Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jakob the Liar


Dir: Peter Kassovitz (Make Room For Tomorrow)

I stand corrected.

As Omri informed me, there has been a bad movie about the Holocaust. Not bad because it accidently argues the wrong side or slips into denial. Not bad because the production values are low or it was hastily put together. Not bad for lack of talent in front of the camera. But bad in the way that most bad movies are bad. It is very poorly written. And it also fails to have anything meaningful to say about the Holocaust.

The story involves Jews in a ghetto waiting out the final weeks of the war but cut-off from news outside. Robin Williams plays Jakob, who hears a snippet of news on a radio outside the ghetto that the Russians are coming. His news quickly hits the grapevine, and soon everyone thinks he has a radio. Since spirits are low, he decides to play along, making up stories to give people hope. Suddenly, folks are falling in love, a pretty tepid resistance begins, and suicides vanish.

The movie wants to argue that false hope is better than despair, that the power of positive thought can overcome horrors, that refusing to give in is itself resistance. And those are all prefectly acceptable themes for a film. But Jakob the Liar chooses as its setting the Holocaust, and as a result has to say something beyond "keep your chin up, kiddo." This film could have been set in any place or time where access to information is restricted. Put this movie in a high school, and the basic themes could be exactly the same. But the Holocaust, to my mind, requires more reflection that this film wants to give it. For an example of how to do this well, I recommend to you the sublime "Life is Beautiful." There, the indefatigable nature of humor as a defense mechanism is able to overcome even the most brutal of contexts. At the forefront of that film's second act are the horrors of the concentration camps, a juxtaposition with the idyllic narture of the first half and Benigni's attempts to recreate that in the interests of protecting his son. "Jakob the Liar" does not come off nearly as comtemplative, the ghetto is essentially window dressing, and as such fails to rise to its own subject matter.

On top of that, the film's cardinal sin is that the characters stubbornly fail to grow or develop. Apparently, several years of ghetto life makes you stupid. The news that Jakob has a radio is some thunderbolt to all of these people, when at the same time newspapers just blow over the wall and guards use them for T.P. These folks leave the ghetto everyday for work, how could they possibly be so ignorant of the progress of the war? And why is it that no one had thought of resistance until the radio story appears? The actual Warsaw ghetto uprising was a full scale assault, months in planning and a year before this film is supposed to take place. But its a big deal here for 10 guys to get together in a room! Either the situation must have been so bleak that some fanciful news stories would change nothing, or the human spirit is capable of resistance all on its own (hint: the latter was the case). The sum total of movement for most of the characters is from mild indifference (if we keep quiet and do what we are told we might live another day) to mild resistance (why, I am going to marry that girl, even if we might die tomorrow, thanks Jakob!). Um, I gotta think that by the END of the war people might be more strongly effected by the most evil half decade in the history of humanity than this.

The result is that the film has characters acting in certain ways because that is what the message of the film requires, not because it would make sense to do such things. Williams has to pretend there is a radio, Alan Arkin has to think its a bad idea. No reason given for why they do this, and none of those actions make sense out of the context of this film. But they do it anyway. And since this plot driven characterization isn't even in the service of an meaningful take on the Holocaust itself, the upshot is an unintersting movie about gossip and white lies.

That's a bad Holocaust movie. So I must revise my claim. There have been no bad movies about the Holocaust that actually were about the Holocaust.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 4/26/2006 11:51:00 AM that...

Do you realized you watched what seems to be considered a horrible Holocaust film on Holocaust Rememberance Day? You need to watch "A Shop on Main Street" or "Night and Fog" for atonement.  

Blogger paroske noted on 4/26/2006 02:56:00 PM that...

For me, every day is Holocaust Rememberance Day.

What, Ron, do you only care about the Holocaust once a year? Why don't you go back to Iran where you came from!


Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 4/26/2006 05:27:00 PM that...


Blogger paroske noted on 5/03/2006 05:15:00 PM that...

One thing I realized I forgot to mention about this movie as I was watching the Moussaoui verdict . . .

The Nazis use waterboarding against Williams in this film, the same technique that your President and mine says isn't torture. Maybe "If the Nazis did it, we shouldn't" is a pretty good rule for treationg prisoners.


Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 5/05/2006 05:07:00 AM that...

I have only one question for you: Why do
you hate freedom?