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Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Jakob the Liar

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 1999 at 12:00 AM

The dream within a dream seems not only possible but necessary at certain junctures in life. It is from such a place that Hungarian-born director Peter Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar originates.

One ordinary man, Jakob Heym (Robin Williams, also the movie’s executive producer), offers an account – based on the book by Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker – of deception, desperation and hope set against the gray-scale backdrop of a Jewish ghetto in Nazi Germany during World War II. This version – of a story that was made into a German film in 1974 – possesses the whimsy of a fairy tale and the spiritual triumph of survivor Victor Frankl’s memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. A piece of newspaper soaring birdlike over barbed wire into the walled-off ghetto signals a possible flight of fantasy. Close, but it is not to be; Jakob doesn’t catch it.

But he does stumble on enough news from the outside world – from a radio in a Nazi officer’s quarters – to convince the other Jews in the ghetto that he is listening daily to his own radio. From then on, Jakob invents reports on the movements of the Russian armed forces. He claims they are advancing each day toward victory over the Germans. He might not be much of a liar, but he’s convincing enough to lift the weakened spirits and crushed hopes of his fellow Jews, reducing the number of suicides in the ghetto considerably. That’s a feat even Dr. Kirschbaum (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Jewish cardiologist, admires when rampant illness and death have exhausted his conventional medicines and energies.

At times the feel-good moments fueled by Jakob’s tireless sense of humor (he starts the movie with a Hitler joke) are inadequate to counterbalance the death and brutality of life in the ghetto. Not to say that carrying the heavy weight of both truth and the burden of lying to keep people alive is an easy task. But too often Jakob’s inspiring optimism seems less like a hero’s story and more like a collective hallucination that carries the spiritually exhausted to more peaceful places when reality becomes too dismal for even the strongest to bear.

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