Oh, dear God, not another one: a Holocaust fable in which a fanciful man uses benevolent deception to make life more bearable for a child. Jakob the Liar has an older pedigree, though: it’s an English-language remake of a 1974 film from Germany that may well have inspired Life Is Beautiful, and the remake was in the can before the Roberto Benigni film came out. It’s also a better movie, and though it isn’t really my kind of movie — it can’t resist an uplifting ending — Jakob the Liar isn’t nearly as intolerable as you might expect of a Holocaust fable starring Robin Williams.
Williams has a bad case of Hamlet-itis — the disease afflicting comedians who want to show how serious they can be — and he’s been in his share of pap and crap, not least the nauseating Patch Adams. He gets that savior gleam in his eye, and he gets all elfin and inspirational, and you just want to hang him up by his stupid red clown nose. But in Jakob the Liar, directed with steady tact and grace by Peter Kassovitz, Williams stays in character as Jakob Heym, an embittered former restauranteur trapped in the Polish ghetto and just trying to get through the day. Williams is tight and angry here, no savior but a normal man who has grudgingly built up a degree of callousness to the suffering around him. There’s a fine scene in which Jakob strolls through the ghetto, humming to himself as if to block out the cries of the grieving and dying people in the streets. Williams is also thinner here, and usually caked with grime, and I found myself thinking, What a great camera face he has. He gives a new performance, or at least a fresh one.
Called into the Commandant’s office for being out after curfew, Jakob overhears a bit of news on the Nazis’ radio: The Russians are close, and the war may soon be over. He lets this information slip to a despondent friend (Bob Balaban) who’s about to hang himself, and soon Jakob and “his radio” are the talk of the ghetto. Everyone thinks Jakob has a secret radio (radios are illegal in the ghetto), and he finds himself adding lies on top of misunderstandings — he makes up bits of news, always with a positive spin. He realizes that the hope of impending freedom is all that keeps many of these people going. We also see that the quarrels and debates everyone gets into about the meaning of Jakob’s news flashes are a necessary distraction from their daily horror. To complicate matters, Jakob also takes in a little girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) whose parents have been taken away.
The relationship between Jakob and the girl isn’t pushed too much; nothing is really pushed too much. Jakob the Liar is tasteful Holocaust entertainment, which raises the question of whether any story about the Holocaust should be entertaining. At times, the movie feels as if it could have unfolded in any prison setting. And the Nazis here, as in Life Is Beautiful, are guttural cartoon bad guys; it’s as if Schindler’s List and its frightening treatment of Nazis — human beings infected by Hitler’s virus of evil — had never existed. Schindler’s List achieved art because Steven Spielberg was able to push past his disgust and get in touch with the part of himself, of all of us, that could be susceptible to Nazism under the right circumstances; he understood that the Nazis didn’t land here from another planet. He did this without in any way trivializing the suffering of the Jews. And anyone looking for a dark comedic treatment of the Holocaust might want to look at Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, a surefire antidote for pablum like Life Is Beautiful; Wertmuller’s view was that there was no transcendence or hope possible in the Final Solution, just dehumanizing squalor and death.
Aside from the ending, which recalls Braveheart without the impassioned cry for freedom (Jakob’s silence is far more eloquent), Jakob the Liar tells a solid story: Jakob’s earnest attempts to keep the bullshit going, while almost getting involved in an insurrection led by Liev Schreiber (in one of the better performances) and deflecting the doubts of cynic Alan Arkin. Shot by Elemér Ragályi in bleak grays and dingy browns, the ghetto looks like a more forbidding place than the concentration camp á la Benigni. The movie is well-made, and I didn’t hate it, but I wish moviemakers would stop trying to find sense and redemption in the Holocaust. Far be it from me to decree what should or shouldn’t be done in a movie, but some subjects don’t gain much from being filtered through the major-motion-picture machine. In a way, I now resent Spielberg’s achievement: He made it acceptable for other movies to handle the Holocaust, and I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of fables that put a smiley face on the abyss.