When all hope was lost, he invented it.
A movie alternately panned and praised by the critics, Jakob the Liar faces inevitable comparisons to Benigni's Life is Beautiful. The comparison is a fair one, because of its content, but do not mistake it for a knock-off; as this film was a remake of a 1975 East German film and began production before Benigni's classic. The fact that both films were released closely together is an unfortunate happenstance rather than an attempt to capitalize on the other's popularity. Filming began in 1997, and the film was released two years later because Robin Williams had prior commitments to What Dreams May Come and Patch Adams. Often deeply moving, with a dark gallows type of humor not inappropriate to its setting, only a poorly chosen fantasy ending keeps this film from near-greatness. On the other hand, great would be the adjective to describe the quality of this fine disc from Columbia.
This one falls into the category of another film too many critics didn't do their homework on. Most of the negative reviews I've read about this film is that it was just another version of Life is Beautiful but not as good. That is why I gave the chronology above. In fact the book this film was derived from was written decades before the other film. And in some ways it was a personal story to Rumanian born director Peter Kassovitz, who witnessed similar incidents to some of the scenes in the film.
Jakob the Liar is about Jakob Heym (Williams), a man in a Polish ghetto during the latter days of World War II. When he is called to the Commandant's office after mistakenly being accused of violating curfew, he hears a battle report on the radio that informs him the Russian troops are fighting at Brezanica, a town less than 400km away. This news provides deep hope where hope had almost gone. Many Jews in the ghetto were committing suicide for the lack of it. Still, such news was dangerous, as listening to the radio was an offense worthy of death (not that it took much to get killed by the Nazis then). And it is clear early on that Jakob is not a brave man. He walks by beatings and hangings of his comrades with head bowed and eyes straight, not wanting to confront or even absorb the impact of this brutal environment. After leaving the Commandant's office though, he comes across a young girl named Lina (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who had escaped from the latest train to the camps. Now without parents, Heym takes her into his home.
Not wanting trouble, Jakob keeps the war news to himself, until his friend Mischa (Liev Schreiber, The Hurricane, Scream, Scream 2) is about to go on a suicidal attack against a German guard. When he tells Mischa that he has heard on the radio about the nearness of the Russian advance, his friend believes mistakenly that Jakob has a radio of his own. Jakob's denials only make him believe he does have a radio but cannot admit it outright. Mischa is not the most discreet of individuals, and soon everyone in the ghetto believes he is hiding a radio, and all are anxious for news. Jakob, at first, decides to stop talking about his "radio"—until the wise Dr. Kirschbaum (played with great skill by Armin Mueller-Stahl: The X-Files, The Game) advises him that "hunger for hope is worse than hunger for food." So he invents ongoing news. Jakob's stories, even if he makes them up, give his fellow Jews the hope to carry on. Ultimately this is what the film is about; the giving of hope in a grim situation. You see that feeling of hope spread throughout the ghetto, as people start to live rather than exist again. Even Jakob's mood is raised, as he takes on the responsibility for Lina, who shines in her scenes.
Columbia really came through on this disc as well. This is reference quality for anamorphic transfers. Though it uses a muted color palette fully in keeping with the grim setting, the colors are perfectly detailed, including fleshtones and blacks. The occasional warm colors are just as well done, without a hint of bleeding. There are no artifacts, edge enhancement problems, or shimmer to be found. The disc has the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on one side, and an open matte full frame picture on the other (open matte means no side information is lost, just extra information on the top and bottom are added). Truly a picture that shows off the capability of the format.
An equally vivid and impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack adds to the immersive presentation of this release. The discrete surround channels are used extensively throughout the film to bring you into the film rather than a mere spectator. The moving, haunting score is particularly well done, and the subwoofer is not ignored as well; sometimes the trains felt like they were chugging through my living room. Perfectly clear dialogue, a wide-open soundstage, and a dynamic range that reaches throughout the frequency spectrum are all perfectly depicted without a hint of distortion. Again, reference quality.
There is little to complain about in the extras department either. The director's commentary track is very helpful in showing the intent behind the film as well as most of the details of making it. Short pauses to let the viewer take in a scene were nothing to complain about, such as the long pauses because the director has nothing to say on some discs. An isolated music score soundtrack is also included, which gives you the opportunity to understand the emotional impact it has on the film. I could complain about the "Making Of" featurette, which is too short and doesn't really add to anything. A two-page leaflet of production notes and talent files, but surprisingly not the trailer, are also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm going to argue with myself here a bit. One complaint I had, and other reviewers had, was that the ghetto did not seem claustrophobic enough; in fact Jakob has several rooms all to himself. But looking back on it now, I believe that is easily explainable due to the lateness in the war that the film is set in, and the numerous trains that had already transported many of the inhabitants to the concentration camps. Perhaps a more closed in setting would have amplified the mood, but it is a minor quibble.
I could also argue with myself about Robin Williams' performance. It isn't really a role best suited to him, but yet I think he kept his schmaltz in check enough to keep him believable.
One thing I won't argue with is the ending. The ending works too hard to be happy for such a tale and setting during the Holocaust, and is forced to go into the fantasy brought forth by Jakob's inventive stories. It didn't work for most critics, and didn't work for me. But I would not trash this movie based on less than two minutes of it.
Disc-wise, the direct involvement of Robin Williams and other cast members in a commentary track would have been very nice, but you can't have everything. As usual the Columbia Talent files aren't quite what I would wish, but are more complete than they've been on some releases.
Certainly a subject as grim as the Holocaust doesn't make for a fun popcorn movie. Be prepared to feel and think during the film. Still, don't think too hard, rather let the movie flow over you and I don't believe you will be disappointed. For those unsure about wanting to own a film on this subject matter, give it a rental, for the rest, buy it since you will find few discs that equal the technical excellence of its picture and sound, along with a nice collection of extra content.
Columbia is congratulated for an extremely fine disc, and the cast and director of the film also get high marks, especially Liev Schreiber, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the wise doctor and professor. Nothing even close to evidence warranting further charges has been presented, so all are dismissed with the thanks of this court.
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