A clone of “Life Is Beautiful” in superficial terms only, “Jakob the Liar,” a seriocomedy about a man who promotes hopeful illusions in a Polish Jewish ghetto during World War II, is a markedly better picture than Roberto Benigni’s far more sentimental Oscar collector. Shot in late 1997, before the Benigni pic was released even in Italy, this adaptation of Jurek Becker’s 1969 bestseller emerges as a bitterly whimsical slice of mordant Yiddish-style humor that plays more like an Eastern European fable than a piece of emotional Hollywood pandering. Commercial fortunes could easily tilt either way, depending upon the message the public picks up as to the film’s accessibility and resemblance to “Life Is Beautiful,” which, coincidentally or not, recently went out in its English-dubbed version.
A mercifully restrained Robin Williams and a fine group of character actors admirably serve the cause of this finely calibrated story, which, as with “Life Is Beautiful,” addresses the necessity of instilling hope into a hopeless situation. But until the final scene, any tendency toward messagy sanctimony is cut through here by tempering irony.
Williams’ central presence unavoidably adds an additional, slightly dizzy flavor to the mix, but French director and co-writer Peter Kassovitz, who spent his youth in Nazi-occupied Hungary, applies an impressively precise but not oppressive hand that keeps the potential antics of his star, as well as the grimmest aspects of the story, under control.
Author Becker, who grew up in the Lodz ghetto, initially penned “Jakob der Luegner” as a script in 1965, but when he couldn’t launch it as a TV project, he wrote the story as a novel, which was subsequently translated into more than a dozen languages. Frank Beyer’s East German film version, from Becker’s screenplay, won the Silver Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival.
An absurdist tone verging on the Kafkaesque is established at the outset when, in the winter of 1944, middle-aged widower Jakob Heym (Williams) is caught by sentries outdoors, supposedly after curfew, and is sent to headquarters. While there, he overhears radio dispatches indicating that Russian forces are routing the Nazis and could soon be in the area.
Making his way home through the rail yards, Jakob comes across a little girl, Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), who has slipped off a train headed for a concentration camp. Jakob, whose meek, deferential character would suggest that he’s survived by remaining as invisible as possible, takes her in and cares for her at his home; fortunately, pic avoids the saccharine potential of this child-he-never-had subplot.
The information about Russian victories is so exciting that Jakob confides the news, in strictest confidence, to the headstrong Mischa (Liev Schreiber), a young boxer he once managed. Naturally, Mischa has to tell everyone else, which gives rise to the rumor that Jakob is in possession of an illegal radio, an offense punishable by death.
As the word spreads, the cast of characters in the unnamed town’s grim little ghetto starts coming into focus. Frankfurter (Alan Arkin) is a skeptical old theatrical tragedian whose daughter Rosa (Nina Siemaszko) is being courted by Mischa; Kirschbaum (Armin Mueller-Stahl, who played a small role in the previous film version of the story) is a formerly eminent doctor; and Kowalsky (Bob Balaban) is a barber who puts his planned suicide on hold pending developments on the front.
It was never Jakob’s intent to pretend that he has a radio, but when he sees the excitement the possibility creates throughout his downtrodden community, the former cafe owner begins to equivocate and, finally, to enthusiastically make up further news to feed his neighbors’ hunger. Soon, however, he’s under pressure to let them hear the radio for themselves.
When he finally can wriggle out of it no longer with young Lina, he hides, Wizard of Oz-like, behind a screen and delivers a faux BBC broadcast including a speech by Churchill. This could easily have been embarrassing, but Williams pulls it off, not by vaulting out of character to show off his improvisational dexterity, but by emphasizing Jakob’s modesty and limitations. Another highlight derives from the Jews’ deduction that a simple soccer score reported in a German newspaper is actually a code signaling yet another Russian military triumph.
Matters become graver as the men decide to form a resistance movement with the hapless Jakob as their leader, Kirschbaum is asked to treat a nasty German general with a heart condition and the inevitable day arrives when the Jews are rounded up. The dark ironies accumulate as well, right down to a bleakly humorous revelation about the narration.
Kassovitz, who is mainly known as a TV helmer and the father of young French helmer-actor Mathieu, who appears herein, does a lot of nice detailing along the way, such as allowing a debate to develop among the men over whether an air raid on their town is a good or bad thing, or showing how the intense moral objections of Frankfurter to his daughter’s sleeping with Mischa are put in perspective by the tenuousness of their lives.
The physical realities of the ghetto dwellers’ miserable existence are quietly but unmistakably illustrated in Luciana Arrighi’s outstanding production design on Polish and Hungarian locations, Wieslawa Starska’s intentionally forlorn costume design and Elemer Ragalyi’s nimble but unshowy lensing. Edward Shearmur’s score expertly reinforces the film’s intended tone of jocular melancholy. Claire Simpson’s editing cuts to the quick rather than indulging the obvious.
Williams is only the foremost among numerous members of this cast who could have seriously damaged the film by hamming it up or playing for shameless pathos. Happily, the director has kept them all on a pretty short leash, resulting in a fine ensemble of performances. Playing a self-deprecating man who talks to himself and knows he’s neither a hero nor a leader, Williams is lively but not antic, amusing without behaving like a comedian; it’s a solid characterization.
Arkin, as a proud actor and father brought low, and Mueller-Stahl, as a dignified old doctor-professor, underplay to strong effect, leaving it to Schreiber, as the youthful rebel, to rev up the volume.