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Jakob the Liar

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Jakob the Liar

Starring: Robin Williams, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Director: Peter Kassovitz
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 114 Minutes
Release Date: September 1999
Genres: Drama, Comedy

*Also starring: Gregg Bello, Liev Schreiber, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Michael Jeter, Nina Siemaszko

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

One of the New Yorker magazine's typically unfunny cartoons last year displayed a patient sitting in his undershirt across from his doctor, who told the poor man, "There's not only no cure for your disease, Wilson. There's not even a race for the cure!" No one can accuse the physician of violating a prohibition against lying. He told the absolute truth. But in this case is that a good idea? Is it even the ethical way to deal with the anxious fellow? The answer to both queries is no. By giving the patient no hope at all, the doc is probably driving him to an even earlier grave, to say nothing of the making the rest of his attenuated life that much more miserable.

There are times that telling an untruth is not only desirable but necessary, particularly in a grim situation that could actually lead despondent people to suicide. Such a circumstance existed on a large scale during World War 2 as Jews were systematically rounded up by special German units with the help of their international sympathizers, forced to remain inside their ghettoes, i.e. particular Jewish neighborhoods, and ultimately rounded up and sent to death camps. While many of the doomed people tried to make a go of things, others gave up all belief in deliverance, some going so far as to hang themselves. "Jakob the Liar," whose ideas are taken partly from a German production company's 1974 "Jakob der Lugner" which in turn came from a novel by Jurek Becker, demonstrates the mixed success of lying when the tactic is used to give hope to despairing Jews living in a well-guarded Polish ghetto.

Like Robert Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," Peter Kassovitz's "Jakob the Liar" is serio-comic. While "Jakob" is not so schematically divided into a comic first part and a latter half that seems to come from a different picture, Kassovitz maintains a light tone in the earlier scenes, shifting to a somber mood as the 114-minute film gathers momentum. As the title character, Robin Williams sets the tone by imparting a particularly self-deprecatory bit of Jewish humor in his opening narration. A Jewish man who is not particularly liked by his neighbors asks one known to foretell the future, "When will I die?" "I don't know," replies the prescient one, "But you will die on a Jewish holiday." "How do you know this? queries the anxious man. "Because," his adviser tells him, "Any day that you die will be a Jewish holiday." We come to understand early on that this is the form of malign humor that has enabled Jews to carry on despite centuries, even millennia, of persecution.

In this wartime situation, as several hundred people in a Polish town wait and work under Nazi guard until their inevitable call to the train and to a death camp, suicides are rampant. Jakob hits upon an idea as he overhears a radio broadcast in the Gestapo's office. Though the censored German news indicates Nazi victories over their Red Army foes, Jakob will turn the truth upside down and tell his neighbors that he has a hidden radio which has broadcast that the Russian troops are a mere 400 km from the camp and that all will be saved in a matter of weeks. Since possession of a radio means instant execution for its bearer, Jakob, though not even in possession of one, faces tragedy should the guards merely think the radio exists.

The major thrust of the film is the reaction of various people in the ghetto. On one side, the cynical Shakespearean actor Frankfurter (Alan Arkin) pooh-poohs all thoughts of salvation and wonders whether Jakob has a radio at all. On the other side are people like the barber Kowalsky (Bob Balaban), saved from hanging himself when Jakob happens upon his shop, who is now filled with hope. Indeed the entire ghetto has not filed a single suicide report since Jakob--and soon thereafter the grapevine throughout the camp--report stories of successful Russian advances.

Though a 10-year-old child, Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), perhaps newly orphaned, is introduced to the audience early on, Kassovitz avoids mining a situation that could have turned the film maudlin. To the credit of this director, Kassovitz manages to restrain the entire troupe save one man, a prizefighter, and even Robin Williams conveys a somber, albeit tentatively comic, image.

But although Luciana Arrighi's production design conveys the utter dilapidation of the Jewish living quarters and Edward Shearmur's musical score hints a klezmer-inspired combination of joy and foreboding, the claustrophobic nature of the film makes "Jakob the Liar" look more like a staged play than an openly cinematic experience. Given the exaggerated gestures of some actors--the Germans opening their eyes wide when surprised and former boxer Mischa's (Liev Schreiber) running frantically around the neighborhood like a clown--this production might well have worked better on a Broadway stage. As captured on Polish and Hungarian locations by cameraman Elemer Ragalyi, however, "Jakob the Liar" is too closed off to provide sufficient air for its deprecating humor (jokes, such as they are, fall flat), and the relentless struggle by the hapless people to survive is not adequately transmitted.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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