Jakob the Liar
Reviewed by Ari Armstrong
Spoiler Alert -- This review discusses significant elements of the plot of the film.
The great modern Holocaust movies are Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful. Both these films reveal the horror of the Nazi concentration camps and the pure evil of racism and totalitarianism. Both films also celebrate heroism in the face of overwhelming despair and show how the human spirit struggles against oppression. Every person owes it to him or herself, as well as to posterity, to view these films and contemplate their meanings.
The recent Jakob the Liar has a number of redeeming qualities. The main character (Jakob, played by Robin Williams) shows compassion and bravery in taking in a young girl who has escaped back to the ghetto from a train headed to the death camps. Also moving is a scene in which a friend of Jakob performs a dance for the German guards and gets brutally beaten for his troubles, all to save Jakob from getting caught in a spot where he isn't permitted. Near the end, Jakob dies bravely defying the Nazis. Technically, the performances are fine.
But the core of the film is uninspiring, and, indeed, even morally repugnant.
Why such harsh words? As can be gleaned from the title, the film celebrates the fact that Jakob is a liar. It's not that Jakob lies to the Germans in order to save lives or prevent suffering. Nor is it that Jakob lies only to young children to get them to behave in safer ways, as in Life is Beautiful. Rather, Jakob lies to all the other adults of the ghetto, making up stories about how the Russian troops are advancing.
The alleged justification for these lies is that they give people hope and reduce suicides. However, the difference between legitimate hope grounded in facts and inspiration, and the false-hope of deceit, is immense. Jakob really has overheard some positive news about Russian troops on the radio; he could have used this information to spread hope among the community without resorting to lies. Jakob also could have inspired others to look within themselves to find a rare courage to press on and preserve what they could of the sanctity of human life. Had Jakob taken such actions, he would have been consistently heroic.
The consequence of lies and false-hope is that they lead people to act in harmful ways. This is born out in the film, such as when a young man is shot by the Germans while telling Jakob's lies to the people on a train headed for the concentration camps. In the end, Jakob's lies result in German retribution toward the whole of the ghetto. Still, the lies are portrayed by the film as noble, or at least justifiable.
Another way Jakob's lies lead to irresponsible behavior is in encouraging a resistance movement tied to the (fictitious) arrival of the Russian troops. Because the members of the ghetto plan to resist in a way incompatible with the facts, the resistance effort is undermined before it can even get underway. Jakob goes so far as to tell the group that he's awaiting some secret signal from friendly forces.
So what is the central message of the film? In praising the lies that preclude an effective resistance movement, Jakob the Liar suggests that "resistance is pointless," as a German guard puts it. Instead, pipe-dreams and lies, pretending everything will be all right, in short, escapism, is portrayed as the main way to cope with the ghastly oppression.
The most reprehensible scene of the film is when Jakob tosses away the sole pistol that has surfaced in the ghetto. This gun is brought to Jakob at the great risk of two people, one an aging actor who has hidden the gun from the Germans, and the other an idealistic young man who believes Jakob will lead the resistance. But Jakob has no such intentions. Hollywood, at its "politically correct" worst, tosses the gun aside as if its absence were irrelevant to the Nazi horror.
In fact, pre-Nazi Germany had universally disarmed its citizens, assuring that no effective resistance could be mounted against a future tyrant such as Hitler. "But tyranny could never happen in our civilized society!" It has happened, and it can happen again.
However, despite the best efforts of the anti-gun advocates in Germany, members of the Warsaw ghetto did in fact mount a resistance against Nazi troops for a period of months. The resistance group found antiquated guns and stole others from Nazis they killed. While most of the members of the resistance died fighting, at least they gave themselves a chance to cling to life and died with a lot more dignity than taking a gas shower (or, in the case of Jakob, suffering torture and then getting shot by a Nazi guard on a stage in front of one's friends).
At least two works of fiction (both novels) explore the Warsaw ghetto resistance. Leon Uris wrote Mila 18 (available at amazon.com), and John Ross wrote Unintended Consequences, in which a (fictional) survivor of the Warsaw ghetto befriends the American protagonist of the story. This later book can be purchased directly from the publisher for $33 (hardback, postage included) at Accurate Press, (800) 374 - 4049. In both moral character and esthetics, both novels are vastly superior to Jakob the Liar.
In Jakob the Liar, the false-hopes ultimately do nothing to save lives but instead only ruin the chances of any effective resistance. At least the Warsaw resistance movement recognized reality for what it was. And they chose to die fighting. At least they had the legitimate if slim hope of fending off the Nazis long enough to survive.