Jakob the Liar

Directed by Peter Kassovitz
Starring: Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alan Arkin, Hannah Taylor-Gordon.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.

Review by Matt Heffernan
September 25, 1999

Many people who have heard of this film may think that it's a rip-off of Roberto Benigni's La vita bella (Life is Beautiful). Actually, this is based on a novel by Jurek Becker that was filmed before in 1974 by Frank Beyer. The timing of this remake was just done poorly.

Robin Williams plays Jakob Heym, a man whose town in Poland has become a Jewish ghetto run by the Germans in World War II. When the Gestapo catch him on the streets at night, he is sent to the commandant's office. There he hears on the radio that Soviet troops are 400 kilometers away. When he returns to the ghetto, he tells his friend, Mischa (Liev Schrieber), the good news, so that he doesn't try to kill a German officer. Mischa assumes that Jakob has a radio himself, and tells his girlfriend's family to convince them to let him marry her.

The news spreads quickly, and Jakob becomes a hero in the ghetto. To keep up the morale, Jakob makes up more stories. Jakob is also secretly taking care of a girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) that escaped from a train bound for a concentration camp. He must keep both of these secrets in order to keep his fragile community together.

Director Peter Kassovitz wanted to make Jakob the Liar a touching and heart-tugging film about the Holocaust. What he really makes is more like a feature-length episode of Hogan's Heroes. Each foot of the film is sappy and predictable. Then, he has Williams inject little jokes here and there, but they don't work in this context. Occupied Poland is just not a good setting for a farce.

Why does Williams insist on making films like this? He is such a brilliant comedian, but now everything he does has to have a "message". He doesn't need to prove his abilities as a serious actor anymore. Luckily, there is a noteworthy cast here, including Alan Arkin and Armin Mueller-Stahl. This film just wasn't a good idea. It couldn't be saved by having a good cast.

Benigni's film, even though it certainly wasn't great, as least did a better job dealing with a similar theme. It would be best if all the filmmakers just decided right now to stop making comedies about the Holocaust. Jerry Lewis learned that lesson the hard way.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Jakob the Liar (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Jakob the Liar (1999) -- VHS
Jakob the Liar (1999) -- DVD
Jacob the Liar, a novel by Jurek Becker -- Hardcover
Jacob the Liar, a novel by Jurek Becker -- Paperback

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan