everything you have, everything at your power, and humor is part of it. It’s weird to think of people still having a sense of humor in the face of that, but they did," he says.
With the release last month of Benigni’s redubbed-in-English film, and the opening Nov. 5 of "Train of Life," about a shtetl whose residents build a deportation train in an attempt to escape the Nazis, three "Holocaust comedies" will be playing in theaters at the same time.
A trend? Williams can’t answer. "It just seems to be a coincidence," he says, a matter of appropriate scripts, willing studios, accepting audiences.
Like Benigni, a Catholic, Williams approached his role as a Jew in the Third Reich with "a trepidation. It’s a difficult thing."
Even a scene in which he turns on the purported radio for Lina, an 8-year-old orphan Jakob has taken under his care, is done with reserve, exactly as Polish-born, Holocaust survivor Becker wrote the encounter in his novel. That scene could have been vintage Williams, best known for his manic performances.
"The nature of the material demanded [a lighter touch]," he says.
For Williams, the role of Jakob was a natural carryover from Patch Adams, the iconoclastic, laugh-in-the-face-of-death doctor whom the actor played in a film earlier this year.
"The story was so powerful," he says of the "Jakob" script that reached him three years ago.
To prepare to become Jakob, Williams talked to Holocaust survivors, including cast members, who told him about their lives during World War II and shared the jokes they told each other in the ghettoes and camps.
One survivor described the jokes he remembered from his hours standing in Apfel, a camp lineup. "Anything you could do to keep going, to keep your sanity," he said.
Shifting in mid-thought from reflective auteur to warp-speed improviser, he relates his Jewish roots that grew into Jakob: his days in a mostly Jewish high school in San Francisco, and friends’ weekly bar/bat mitzvahs: "I had to learn a haftarah.
"With "Jakob" comes the rumors that Williams is a member of the tribe. "The fact that you use some words of Yiddish … people think you’re Jewish," he says.
About the Yiddish? No mamaloshen lessons for this film, as he learned Russian for "Moscow on the Hudson."
Jakob reverts to Yiddish only occasionally in the English-language film. "I knew Yiddish from before," Williams says. "Shtark [strong] is a beautiful word. Nu is beyond Buddhist."
I’ve always been drawn to Yiddish, drawn to that accent, drawn to that sensitivity.
"Why was he attracted to the role of Jakob, another outsider in a career spent playing outsiders?
Partly personal: Raised as an only child, he finds himself "always trying to make that connection" with other people. And partly professional: He liked the script. "It’s a piece of fiction written by a survivor, directed by a survivor," he says.
Kassovitz, who now lives in Paris, was a child in Nazi-occupied Budapest. His parents survived concentration camps.
"Jakob," Williams says, "is not a hero. He does not think of himself in that way."
Did encounters with Holocaust survivors change Williams?
"Yeah," he says with a shrug, offering no details.
And wearing a coat with the yellow star?
"It changes your body language. It’s immediate."
Filming in Poland changed him, too, he says.
"It isn’t hard to get into character when you’re in Poland. It changed my perception, just like it changed Steven’s perception after he did ‘Schindler,’ " Williams says. Steven, of course, is Spielberg, who underwent a Jewish renaissance after making the Oscar-winning "Schindler’s List."
"He not only found his heart," Williams says, "he found his soul."
Comparisons with "Life is Beautiful," which was filmed the same time as "Jakob" but released earlier (Williams’ busy acting schedule was the reason) are inevitable, but not entirely correct, says Kassovitz, who also met the press here. "It’s not the same subject," he says.
Benigni’s film, a fable, shows a father who attempts to shield the horrors of a concentration camp from his young son by treating the entire experience as an elaborate game. "A beautiful Italian comedy," Kassovitz says.
"Jakob," he says, is truer to wartime life and death. "I think the story is truthful."
"I had very few rules," Kassovitz adds. "I had one rule: this had to be as realistic as possible because it’s a comedy."