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Jakob the Liar


Jakob the Liar

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On paper, the collision of manic/mawkish Robin Williams and a topic as solemn and delicate as the Holocaust suggests a level of tastelessness rivaled only by Jerry Lewis' infamous, never-to-be-released The Day The Clown Cried, in which Lewis (as Helmut Doork) plays a Nazi clown who leads children into the gas chamber. But the great relief—or, for camp lovers, the disappointment—of Jakob The Liar is that Williams rediscovers the dignity and restraint that's been missing from his work for the last 15 years. If anything, writer-director Peter Kassovitz's simple fable is too austere, unwilling to take the dramatic risks necessary to distinguish it from other blandly respectful treatments of the subject. In an inventive opening-credits sequence, Williams follows a single sheet of newspaper as the wind whips it through a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, past a mass hanging in the town square, until it finally settles against the fenced-in borders. Caught out past curfew, he's sent to a guardhouse for discipline and, while waiting in an office, catches news on German Armed Forces Radio that the Russian front is about 400 kilometers away. Rumors travel fast around the ghetto that Williams owns a radio, but rather than come clean, he invents falsely positive reports to raise morale and quell a rash of suicides. Though based on Jurek Becker's well-regarded novel, filmed once before for German television in 1974, Jakob The Liar will inevitably draw comparison with Life Is Beautiful for its common theme of advancing fictions as protection from the horrible truth. To his credit, Kassovitz actually questions whether Williams' lies are beneficial or placing people in even greater danger; in contrast, Roberto Benigni never considers how his creative mistranslation of the German guard's "rules" for his son in Life Is Beautiful might come to harm his fellow prisoners. Still, he could have used some of Benigni's risky and fearless (if at times reckless) panache. Kassovitz's labored, maudlin direction suffocates the film's welcome streak of mordant humor and, typical of Euro-American productions, the fine supporting cast (which includes Alan Arkin, Liev Schreiber, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Bob Balaban) all struggle with anonymous accents. Though far more thoughtful than the Good Morning, Auschwitz many might have feared, Jakob The Liar fades without adding any lasting insights on a time that's been frequently revisited to much greater effect.