Film review of “Jakob the Liar” (1999 USA)

Film review of Jacob the Liar, by Don Perlgut, originally published in the Australian Jewish News, November 19, 1999.

(The 1974 original East German version of this film is about to have its first ever screenings in Australia’s German film festival.  I published the review of the American re-make – starring Robin Williams – in 1999.  As it is not available on the website of the Australian Jewish News, I re-print it below.)

Directed by Peter Kassovitz
Written by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin
Starring Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Liev Schreiber and Mathieu Kassovitz

I desperately wanted to like Jakob the Liar, the new feature film about the Holocaust.  It is the biggest budget “Jewish” film of the year.  I have been a fan of Robin Williams for some time.  It is also directed (and co-written) Peter Kassovitz, a Budapest-born, Paris-based Jewish film director who survived the war hidden by a Catholic family.  (Miraculously, both of his parents survived the camps.)  Kassovitz has done a number of French films, including Stirn and Stern; a comedy about a Jewish family and an antisemite during the Nazi occupation of France. A nd he is the father of Mathieu, the young actor/director, who has made two of the most interesting French Jewish films in recent years – Hate and Café Au Lait; and who appears in a minor role in “Jakob“.

Jakob the Liar has a wonderful pedigree: it is based on a semi-autobiographical book by the late Jurek Becker, has an all-star cast, has production design by Australian Luciana Arrighi (Howard’s End, My Brilliant Career) and its heart in the right place.  It was also shot on location in Budapest and Poland.

The story takes place in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, whose inhabitants have been depleted by transports, disease, degradation and hunger.  Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) had previously owned a (now closed) café, and by accident overhears a forbidden radio news bulletin that indicates that the Soviets are beating the Germans and approaching.  When he tells a couple of friends – mostly as a way of discouraging one from committing suicide, now an epidemic in the ghetto – the rumour soon spreads that Jakob owns a forbidden radio.  So Jakob is caught in a bind: he is an instrument of hope in a situation which is almost totally hopeless, but his words inspire power, at times dangerously so.

Aside from Williams, the cast includes Alan Arkin as theatrical actor Frankfurter, Bob Balaban (Deconstructing Harry) as Kowalski the barber, Armin-Mueller Stahl as Kirschbaum the doctor, Liev Schreiber as Mischa – a young boxer formerly managed by Jakob and now in love with Frankfurter’s daughter, Rosa, played by Nina Siemaszko.  This is a cast loaded with significance. German-born Mueller-Stahl has often played both Jews (Shine, Avalon) as well as Nazis and tormentors (Colonel Redl, Angry Harvest). Schreiber gave a stellar performance as a Jewish husband in the just-released A Walk on the Moon.  And Nina Siemaszko’s late father – like book author Becker – survived the Sachsenahausen concentration camp.

In feel and approach, Jakob the Liar fits somewhere between Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List, two films with which it will inevitably be compared.  But it lacks the fable-like quality which gave Life is Beautiful such resonance, and misses the emotionally mythical film-making which Spielberg brought to “Schindler“. It is hard to pin down where Jakob the Liar misses out.  Robin Williams is a notoriously difficult actor to direct, and the role of Jakob Heym (“life”?) the reluctant hero never quite fits him.  It also takes quite a bit of time for the film to get moving.

There are scenes in Jakob the Liar of unspeakable sadness and brutality, and this is certainly not a film for the faint-hearted.  It is also undeniably moving in parts, for the story it tells is ultimately one of Jewish survival through crushing adversity.  And the final scenes should bring tears to everyone.  The characters are full of depth and contain the sort of ambiguities that Hollywood rarely allows.  Although everyone speaks English, the European sensibility is high.  But for me Jakob the Liar never reached the plateau of creating a universal story on a “larger than life” canvas, and emotionally did not grip me until the very end – much too long of a wait.

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