“The Believer” is an intellectually provocative study of a “Jewish Nazi,” a former yeshiva student who, for reasons that are bracingly explored in the film, transforms himself into a militant anti-Semitic skinhead. Inspired by the true story of Daniel Burros, a Nazi Party member who killed himself when the New York Times revealed he was Jewish after his arrest as a participant at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the ’60s, Henry Bean’s film no doubt will be objectionable in principle to some people and simply unappealing to many others. But those who see it at fests, and in carefully tailored specialized release, will be struck by the adroitness with which it addresses touchy issues, as well as by the outstanding performance of Ryan Gosling in the difficult leading role.
Bean, who wrote the politically charged “Internal Affairs” and “Deep Cover” in addition to the 1998 hit “Enemy of the State,” three years ago shot six scenes centered on the long-developing concept for “The Believer,” footage he subsequently transformed into a short called “Thousand.”
Like “American History X,” this film centers on an almost frighteningly articulate working-class kid who victimizes blacks and Jews on the street but whose very intelligence has enabled him to go beyond mindless sloganeering to evolve intricate theories of anti-Semitism. Unlike the earlier picture, “The Believer” is not just about hate, but addresses the peculiar manner in which his religious training brought him to the tragically paradoxical point of thinking as a Jew and a Nazi at once.
The charismatic and physically fearless leader of a bunch of muscled, shaven-head goons, Danny Balint (Gosling) is initially attracted to an underground fascist movement headed by the intellectual Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), but strongly disagrees with their view that Jew hatred and killing are things of the past; for them, virulent anti-Semitism marginalizes their movement and will ensure it the same fate as Hitler’s. Better, they believe, that Jews are allowed to prosper so much that they become entirely assimilated and therefore disappear.
For Danny, however, loathing of Judaism isn’t a political choice but an overwhelming emotion that defines his very being. When he agrees to speak with a journalist, Danny derides even the most eminent Jews — Marx, Freud and Einstein — for having foisted “communism, infantile sexuality and the atom bomb” upon the world. But the writer has discovered Danny’s secret — that he’s Jewish himself — which Danny has long since rationalized but the potential exposure of which obviously threatens his position in neo-fascist circles.
A series of flashbacks reveal the pubescent Danny as the most spirited Hebrew school student imaginable, challenging his teacher over the implications of the Abraham story and, ultimately, being kicked out for going too far in his questioning of rabbinical authority. This, then, made him turn against everything he had been raised to believe, although he continues secretly to revere the Torah and read Hebrew, something he explains away to his new admirer and lover, Carla (Summer Phoenix), as important in the context of knowing your enemy.
Under threat of being “exposed,” Danny persists with his loathsome projects, plotting an assassination and instigating a fight at a kosher restaurant, for which he and his punks are sentenced to “sensitivity training” in which elderly concentration camp survivors inform them of the horrors of the Holocaust. The scene is weird and unnerving; while his buddies smirk through the session, Danny explodes at the feeble oldsters for having submitted to the Nazis rather than having fought back.
But glimmers of sensitivity come through when the gang trashes a synagogue and Danny finds himself protecting the Torah from his brutish friends. Ultimately, he tries to embrace and synthesize his profound contradiction: an impossible task, obviously, but one he must pursue to the end.
Bean deals with the core elements of this odd, and oddly compelling, situation with admirable frankness and intelligence, but flounders around the edges. The tenets of Zampf and Moebius’ political movement receive such scant attention that the scenes devoted to it are borderline ludicrous, and the masochistic impulses that seem to draw Carla to Danny — “Hurt me!,” she begs at the start of their first sexual encounter, and he willingly obliges — are rote and undeveloped.
Aside from Jim Denault’s mostly hand-held camerawork, which keeps the drama urgent and immediate, filmmaking aspects are ordinary. But Gosling, who recently gained notice in “Remember the Titans,” could scarcely have been better as the rock-hard, mentally penetrating, well-spoken and impossibly conflicted Danny. It’s a dynamite performance in a unique, and uniquely troubling, role.