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"JAKOB THE LIAR"
(1999) (Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Despite the possible punishment of death, a resident of a Nazi-occupied, Polish ghetto relays fictitious radio accounts of Allied advances against the Germans to maintain the morale of his neighbors.
PLOT:
In a Nazi-occupied Polish ghetto during WWII, Jakob Heym (ROBIN WILLIAMS) is a former café owner who now spends his time working at the railway yard to earn meager food rations when not getting daily shaves from his friend, Kowalsky (BOB BALABAN). One night after finding himself sent to the police commandant's office for being out after curfew, however, Jakob's life changes when he accidentally overhears a radio broadcast detailing the latest Soviet advances against German forces.

The following day, Jakob discovers that his ex-boxer friend, Mischa (LIEV SCHREIBER), is tearing a hole in a freight car, a risky endeavor. To save his friend, Jakob informs him that the Russian forces aren't far away, and then lies that he knows this since he has a radio.

Although Mischa promises not to let anyone know, he immediately goes to tell his girlfriend, Rosa (NINA SIEMASZKO), but ends up spilling the beans to everyone in her home, including her father and former actor, Max Frankfurter (ALAN ARKIN). He immediately destroys his hidden radio for fear of retribution once the Nazis hear about Jakob.

Even so, word quickly spreads about Jakob's nonexistent radio, a fact he tries to deny. Yet, once he notices that the ghetto inhabitants' morale is suddenly much higher and hears from Dr. Kirschbaum (ARMIN MUELLER-STAHL) that the suicide rate is down, Jakob begins relaying false radio reports about the Allied advances against the Germans.

As Jakob continues this fake reports and broadcasts, he must contend with the fact that having a radio -- fictitious or not -- and organizing resistance movements not only puts his life in danger, but also does the same for everyone else, including that of a ten-year-old girl, Lina Kronstein (HANNAH TAYLOR GORDON), who's been hiding in Jakob's home since escaping the train taking her family to a concentration camp.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Back in school a popular teaching exercise for both teachers and students alike was the gossip circle. That's where the teacher would tell a brief story to the first student in a circle who would then repeat it to the second, who in turn would pass it on to the third and so on. Not surprisingly, by the time the story made it through the circle and back to the teacher, it was decidedly different from when it began.

That's because each student, whether consciously or not, changed or forgot certain facts, or otherwise put their own unique spin on the details. The goal, of course, was to show the negative aspects of secondhand gossip. It also showed, however, that people often tend to hear what they want to hear and not necessarily what was actually said.

Sometimes that's a good thing as evident in "Jakob the Liar," where even the score of a soccer game is wildly misinterpreted as military code that can only mean good news. The second film in as many years to take a lighter look at the Holocaust as compared to the more grim pictures such as "Schindler's List," this is a tale of fabricated hope and the effect -- both good and bad -- of white lies, and fortunately isn't exactly what the previews suggest.

That's because they, the TV commercials and most notably, the presence of Robin Williams may make many think that this should be called "Good Morning, Poland -- Ain't Life Beautiful?" In reality, the film doesn't really come close -- beyond the setting and overall theme of better morale through deception -- to last year's beloved Roberto Benigni picture or Williams' earlier Vietnam-set film where he played a radio deejay who similarly boosted war-time spirits.

While the film does open in a lighthearted fashion and even has Williams' character commenting on how humor got the ghetto inhabitants through their daily drudgery and horrors, it's clearly not a comedy. More akin to a tragedy laced with tinges of humor, the film focuses more on a group of people surviving through optimism rather than laughs. That's not to say that the film is lacking laughter -- there are some mildly funny moments -- but they're scarce and definitely come in the extra dry variety.

Yes, this is the dramatic, "touchy-feely" side of Robin Williams ("Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come"), and those looking for his over-the-top, zany theatrics and antics will likely be disappointed. That said, and either knowing that in advance or hopefully figuring it out as soon as possible into the film, audiences will find a well-acted and deftly written and directed little film.

Although it deals with hope and optimism and has some lighter moments, however, this isn't the feel- good movie some might be expecting, as the more "entertaining" moments clearly don't obscure the horrors found in this Holocaust set plot.

Based on Jurek Becker's novel of the same name (which was previously adapted as the 1974 German film, "Jakob Der Lugner"), and as directed by Peter Kassovitz ("Room For Tomorrow," "Droles d'Oiseaux") who himself spent his youth in a Polish ghetto and later in concentration camps, the film doesn't pull any punches and sugarcoat events like "Life is Beautiful" did to some extent. Thus, the limited humor that does arise feels more natural for the situation. While the one bit where Williams improvises a radio broadcast for the young girl living with him with just his vocal talent feels just a tad too fabricated, that's the only point -- thankfully and appropriately -- where Williams partially lets loose with his rapid fire schtick.

It's also nice that Kassovitz and co-screenwriter Didier Decoin ("Monte Cristo") avoid what many probably expect and imagine they're seeing coming from miles away. That's the relationship between Williams' character and that of the ten-year-old girl, ably played by Hannah Taylor Gordon ("Four Wedding and a Funeral"), who's staying with him.

Upon hearing that Jakob's wife is dead and that they never had children, one begins to cringe when the girl moves in with him. That's because we all imagine that she'll become the child he never had and he'll get all misty-eyed over her due to his newfound paternal urges. Thankfully and realistically for the situation, that never occurs.

Beyond what's delivered by Williams and Gordon, the remaining performances -- save for most of those representing the Germans -- are strong across the board. As the young man with an insatiable appetite for good news, Liev Schreiber ("A Walk on the Moon," "Sphere") is completely believable, while Oscar nominated actors Alan Arkin ("Gattaca," "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming") and Armin Mueller-Stahl ("Shine," "The Thirteenth Floor") deliver solid performances as the cautious father who wants to quell any rumors and the doctor who knows there's no radio or much of any great possibility of getting out of their predicament.

While ultimately not necessarily a happy film when it appears that's what the filmmaker's intended, this is a well-crafted and ably performed little picture about how hope magnifies the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long that tunnel or how dim that light may be. Although it doesn't seem likely that this film will receive the recognition that "Life is Beautiful" did, and will obviously be compared to that Oscar nominated picture, it's different and good enough that it can and should be judged on its own. That said, we give "Jakob the Liar" a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 16, 1999 / Posted September 24, 1999


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