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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Defiance (2008) The Bielski Partisans

After having moaned about the accent situation in Defiance (which you can read here) it’s now time to get to the review and I must say, all in all, I didn’t think the movie was all that bad. And we have to bear in mind that it’s based on a true story, the story of the Bielski partisans or Bielski brothers.

After having found that their parents had been killed by the Nazi’s who systematically exterminated Polish Jews, the four Bieski brothers flee to Belorussia and hide in the woods. The two older brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) have both lost their wives and children as well. While hiding in the forest they are joined by a group of Jews and decide to stay together and try to survive in the forest. After a while, more people seek refuge in the woods and the Bielkis take them up. Tuvia in particular brings back people from every food searching expedition which creates huge tensions between the brothers. It is clear that Tuvia is the leader and this is another source of tension as their leading style is different.

After a few weeks or months the camp in the forest is almost a little village, there are now hundreds of people who need to be fed, who need shelter and protection as the Germans swarm these woods. On the other hand there is strength in the number as they have people with all sorts of professions among them. Nurses, carpenters, teachers. After a few more months the tension between the brothers escalates and Zus leaves the group and joins Russian partisans. This is initially ideal for the group as this means additional and armed protection.

The movie shows how they struggle. The winter is particularly hard for them, many fall ill. It’s incredibly difficult to find food for so many people and they are surrounded by enemies. They have to fight quite often and there are combat situations as well. There are also a few love stories that will lead to relationships that last a life time. We also see them execute different missions, like saving people from the ghetto before they are sent to the camps.

I found the movie interesting and fascinating because it is a true story. In the end the Bielski brothers saved at least 1500 people. That’s quite amazing. I’m quite fond of Daniel Craig and thought he was a good choice for Tuvia.

While I wouldn’t say this is a must-see movie, it’s not bad at all and when you are not familiar with the story, it’s quite interesting. In any case what these brothers achieved is amazing.

Here is a photo of the real partisans

If you want to read about them here are a few articles The Bielski Partisans and Tuvia Bielski and a wikipedia article Bielski partisans.

Hitler – The Rise of Evil (2003) Hitler´s Childhood, Youth and Early Years

The only thing necessary

for evil to flourish

is for good men

to do nothing.  (Edmund Burke)

Hitler – The Rise of Evil follows Hitler´s early years. First his childhood with an abusive father, then the pursuit of his dream to become a great artist which lack of talent prevented. His participation in WWI,  his rise through the ranks of the German Worker´s Party, his imprisonment that gave him time to write Mein Kampf. Even though this movie ends around the year 1934 with Hitler becoming Reich´s President, I think it is fair to include it on a war movie blog as it permits to see what happened prior to WWII and how the Jews were persecuted long before the war

The Scottish actor Robert Carlyle gives a stunning performance starring as Hitler. The madness of Hitler is creepy and palpable. However exactly this has been criticized. When you watch this movie you can´t help thinking all the time: how did he get away with it? He was so obviously deranged, mad and psychologically disturbed that no one should have been tempted to follow him. I think that in showing Hitler exactly like this, this movie contributes to shed another light on him. Sure, we know he was sick but still we tend to see him as a deranged dictator. I would say it is high time to look at him as some sort of head of a sect. He should be paralleled with people like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. The same psychological dynamics that are at work in people who follow cult leaders were also present in many Germans at the time.

The movie also manages to show how many people just didn´t react or looked the other way. There is only one journalist (played by Matthew Modine) who points out how dangerous Hitler is. The Rise of Evil has a close look at Hitler´s relationship with women (his niece and Eva Braun) where his full-blown madness is maybe as evident as in his hatred of the Jews. A great part of the movie focuses on the American/German couple Hanfstaengel. Their importance seems not historically accurate and it might very well be that their role had been extended for the sake of US viewers. I thought it interesting to see how Helene Hanfstaengel (Julianna Margulies) who was against Hitler at the beginning, all of a sudden changed her mind and became one of his most fervent supporters. Many women fell for him, as odd as this may seem. The role played by Ernst Röhm (Peter Stormare) is also explored with great detail as is the person of Hindenburg (Peter O’ Toole)

Nobody should compare this film to Der Untergang aka The Downfall as hardly any movie is as good as that but it is thought-provoking, interesting and, as already said, Carlyle is amazingly good.