Netflix Update No. 27: “Jakob the Liar”

January 27, 2010

ROBIN WILLIAMS

We watched “Jakob the Liar,” a 1999 film starring its executive producer, Robin Williams.

In this story based on Jurek Becker’s novel, Williams plays the title role, a man confined to a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. Jakob is summoned to the commandancy of the ghetto for being in the street after curfew, and while he is in an SS officer’s quarters, he hears a radio news report to the effect that the Red Army is advancing in the vicinity of the ghetto.

Alan Arkin and Liev Schreiber

When Jakob gives this information to his fellow inmate, Mischa (Liev Schreiber), Mischa draws the conclusion that Jakob himself has a radio — an offense punishable by death in the ghetto. Mischa shares his suspicion with others and soon the story is all over the ghetto, and nothing Jakob can say will put it to rest. The inmates beg him for more promising news, and he finally decides to lift their spirits by making up more “news” about the impending end of the war.

HANNAH GORDON

Jakob’s position becomes increasingly precarious, and it isn’t helped any by the fact that he is sheltering a young girl (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who avoided boarding the transport that carried her parents to a death camp.

Given the fact that this movie features Williams in a dramatic role, includes fine actors such as Bob Balaban and Alan Arkin, and deals with this particular historical epoch, we expected to like it. We found, however, that the sum of the parts leaves the whole lacking.

The film is tedious and in some particulars implausible — for example, a scene in which Jakob defies and even intimidates an SS officer who, under real circumstances, would have shot him on the spot. And while Roberto Benigni proved that humor could be mixed into a serious Holocaust story, this film doesn’t strike the delicate balance between the two that the Italian movie achieved.

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