By Fred Harvey
The History Place
This is a pointless drama utilizing the Holocaust
era as a vehicle to allow Mr. Robin Williams to give a supposed Oscar caliber
performance (if you believe the current advertising campaign).
Just about everything in this movie, including
life in Nazi-occupied Poland, mindless brutality of the SS, and people
crammed into boxcars headed for gassing, has been seen before and better
dramatized in such films as Schindler's List.
Jakob the Liar, directed by Peter Kassovitz
and executive produced by Robin Williams takes place in 1944 inside a Jewish
ghetto in Poland. The film focuses on the lives of a small group of Jewish
men barely surviving as forced laborers. They are the only people remaining
in the ghetto which has long been cleared of their families.
Jakob, a former cafe owner, now reduced to scrounging
for his daily existence, is played by Robin Williams. The problem here
is that I think we're all so accustomed to seeing this brilliant comedian
on late night TV talk shows spontaneously jumping up and launching into
one of his hilarious send-ups of Borscht Belt performers from days gone
by, complete with exaggerated Yiddish accent and a few borrowed punch lines.
As Jakob, Williams' performance varies from borderline talk show shtick
to sappy melodrama. That's also true for a bunch of the other actors all
working too hard at this.
The film begins interestingly enough as Jakob
tries to catch a piece of a newspaper blowing around in the wind and suddenly
finds himself standing in the spotlight of an SS sentry. Jakob is then
sent to the SS commandant's office which is temporarily vacant. While waiting
for commandant (and for his punishment) Jakob listens to the table top
radio and hears a Nazi broadcast revealing that German and Soviet troops
are already fighting in Poland, not that far from the ghetto.
The commandant spares Jakob and sends him back
into the ghetto. While making his way home, Jakob encounters a young Anne
Frank lookalike named Rosa played by Nina Siemaszko. Jakob, himself a widower,
reluctantly takes in the stray ten-year-old girl, whose family has just
been shipped off to be gassed.
The next day, upon encountering a suicidal acquaintance,
Jakob breaks the big news concerning the Russian advance. Thus begins Jakob's
career as the bearer of good news. And the news of course spreads like
wildfire among the hope-starved ghetto residents, a community that has
had no news for years and is utterly despondent.
So that's the big setup for this film. But from
here on, the film is a letdown. For one thing, Jakob's emotional relationship
with the young girl is never really developed beyond his feeding her, nursing
her back from illness, and pretending to be the BBC radio to amuse her.
And I was quite disappointed that Williams only does this fake radio scene
once in the move. I hoped he would continue making up BBC broadcasts.
What we get instead is a huge amount of dull dialogue
exchanged between Jakob and the ghetto inhabitants over exactly how Jakob
heard the news about the Russian advance, and whether in fact he actually
has a hidden radio, a crime punishable by death. At the same time, they
continually prod Jakob for more good news and he obliges them by reporting
made-up bulletins about German army defeats and America's entry into the
war. The problem with this overly chatty portion of the film is that it's
just not that interesting and runs much too long. I found myself wondering,
what's the point?
The film jump starts itself toward the end as
Jakob predictably winds up in the clutches of the dreaded Gestapo. But
here the film reaches a dramatic low with a ludicrous exchange of dialogue
between Jakob and the SS commandant and an anti-climactic ending in which
we hear voice-over from Jakob telling us what is about to happen before
we actually see it on the screen. I have strong dislike for voice-over
and this film only reinforces my feelings. (Attention directors, don't
tell us - show us.)
I came away from this tedious film seriously pondering
the idea that it might be a good time for a self-imposed Hollywood moratorium
on Holocaust themed dramatic films. The attempted extermination of an entire
race of people by the Nazis was the worst crime in the history of humanity.
Bad dramas like Jakob the Liar only serve to undermine the magnitude
of this crime and denigrate the memory of those who perished so tragically.