Wow. Jakob the Liar. Where to begin with this movie? I mean, it’s pretty under the radar as far as WWII movies about Jews in the ghetto go. I hate to say it, but that whole concept is frankly getting a little boring. Add in some generic scores from multiple review sites, and this movie seems doomed to be forgotten. I think that kind of fits what this movie was going for in the first place, though.
Jakob the Liar tells the story of (wait for it…) Jakob Hyem. The movie begins with Jakob (played by Robin Williams in one of his surprisingly many serious roles) narrating a joke to the audience.
“Hitler goes to a fortune-teller and asks, ‘When will I die?’ And the fortune-teller replies, ‘On a Jewish holiday.’ Hitler then asks, ‘How do you know that?’ And she replies, ‘Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.’”
We then find Jakob trying to grasp for a page from a newspaper that has blown over a wall enclosing a Jewish ghetto. The page flies this way and that while Jakob runs around trying to get this stupid piece of paper. It’s almost funny in an absurd “This shouldn’t be funny” kind of way. But this is more than just a stupid piece of paper. This is news, which is forbidden in all Nazi-occupied Jewish ghettos.
This basically sets up the entire tone of the movie. It’s a film about finding hope through humor in a pretty terrible situation. This isn’t a new concept, but it knows that from beginning to end (ESPECIALLY at the end, but I’ll get to that later).
Anyway, fast-forward a bit, and Jakob finds himself awaiting punishment for a pretty harmless crime in the office of a German soldier. While he awaits the officer’s actual arrival, he manages to overhear a radio telling of Russia’s arrival into Germany. Hearing this or anything from a radio is also very much forbidden to the Jews.
So Jakob goes on with his life until he one day stops one of his fellow workers from doing something drastic by telling him of the news he heard on the radio. The worker, taking this out of context, assumes Jakob has a secret forbidden radio in his home. Despite Jakob’s explanations denouncing this idea, the man simply assumes this is all a front so as not to get in trouble with the Gestapo. The news of Jakob’s radio, of course, spreads quickly throughout the entire ghetto. Suddenly, Jakob has many new friends. He continues to deny owning a radio out of fear for his life but quickly realizes the actual hope it brings to these people. So, he inevitably continues the lie by making up new stories on a regular basis of the Russian front which his coworkers eat up like candy.
Let me just say this about his coworkers. I don’t know why, but I absolutely fell in love with these people. Maybe it was the surprisingly stellar performances from a movie that I thought would just be mediocre. Maybe it was the Mountain Dew I just happened to chug right as I started watching this. Either way, this was one of those movies that makes you go, “Oh hey! It’s THAT guy! Hold on. Pause the movie for a sec. I gotta go look up who these guys are and what else they’ve been in, or I won’t be able to focus.” So in this cavalcade, we’ve got Liev “Sabretooth from X-Men” Schreiber, Mark “Tio from television’s Breaking Bad” Margolis, Bob “Captain Orr from Catch-22” Balaban, Michael “Mr. Noodle from Sesame Street” Jeter, and the always amazing Alan “Too Many Characters to List” Arkin. This was, hands down, one of my favorite casts to follow throughout a film. Each actor took their character’s unique traits in stride, making for some great back-and-forth dialogue. You can tell they each truly enjoyed their characters, leading to, dare I say it, some of the best performances in all of their careers.
“But Peter, why should I care about pretty good acting in a movie about the Holocaust when I can just go watch Schindler’s List?” Well, eager reader, I’m actually glad you brought that film up. Here, have a cookie. Honestly, I don’t think this movie wants to be associated with Schindler’s List or any of that film’s wannabes. For instance, this film has Robin Williams as its titular character. That right there should show you how much this movie wants to be associated as something different. This was a film that dared to say, “Hey. Let’s tone down the over-the-top empathy for once, shall we?” I think this is both where the film excelled and doomed itself.
You see, normally movies like this end with a big tear-worthy speech from the hero. Instead…well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but here are Robin William’s words basically spelling out the reality of trying to live each day as a Jew during the Holocaust:
“So that's how it ended. I never got a chance to be the big hero and make my big speech. I swear, I had a speech all prepared about freedom and never giving in. But somehow... Yes, that's how it ended. They all went off to the camps and were never seen again. But maybe it wasn't like that at all.”
Like I said, I don’t really want to give anymore of the movie away. As I’ve pointed out, this has a pretty unique plot with some great dialogue. All in all, I think this is one of those films for those who have already seen those Schindler’s List films and can’t really feel as emotional about them anymore. That’s not to say you shouldn’t. This is just something with a perspective that’s a little…different than what we’re used to. Their lives are utter crap, but they can at least deal with it for now. They’re not in the worst situation they could possibly be in. In a way, it all sort of reminded me of the film Waltz With Bashir. Like Bashir’s Ari Folman, Jakob is more of an observer than an actual hero per se. He wants and tries to be a hero, but he has a certain sense of reality I absolutely fell in love with that Robin Williams truly brings to life. In fact, I think I’m going to have to say this was Robin Williams best serious acting role. It definitely was my favorite.
If for some reason none of this has caught your fancy, at least watch Jakob the Liar for what I believe to be one of the most memorable monologues I’ve heard in a long time. We find Jakob alone in front of his pancake shop contemplating the mess he’s just gotten himself into with the radio. Solemnly, he takes a seat and stares at the ground before beginning to talk aloud to no one in particular.
“Yeah, it is crazy. I know. But when I started to make up those things...I almost believed them. I know. The point is, what am I going to invent tomorrow? In my whole life, my greatest invention was an apricot pancake. A latke. My crowning achievement: Latkes and lies.”