Jakob the Liar (1999)

Movies based on books are often problematic. Even more so when the book is a masterpiece. Jurek Becker’s wonderful novel Jakob der Lügner aka Jakob the Liar is a masterpiece. It’s a touching and very unique account of life in a Polish ghetto. Becker was a German writer of Polish-Jewish origin. He was a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. A lot of what he has experienced went into his novel. Despite telling a fictitious story, it’s a realistic account of ghetto life, never corny, free of sentimentality. I had a feeling that adopting a novel like his to the screen would be challenging.

Jakob the Liar starring Robin Williams in the role of Jacob Heym, is the second movie based on Becker’s novel. The first, called Jacob the Liar (with a c) was an Eastern German-Czechoslovakian co-production. I have only seen the American movie.

Choosing Robin Williams as main character does pretty much indicate what type of movie we can expect. Something slightly sentimental. And, yes, Jacob the Liar is quite sentimental but so is Life is beautiful aka La vita è bella. When you try to introduce humour and hope in a movie about life in a Polish ghetto or in a concentration camp, you’re bound to be sentimental as hope and humour were most certainly absent from both places. Compared to La vita è bella, Jacob the Liar is not a bad movie at all. Compared to the novel, it’s not that good but still decent. I’m not going to bore you again with my aversion to fake accents but, yes, it’s another really bad case of fake Jewish accents. Still, as I’m fond of the story of the novel, I managed to enjoy the movie.

Jakob Heym is arrested by the Gestapo on his way home one evening. It looks as if he was out after curfew. They call him into their offices and while they decide what’s going to happen to him, he gets a chance to listen to the radio in which the advance of the Russian troops is mentioned. With some imagination one could interpret this as if the war was going to end soon.

After being released Jakob tentatively tells the one or the other person what he has heard. Soon there is a rumor in the ghetto. They say that Jakob Heym managed to hide a radio and has heard that the Russians are on their way.

Radios are forbidden in the ghetto. To have one and be caught with it would mean certain death. Jakob realizes that his lie is extremely dangerous and since he is at the same time hiding an orphaned girl, he is worried and wants the others to believe that he doesn’t have a radio after all. Unfortunately nobody wants to hear the truth. The people need to believe this lie, they need to be updated with fake news. It’s the only way to prevent that more and more people commit suicide, to help them to keep going, to keep their hope alive.

I liked this story ever since I’ve read the book. It’s touching and profound and manages to say a lot about truth and hope and the power of storytelling. The movie may not be a masterpiece but it’s very watchable.  Jacob the Liar is one of those movies that is ideal if you want to introduce children to the Holocaust. Even though it shows the horror of life in the ghetto, it’s not too gruesome and the humorous parts and the ending carry a message of hope.

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13 thoughts on “Jakob the Liar (1999)

  1. […] Jakob the Liar (1999, US) Jakob Heym pretends to have a radio in the ghetto and makes up stories about the war going to end very soon. See my review […]

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I’m not a huge Robin Williams fan–mostly because I think he’s miscast. I liked him as the creep in One Hour Photo and thought that might signal a shift in his career. He looks too well fed in this. Am I right?

    • Funny you should say that, I liked him in One Hour Photo too. Normally he does annoy me and the movie would have been better with another actor but if you want to aim for something à la “Life is Beautiful” and for the whole family and less true to the book, then he isn’t a bad but certainly a too well-fed choice. I didn’t even notice but it’s true.

  3. warmoviebuff says:

    I also am not a Williams fan and have a hard time watching him play himself in movies. For instance, Good Morning, Vietnam. I guess I should give it a try, but I am skeptical.

  4. TBM says:

    I haven’t seen this and my main reason was that it stars Williams. I just don’t see him making this role memorable. I know it is a Hollywood film, but I think they could have tried to cast it differently.

    I am happy to learn that it is based on a book. I didn’t know that. I think I would prefer to read the book and skip the movie.

  5. Novroz says:

    I have never heard of this before, compare to Life is Beautiful, which one is better in your opinion?

    I totally agree with the book movie thing, it is a difficult matter and always back to individual opinion.

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