Movie Review of Jakob the Liar

A Holocaust Movie Starring Robin Williams

A picture of Robin Williams in the Holocaust movie, Jakob the Liar.
Robin Williams star in the movie "Jakob the Liar.". (Photo: Columbia TriStar/Getty Images)

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. You may ask, "Robin Williams in a Holocaust movie?: 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.

Although generally not well liked and not a winner of awards, Jakob the Liar brought up the question of whether it was wise or foolish to bring false hope to the trapped ghetto residents.

Based on a Novel

The movie is based on the novel Jakob the Liar, written by Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker, which was originally published as Jakob der Lügner in German in 1969. In 1990, Leila Vennewitz translated the book into English and then it was later turned into a screenplay by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin.

The Story

Alhough the movie was filmed in Piotrkow, Poland, it is set in an unnamed Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust.

The story revolves around Jakob Heym (played by Robin Williams), 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 keeps the secret, then he also risks being shot (the punishment for hiding a radio in the ghetto).

The Power of Hope

Humor is not really an aspect of the film; instead, it is a movie about the power of hope. This "power of hope" is not presented in the same way as it is in Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful.

Although Life Is Beautiful is an amazing, Academy-Award winning film, 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 being 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 are thoroughly entwined in the story.

So How Did Robin Williams Do Playing Such a Serious Role?

Despite the fact that Robin Williams is no stranger to non-comical roles (Good Will Hunting and Good Morning Vietnam), many were a bit concerned about hms being able to handle such a serious topic.

Ultimately, 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.

Worth Seeing?

Many people did not particularly like Jakob the Liar. Coming out just two short years after Life Is Beautiful and having similar themes, the two were often compared.

My opinion is that, as is often the case, the book better is better than the movie. However, the movie, directed by Holocaust survivor Peter Kassovitz, was very well done and I still recommend watching it.