In an unnamed Polish ghetto in 1943 or 1944, a former potato pancake restaurateur is feeding the Jews hope instead of food. Jakob Heym has (he says, falsely) a hidden radio, punishable by death at Nazi hands. He fabricates and whispers, at his forced labor job, reports of the advancing Red Army, boosting the spirits of the doomed ghetto residents. And he tells Lina, an 8-year-old orphan he has surreptitiously taken under his care, happy-ending fairy tales.
Jakob is a liar. And Robin Williams, the master of thespian overkill, is an understated Jakob.
Williams is star and executive producer of "Jakob the Liar" (Columbia Pictures), which opens today. The screenplay, written by director Peter Kassovitz, Didier Decoin and Ron Hutchinson, predictably serves as a vehicle for Williams.
"Jakob the Liar" focuses heavily on the central character, fleshing out the supporting roles less than the original film adaptation did. "Jakob der Luegner," produced in East Germany in 1974 and first shown in the United States in 1977, was more faithful to the novel of the same name on which it was based: not surprising, since Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker wrote the screenplay before he wrote the better known novel.
Becker’s book and movie were among the first creative works to bring a comic perspective to post-Holocaust art about the Final Solution tragedies. Neither attracted interest in the United States. With the success last year of Roberto Benigni’s "Life is Beautiful," re-released last month dubbed in English, the so-called Holocaust comedy is becoming an accepted genre in this country. Just as there was humor in World War II Europe, a needed spiritual weapon in the camps and ghettos, there is, to a growing degree, humor in artistic depictions of that era.
Williams’ film, subject of intensive pre-release publicity, is certain to greatly advance the trend.
Like Benigni’s story of a father who protects his son from the horrors of a concentration camp by depicting the entire experience as an elaborate game, Williams’ Jakob also relies on deception and imagination (lying is a such a relative term) to keep morale up. (Suicides, Jakob points out, plummet in the ghetto after his news "reports" begin.) Though Becker’s story, like Benigni’s screenplay, is fiction, "Jakob" lies closer than "Life" to the reality of the Holocaust experience; while a child successfully hidden in a camp barracks was a rarity, quick-spreading, fanciful rumors in the ghetto were common.
"Jakob the Liar," though full of historical irony and Jewish humor, is more subdued than "Life is Beautiful." The former is more blatantly Jewish. Whereas "Life" is a comedy, "Jakob" is about comedy. There are no sure-laugh scenes in "Jakob," like Benigni’s character’s mistranslating a German officer’s orders in a concentration camp barracks. The humor is in the hyperbole, the exaggerated stories Jakob tells.
Though the liberties "Jakob" takes with Becker’s novel diminish the film’s impact, it is still moving and thought provoking.
Williams, like Benigni, asks some existential questions. What is heroism? Is it only the risk-taking performed by Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List," a film that concurrently whetted the public appetite for Holocaust fare on screen and apparently ended the period of high-budget/tragic-theme Holocaust movies? Is it also the acts of Benigni’s Guido and Williams’ Jakob, who quietly try to raise morale?
What is truth? Is it only the horrible actuality of hatred and murder? Or is it the transcendent, the fantasies of optimism that prod people to remain alive for a better tomorrow?
In other words, do Guido and Jakob justifiably "lie" for the sake a greater truth? And, what ultimate purpose does this holy lying serve? Do a few seconds of emotional escape deter the fatal juggernaut? The heartiest laugh, the strongest infusion of hope could not prevent the unpreventable.
Both films, judging by the protagonists’ eventual fate, agree that the liar is to be praised, while the power of their well-intentioned hope (and humor) is limited.
"Hunger for hope may be worse than hunger for food," Jakob observes in the current film.
Cinematically, Jakob supplants Becker’s anonymous (in the novel) narrator, bringing more attention to the star. Like the earlier German version of Becker’s story, Williams’ is evocative of Eastern Europe, where it was filmed. The streets. The dress. The mannerisms. His is a dark film, both in theme (isolated people grasp at any rumor) and in setting (the sun rarely shines on the ghetto).
Williams is convincing as Jakob, respectful of the victims’ lives and deaths, accurately bringing less antic energy to his role than Benigni did to Guido’s. Or than other actors do in a few scenes of "Jakob." To the star’s credit, even a scene that could have been overplayed, like Jakob demonstrating his alleged radio to Lina, is performed with restraint.
In the minor roles, German-born Armin Mueller-Stahl (who also appeared in the 1974 version of the "Jakob the Liar") is particularly effective as Dr. Kirschbaum. Alan Arkin as a onetime actor, and Bob Balaban and Liev Schreiber as Jakob’s friends, are also convincing.
Williams, like Benigni, does a valuable service in a challenging role: he demonstrates that an honest attempt to save lives outlives the liar.