The History Place - Movie Review

Jakob the Liar

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.

Rated PG-13.

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