AT LAST, WE CAN laugh again about the Holocaust—or so it might seem with the belated arrival of Jakob the Liar. At first glance, it appears that Robin Williams in this film is simply emulating Roberto Benigni's remarkably similar Life Is Beautiful. But the vision of Patch Adams yukking his way through the death camps is thankfully unfulfilled by this comparatively restrained, serious-minded film.
Jakob the Liar
opens September 24 at Metro, Pacific Place
Actually, Jakob was completed before LIB's release and is based on the 1969 novel by Polish-German Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker. It was previously adapted as an Oscar-nominated 1975 East German film. This puts Benigni's supposedly unique screenplay in a different light: Rather than Williams taking inspiration from his Italian counterpart, they're both knock-offs of the same source material—and Benigni was the latecomer.
As Jakob, Williams is one of the few surviving Polish Jews packed into Warsaw's notorious ghetto and used as Nazi slave labor. It's late 1944, and Russian liberators are approaching on the Eastern Front. Jakob overhears this news by radio when he is summoned to Nazi HQ, and he is elated by the bulletin. He then encounters a young girl who has escaped from a concentration camp-bound train, introducing Jakob's weakest, most maudlin subplot. Jakob hides her in his attic—like Anne Frank—and treats her like a daughter. But when the poor schlemiel mentions the Russian advance, others desperately seize upon and embellish the news—imagining the war's imminent end and believing that Jakob has a precious, forbidden radio in his attic.
Inspired by such hope, Williams' best friend Bob Balaban decides not to hang himself, while kindly doctor Armin Mueller-Stahl says of the radio bulletin, "That's wonderful medicine." Soon Williams is treated like a leader in the ghetto, despite his reservations. "Truth can kill," he says in one of his (too) frequent voice-over monologues to his adored dead wife. That's the moral dilemma for our hero: whether to fabricate false radio broadcasts to preserve hope, or to tell the truth and extinguish it. You can guess which way he goes.
Again, the parallels with Life Is Beautiful are unavoidable. There, Benigni lies to his son; here Williams deceives the entire ghetto for the same essential purpose. "Just because there's a war going on doesn't mean we should stop playing jokes on one another," Williams declares, paraphrasing the abiding truth of Becker's novel: Fiction makes suffering bearable, allowing us to transcend the unendurable and mock our tormenters.
IT'S AN OLD literary theme, this moral equivalence between fiction and lies, and it also informs 1993's Schindler's List—where fraud and deception are employed for righteous ends. In this way, Jakob similarly echoes and subverts the 'big lie' theory of totalitarianism from the perspective of its victims.
Although a victim of its timing, Jakob the Liar is a better film than the overpraised Life Is Beautiful, whose clowning antics weren't so much inappropriate as they were wildly overplayed. Here, Williams sometimes overdoes his mensch routine but generally shows the restraint of his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting. Jakob is prone to the same periodic sentimental excess that marred Schindler's List but ultimately owes less to Benigni or Spielberg than to Primo Levi or Samuel Beckett's spirit of absurdism-in-the-wasteland. And it preserves the necessary ending(s) of Becker's novel, with tasteful direction by veteran French helmer Peter Kassovitz.
Ironically, Life Is Beautiful is now being granted a limited national rerelease with an English-dubbed soundtrack—guaranteed to make it even more annoying. If you want a serious examination of the Holocaust, rent The Sorrow and the Pity or Shoah instead. For laughs, you can't beat the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch gem To Be or Not to Be. For something in between, Jakob the Liar does just fine.