Jakob the Liar, a movie about the Holocaust, opened September 24, 1999 in the U.S. The movie stars Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, and Hannah Taylor-Gordon. Robin Williams in a Holocaust movie? - you may ask. With Williams playing Jakob, one would assume this movie is a comedy or at least riddled with humor. Although Jakob the Liar opens with a joke from the Holocaust, this movie is far from humorous.
The movie is based on the novel Jakob the Liar, written by Jurek Becker who is a Holocaust survivor. Though the movie was filmed in Piotrkow, Poland, it is set in an unnamed Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. The story revolves around Jakob Heym, a latke vendor before the war, who stumbles upon some good news about the Eastern front. In a somewhat comical way, the news spreads around the ghetto and the source is attributed to a radio hidden by Jakob.
Jakob then must struggle with whether it is better to continue to bring hope to the ghetto residents or to dash their hopes by revealing the truth - that there really is no radio. If Jakob kept the secret, then he also risked being shot (the punishment for hiding a radio in the ghetto).
Humor is not really an aspect of the film; instead, it is a movie about the power of hope. But, before I go on, I want to make it clear that the "power of hope" is not presented in the same way as it is in Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Although I really liked Life Is Beautiful, it was presented as a fable while Jakob the Liar is presented more realistically.
Of course, even though there are many unrealistic visual representations of the ghetto, most obviously was the lack of severe overcrowding, the film does present the bleak and brutal aspects of life in a ghetto. There is even a scene in which ghetto residents are shown eating a horse that had died on the street. The constant threat of hunger, Nazis, and suicide is thoroughly entwined in the story.
So how did Robin Williams do playing such a serious role? I wasa little worried about Williams being cast in this role, despite the fact that he is no stranger to non-comical roles (Good Will Hunting and Good Morning Vietnam). But after watching the movie, I realized that I need not have worried. Williams did an excellent job playing Jakob. To prepare for the role, Williams read such books as the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto and watched Claude Lanzmann's famous (though also controversial) documentary Shoah.
My opinion is that, as is often the case, the book better is better than the movie. However, the movie was very well done and I recommend it for all.