The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is sacred text for our time. It warns us of the unfathomable power of evil, the pestilence of the human soul, that for a time, can dissolve nations and devastate civilization. But the uprising in the Ghetto also warns tyrants wherever they rule that a fierce, bright light blazes eternal in the human breast, and that the darkness can never put it out.
- Vice-President Al Gore
It was in November of 1940 that the Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto, a special area in the occupied city designated for confining the Jewish population of Poland. Hermetically sealed within its walls of barbed wire, armed guards, broken glass, and concrete, the Jews were cut off from the outside world, as the German authorities ensured under the threat of death that no newspapers, radio, or word reached its imprisoned denizens. With no employment to speak of (other than being slaves of the Nazi war machine), food rations that met less than ten percent of basic nutritional requirements, rampant disease that claimed thousands of lives, and the unending persecution by German guards, the Warsaw Ghetto was a place of pervasive despair and misery. Each sunrise would reveal the corpses of those who had died the night before, either from starvation, disease, or by their own hands. And each day would see the flood of new arrivals who had been evicted from outlying cities and towns, replacing those who had been packed on trains, bound for Nazi death camps, the day before.
Despite the inhumane conditions in which they lived, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto remained defiant, never giving up hope in the face of such adversity. In April of 1943, when the German authorities attempted to 'liquidate' the Ghetto, they were pushed back by a few hundred poorly armed members of the Jewish resistance. This was the beginning of what was to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For the next several weeks, the Ghetto was consumed by house-to-house fighting between better armed German troops and the vastly outnumbered Jewish freedom fighters, who held steadfastly held on to the hope of liberation. But it all came to an end on May 10th of that same year, when the Nazis set fire to the Warsaw Ghetto and eliminated every last member of the resistance. In the aftermath, where buildings had once stood, there only remained smoking heaps of rubble and the ashes of what had been the Jewish people of Warsaw.
When I started to make up those things, I almost believed them.
"Jakob the Liar" takes place under similar circumstances in another Jewish Ghetto within an unnamed Polish city. The reluctant hero is Jacob Heym (Robin Williams of "Patch Adams"), a former restaurant owner who spends his time trying to stay alive another day, and holding imaginary conversations with his wife, who died at the hands of the Nazis. One night, after being caught by the Ghetto's guards for violating the curfew, Jakob is briefly detained in the headquarters of the Gestapo. It is here that he accidentally overhears a German radio broadcast announcing a Russian victory within 400 kilometers of the city.
Jakob may not be the Messiah, but he could be a prophet.
However, Jakob then makes the mistake of sharing the good news with some of his closest friends, particularly Mischa (Liev Schreiber of "Sphere"), a boxer that Jakob used to manage. Unfortunately, the loose-lipped confidant incorrectly surmises that his friend has been hiding a radio, and begins spreading the good news around. Pretty soon, rumors of the radio are running rampant through the Ghetto, and Jakob is up to his ears in requests for the latest news about the war. Without access to a radio or newspapers, Jakob begins spinning elaborate and uplifting fictions for his fellow internees, which they eagerly accept as the truth.
Since Mr. Heym has shared information with us, there has not been a single suicide in the entire Ghetto.
Unfortunately, Jakob also quickly discovers the downside to his spirit-raising rumors when they begin to have a life of all their own. While some, such as an old doctor (Armin Mueller-Stahl of "Shine") and a suicidal barber (Bob Balaban of "Clockwatchers") find the 'news' a godsend, others, particularly an aging actor (Alan Arkin of "Grosse Pointe Blank"), see the radio as a threat, an invitation for the Nazis to 'liquidate' the Ghetto. But what is most troubling to Jakob is the false hope that he is instilling in those around him, particularly Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), an orphaned girl he has been secretly taking care of.
I beg you... destroy that radio before the Germans find out about it.
Many moviegoers will experience a sense of cinematic déja vu with "Jakob the Liar", due to its similarities to last year's "Life is Beautiful", even though this more recent film actually completed production in 1997. In addition to the concentration camp setting, both films feature an actor better known for his comedic roles playing a character that fills people's heads with false hopes-- in "Life is Beautiful", it was a little boy, and in this most recent film, it is an entire Ghetto. Despite the similarities, both films owe their existence to "Jakob der Luegner" (based on the novel by Jurek Becker of the same name), a black-and-white East German film that won the Silver Bear award at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival.
It's a wonderful medicine you have... I admire what you are doing... I really do.
Unfortunately, "Jakob the Liar" is an average film at best, starting off strongly but eventually succumbing to some unremarkable scripting. This downward slide is best illustrated by the dichotomy between film's opening and closing scenes. The film opens with Jakob chasing a newspaper that has just been blown over the Ghetto wall, which is a subtle metaphor for what Jakob spends the rest of the film doing-- chasing after hope amidst the desolation of his surroundings. Contrast this to the last scene, a fantasy sequence in which a white tuxedoed band plays accompaniment to the Andrews Sisters, who are warbling a feel-good melody. Not only is this scene completely incongruent with what happened in the rest of the film, but it reeks of an emotionally dishonest 'happy ending' that was hastily slapped on for no other reason than to end the film on a high note.
The Russians aren't coming, are they?
Would I lie to you about something like that?
The rest of the film falls into the middle of these two extremes. The film does possess some powerful scenes (such as Jakob ignoring a beating while walking down a street), but for the most part, it seems that director Peter Kassovitz has cobbled bits and pieces from other films about the Holocaust and populated it with uninteresting characters involved in unnecessary subplots. At times, narrative cheats defying logic push the envelope of credibility (such as how readily people accept some of Jakob's over-the-top lies), and at other times, the writing fizzles with painful dialogue and poorly written humor. For example, one thing that the film could have done without was Jakob's monologues, which palpably tells the audiences what he is thinking at pivotal moments, instead of allowing the audience to deduce for themselves from his actions.
In the acting department, Williams provides a decent performance that is thankfully restrained (a "Patch Adams" schtick would probably not go over well in this instance), but the best performance in the film goes to Hannah Taylor-Gordon. Serving as the film's emotional anchor, she delivers an earnest performance as Lina, who despite having seen the horrors of Nazi occupation, still possesses some of the innocence and naïveté of any ten year old girl. The rest of the actors do their best with the thinly-sketched and often cartoonish roles they have been given, but overall, there were few memorable performances to speak of. Two notable exceptions would be Schreiber as the dim-witted Mischa, and Mueller-Stahl (who also appeared in the original "Jakob der Luegner") as the doctor who knows Jakob's secret.
Despite having a few moments of brilliance, "Jakob the Liar" is a disappointingly average film, especially in the shadow of the much superior "Life is Beautiful". In fact, "Jakob the Liar" is a good taste of what "Life is Beautiful" would have been like had it been cranked out by a major Hollywood studio. With a big name star, unremarkable characters doing predictable things, and a force-fed feel-good ending, "Jakob the Liar" seems opportunistic in the way it recounts one of the darkest periods of recent history.
You started this, and now you have to go on! Let's only hope that your lies were true.