Jakob the Liar (1999) **1/2
Directed by Peter Kassovitz. Written by Kassovitz and Didier Decoin, from the novel by Jurek Becker. Executive producer, RobinWilliams. Photography, Elemer Ragalyi. Editing, Claire Simpson. production designer, Luciana Arrighi. Art directors, Branimir Babic, Tibor Lazar, Grzegorz Piatkowski (Poland). Music, Edward Shearmur. Cast: Robin Williams (Jakob), Alan Arkin (Frankfurter), Bob Balaban (Kowalsky), Hannah Taylor Gordon (Lina), Michael Jeter (Avron), Armin Muller-Stahl (Kirschbaum), Liev Schreiber (Mischa), Nina Siemaszko (Rosa), Mathieu Kassovitz (Herschel), Justus von Dohnanyi (Preuss), Mark Margolis (Fajngold), Gregg Bello (Blumenthal) et al. A Sony/Columbia Pictures release. 114 minutes. PG-13.
Jurek Becker (1937-1997) was a Polish Jew born in Lodz --where the famous fim school is. He died in Germany. As a child, he survived Nazi camps. As an adult, he wrote Jakob the Liar. When this was made into the East German movie Jakob der Luegner (1974) by the able German director Frank Beyer, Becker provided also the script. The film was a well-deserved international success --artistically and "humanitarianly" (I don't know about box-office).
The title character is a modest "little man" who, during the ruthless Nazi annihilation of the Jews ("The Final Solution") in death camps, is in the ghetto of a Polish town. One day, when taken outside the ghetto to a Nazi office, he hears accidentally a German news bulletin that mentions the advance of the Russian army to a town not far from the ghetto. One thing leads to another. The ghetto denizens learn of this. They believe, because they want to believe, that Jakob has a hidden radio, a strictly "verboten" item punishable by the execution of its listeners.
The news raises the spirit of the captive Jews. Jakob becomes willy-nilly their regular provider of upbeat items (from the BBC) which he invents. These bring small rays of hope into the ghetto's miserable, tragic life.
The current Jakob the Liar is a remake of the older one. Whether or not you know the original, Jakob II is a moving experience of suffering and hope. As someone says later in the film, there was not a single suicide in the entire ghetto after the "news" started coming in. The fake information even contributes to the "better" health of Lina, a charming 10-year old whose parents, on their way to a death camp, were able to move her out of the train. She becomes the housemate of widower Jakob.
The original Jakob, however, was so good that the remake suffers by comparison.
Jakob II was directed by Peter Kassovitz, born ca. 1938 in Budapest. His father and mother survived the death camps. Peter left Hungary after the Soviets suppressed the 1956 Hungarian uprising, went to France where he worked as a director (mostly TV) and where his son Mathieu Kassovitz was born (1967).
Mathieu has acted in many movies and directed 7 features to date, of which the best-known (and very goodt) are the Metisse (aka Cafe au Lait), La Haine (Hate) and Assassin (s) (sic). The latter has not been shown in the USA to my knowledge. Father and son often employ each other in their movies. In Jakob II Mathieu plays Herschel, the prizefighter in love. And, by the way, the much-talented Armin Muller-Stahl (as the famous doctor here) had a small part in the 1974 Jakob the Liar.
The film was shot entirely in Eastern Europe using good, near-genuine locations for its ghetto. Among the Holocaust films, Life is Beautiful came out before Jakob II. Making it became a reality when Kassovitz wrote to Robin Williams who, he thought, was Jewish.
Williams was approached also because he could provide a combination of humor and tragedy. Both co-exist in the movie, with strong doses of typical, often black Jewish humor. It is tempting to see the same strain in Life Is Beautiful, but Benigni's humor is more Italian than "echt"-Jewish.
The thought of Robin Williams in the title role raises apprehensions of mugging and clowning, yet the actor controls his tendencies quite well, although one can never forget that it is Robin Williams up there on the screen. Name performers bring in the public but can take away much of the verisimilitude.
That's where the use, as characters, of a platoon of Jewish-American thespians. comes in--and where the shoe rubs. The "real" or near-real Poles of the earlier film have been replaced by a good but, in this context, not really convincing cast. Looks, accents, mannerisms are askew. There's an impression of "acting" rather than "being. " The thespians may, for some viewers, seem insincere or near-caricatural. This was unintened, of course, so I wonder how much comes from the film-makers' lack of familiarity with American Jews.
The often self-deprecating Jewish humor includes some worn-out vaudeville lines like "If you kill yourself, I'll kill you. " And overall, the film lacks that unbearable look that has been made so tragically familiar from documentary footage (much of it by German soldiers) or photographs (some amazingly, secretly made by the slaves themselves) of ghetto life, especially the Warsaw Ghetto.
I can't remember if, in the original movie, Jakob, as he does here, puts on a fake broadcast from London, with sound effects and a Winston Churchill imitation. It is inappropriate, silly, not funny. And when Jakob speaks to his friends of coded messages of the BBC, such as "the baby is in the bath, " this is a major goof. The BBC did transmit surreal sentences which had a specific meaning for some members of the European Resistance, but there's no way that anyone in a Polish ghetto would have any idea that such coded sentences even existed.
Yet warts and all, Jakob II can, and even should, be seen.