Jakob the Liar

Religious ConflictsCivil UnrestEntertainmentMoviesRadioJudaismRobin Williams

Friday September 24, 1999

     Robin Williams, enough already. Enough with the compassionate roles, the humanitarian roles, the caring and concerned roles. Enough with the good deeds, for pity's sake. Remember being funny? Maybe you could try that again. How hard could it be?
     "Jakob the Liar," in which Williams plays a poor soul who brings, yes, hope to his fellow Jews imprisoned in a World War II ghetto, is the latest in what feels like an endless string of movies ("Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come," "Good Will Hunting," to name a few) in which the actor's parts have ruinously overdosed on sentimentality and schmaltz at the expense of humor and even sanity.
     Following "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful," "Jakob" stands in clearer relief than it otherwise might as everything a Holocaust film shouldn't be. A painful miscalculation, this is the kind of bogus production only completely sincere but misguided individuals can come up with.
     Set "somewhere in Poland in the winter of 1944," "Jakob" wants to move us, to make us cry, and sets about doing it in absolutely the worst way possible. And don't forget the laughs, the gallows humor that we all know makes tragedy bearable. Laughter through tears . . . how does that sound?
     It sounds good to Jakob, who reminds us in his overly earnest voice-over that humor is how the Jews who did come out alive managed to survive the war; "everything else," he tidily points out, "the Germans had taken."
     A former cafe owner who specialized in apricot pancakes, Jakob's troubles begin when he sees a page of a newspaper floating through the ghetto's windblown streets. Since all news is at a premium, Jakob tries to catch it, but in his eagerness doesn't realize he's wandered into a forbidden Germans-only zone.
     While explaining himself to a military official, Jakob accidentally overhears an equally forbidden radio broadcast announcing Russian victories in nearby towns. He's elated at the news, but once he's back in the ghetto he's afraid to pass the information on because only collaborators come out of Nazi headquarters alive. Plus he now also has to worry about 10-year-old Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), an escapee from a death-camp train he's rescued from the streets.
     But while talking to hotheaded young boxer Mischa (Liev Schreiber), Jakob's news leaks out. Still unwilling to reveal his sources, Jakob allows the talkative Mischa to assume that he, Jakob, owns a strictly forbidden radio and is regularly receiving broadcasts from the outside world.
     Soon, everyone in the ghetto is in awe of Jakob and his putative radio. Emboldened by the good news, Mischa even asks his sweetheart Rosa (Nina Siemaszko) to marry him, much to the disgust of her overbearing father, Frankfurter (Alan Arkin). Even the ghetto's beloved Dr. Kirschbaum (Armin Mueller-Stahl) credits the news of Jakob's radio with cutting down on suicides. And so an unlikely hero is born.
     While this scenario may sound (barely) passable, several factors work against it in practice. Though "Jakob" is based on a novel by ghetto survivor Jurek Becker (which was previously made into an East German film in the mid-'70s), and though director and co-writer Peter Kassovitz had to be hidden with a Catholic family during the war, nothing about the film, not even the carefully distressed costumes and art-directed ghetto streets, manages to sound an authentic note.
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     That's because the script (by Kassovitz & Didier Decoin) assumes that it's impossible for Jews to communicate without sounding like a gathering of Borscht Belt comedians. This is especially true when Jakob talks to best pal Kowalski (Bob Balaban), but lines like "If you hang yourself, I'll kill you," "I'll burn that bridge when I get to it" and "Chosen people . . . why didn't he choose someone else?" are so prevalent that if a Henny Youngman type had shown up and said, "Take my wife . . . please," he would have fit right in.
     Along with burdening everybody with bogus-sounding accents (too bad space couldn't be made for Eddie Murphy, whose Jewish intonation is at least as good as anyone here), "Jakob" is such a stranger to restraint that this plays like the kind of Holocaust film cynics feared "Schindler's List" would turn out to be but wasn't.
     "Jakob" also fares poorly compared with Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," which had its own kind of unlikely integrity and didn't overstuff audiences on trumped-up poignancy quite so shamelessly as this crew does.
     "Jakob the Liar" is so forced that only the interest of a star of Williams' magnitude could have gotten it made, which is another reason why it would be nice if the actor was willing to focus his talents on something he's brilliant at. That used to be humor. Let's hope it still is.


Jakob the Liar, 1999. PG-13, for violence and disturbing images. A Blue Wolf Productions production, with Kasso Inc., released by Columbia Pictures. Director Peter Kassovitz. Producers Marcia Garces Williams, Steven Haft. Executive producer Robin Williams. Screenplay Peter Kassovitz & Didier Decoin, based on the novel by Jurek Becker. Cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi. Editor Claire Simpson. Costumes Wiesla Starska. Music Edward Shearmur. Production design Luciana Arrighi. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Robin Williams as Jakob. Alan Arkin as Frankfurter. Bob Balaban as Kowalski. Armin Mueller-Stahl as Dr. Kirschbaum. Liev Schreiber as Mischa.

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