Volume 93, Issue 17
Tuesday, September 28, 1999
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Liar neither good or Beautiful
Photo by Egon Endrenyi
GOOOOOD MOOORRRRNNNIING... WARSAW? Robin Williams plays the title role in Jakob The Liar, a new World War II drama set in a Nazi-occupied Polish ghetto.
By Michael Murphy
Robin Williams' latest vehicle is a World War II film about Jewish people who are imprisoned and brutally persecuted by Nazis, but keep their morale high by maintaining a collective sense of humour.
All of which leaves a strong sense of deja vu and begs a question is Jakob the Liar a recycled version of another recent film with three words in its title and a crazy, zany comedian in its lead role? After all, Roberto Benigni may love everybody, but nobody loves having their creative property ripped off.
While the superficial similarities are obvious, Jakob the Liar is a film which at least deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Its tone and thematic emphasis are easily distinguishable from those of Life is Beautiful but more on that in a moment.
Williams plays Jakob Heym, a Polish/Jewish person who once happily managed a pancake cafe but must now endure depression and perpetual deprivation within the concrete and barbed wire confines of a Nazi-run ghetto. A misleading rumour circulates through the ghetto, leading nearly everyone to believe Jakob has a forbidden radio and thus has access to news of Russian advances on the eastern front.
Rather than dashing the hopes of his fellow Jews by admitting there is no radio, he goes along with the charade and invents stories of Russian military successes to comfort his people with the prospect of imminent liberation.
Instead of going over the top, Williams opts for an uncharacteristic comic restraint and develops Jakob as more of a comic philosopher than a clown which relates back to tone and thematic emphasis.
In Life is Beautiful, Benigni's hilarious antics turn the German concentration camp into a kind of amusement park in the minds of the audience. What is supposed to be a death camp looks somewhat fantastical on screen. Jewish labourers are lugging cartoonish anvils around and the German guards behave like exaggerated caricatures to heighten the comic effect.
Watching Jakob, on the other hand, one is not allowed to forget the characters are trapped in a bleak, depressing Polish ghetto. Jakob walks in on his friend Kowalski as he prepares to hang himself. When exploring the ghetto, Jakob passes a scaffold from which four murdered Jews dangle on nooses. A German rifleman coldly guns down a Jew from high atop a watchtower. These and other episodes make Jakob the Liar a bleak, harrowing film experience.
In short, this can be a very hard, even painful, film to watch. Whereas Life is Beautiful concentrated on the notion that laughter is the best medicine for misfortune, Jakob the Liar is more concerned with exploring humankind's incredible capacity for hope.
This film tries to celebrate the fact that hope, even in the direst of circumstances, is indomitable. The problem is, in seeking to elicit pathos for its beleaguered characters, it often works too well and turns pathetic instead. The narrative is too episodic, usually just hopscotching randomly from one event to the next.
To it's credit, Jakob The Liar is not a warmed-over retelling of Life Is Beautiful unfortunately, it's not a great film either.
Copyright © The Gazette 1999