JAKOB THE LIAR
Directed and adapted for the screen by Hungarian-born Peter
Kassovitz, from the novel by Jurek Becker, Jakob The Liar
is similar in tone to Roberto Benigni's Life
Is Beautiful. It tells the story of a group of Polish
Jews in 1944, living in the Nazi-controlled ghetto, working, starving,
and awaiting transport to the death camps. But like Benigni's
work, Jakob infuses the horror with just a touch of humor
a dangerous practice, but one that generally pays off in
Jakob is a former restauranteur who can't remember the last
time he made one of his famous potato pancakes, but still tries
to maintain his sense of humor. When he is caught out after curfew
one night, he is sent to the commandant's quarters for punishment.
There he hears on the radio that the Russians have crossed the
Polish border. When he returns to the ghetto, he tells his friends
the good news. Word spreads that he has a radio, and he becomes
a celebrity overnight. At first, he denies it (after all, the
possession of a radio by a Jew is a crime punishable by execution),
but when he discovers that good news lifts the spirits of the
whole community, he decides to continue telling them what they
want to hear.
This film is nicely executed by Kassovitz; shot on location
in Poland and Hungary, it portrays vividly the squalid oppression
under which the Eastern European Jews lived during World War II.
It is helped immeasurably by a superbly talented supporting cast,
including Bob Balaban (2010), Liev Schreiber, Adam Arkin,
and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who, incidentally, also appeared in the
1974 East German version. Also on hand is Hannah Taylor-Gordon
as Lina, a young girl who escapes the cattle cars and is taken
in by Jakob.
Though the similarity between Jakob and Life Is Beautiful
cannot be ignored, there are enough differences to contradict
the notion that it is simply a copy of Benigni's film. It is interesting
to note that Jakob was apparently shot in 1997, the same
time as the Italian film; perhaps the producers (of which Williams
is one) decided to hold this film back to avoid undue comparison.
With Jakob The Liar, Williams makes a few more steps toward proving that he can act with the big boys, and like Benigni, Kassovitz shows that the holocaust tragedy can be sprinkled with humor and still taken seriously, if the mix is right. ****
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