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Julio De Grazia
A Jewish ghetto in the east of Europe, 1944. By coincidence, Jakob Heym eavesdrops on a German radio broadcast announcing the Soviet Army is making slow by steady progress towards central Europe. In order to keep his companion in misfortune, Mischa, from risking his life for a few potatoes, he tells him what he heard and announces that he is in possession of a radio - in the ghetto a crime punishable by death. It doesn't take long for word of Jakob's secret to spread - suddenly, there is new hope and something to live for - and so Jakob finds himself in the uncomforting position of having to come up with more and more stories. Written by
Because Vlastimil Brodský didn't speak German very well, he did all dialogues in his mother tongue and was dubbed over for the German release of the film. This language barrier also made the scenes of dialog between him and the other actors (especially Erwin Geschonneck) a challenge. See more »
The Holocaust has been told in many different ways. We have seen the brutality of it in documentaries on cable as well as in a number of contemporary films. The visuals of Aryan supremacy in Leni Reifenstahl's Nazi propaganda films, images of mountains of dead Jews and extremely inhumane conditions in death camps in Schindler's List, serve not merely to drive the film narrative but stir our emotions as well. These images have conditioned us to read such films and documentaries using stereotypes of both the Jews and the Nazi Jews are good and the Nazi, evil. The film Jakob the Liar explores the holocaust in a new light, presenting anti-Semitism in a relatively subtle way without compromising its substance as well as the film's power to move human emotion.
The music is monotonous suggesting the monotony of the protagonists' lives in the ghetto. Shots are limited to medium shots and lots of close-ups making one feel claustrophobic, enveloped, and asphyxiated even. This immensely adds to an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair. Close-ups also give specific information about the character, their feelings, the way they live, the things they've gone thought and their relationships with each other. The personal information provided us makes us develop a sense of closeness with the characters. Midway in the film, we already have a bond with the characters, we already know their real feelings despite the lightness, surrealistic and oftentimes humorous treatment of the scenes.
It is also quite extraordinary to depict the Nazi they way this film did considering that this is a holocaust film and one of the first East German film to tackle the subject. Unlike in other film where the Nazis are portrayed as unreasonably evil and sadistic, here we are given a glimpse of their humanity. In the introductory scene where a tower guard tells Jakob to report to Gestapo headquarters for not complying with the curfew, we saw instances where Jakob would have surely been severely punished or even killed but the officers were surprisingly reasonable and just. One officer caught him eavesdropping but lets him go, Jakob then wakes up a sleeping head officer to report his misdemeanor yet even with being irritated for being roused awake, he lets Jakob go without a scratch. The tower-guard, proved wrong, lets Jakob go as well. We also saw guards who are not necessarily the perfect Aryan depicted in Riefenstahl films. There was one guard who walks with a limp and another having the runs. There was also a scene where one guard beats up a Jew (Kowalski), then later returns and drops two sticks of cigarettes for Kowalski - an unspoken apology for having beaten up the Jew. A Nazi apologizing to a Jew in a holocaust film! Is that something or what?
But then, the film doesn't make us hate the Nazi guards or to view them as the villains in the film. Instead we are made to understand the situation and the circumstance is the real enemy here. This is not a movie pitting the Jews against their Nazi guards like the director's own "Naked among Wolves"; this is a film about a people's struggle to maintain their dignity and humanity amidst the hardships they have suffered.
The film started with glimpses of the ghetto and Jakob checking out his sick niece, all these visuals already gives us an idea of the life of the protagonist and the place he lives in. Then in a very short verbal exchange with one of the ghetto's denizen, Jakob gives us a background of his situation, that a guard took his watch from him. The guy he was talking to on the other hand warns him about the curfew to which he answers that without his watch, has no way to tell time. This sequence tells us that first, the guards can take and do take from the Jews anything they want and second, that the people are in constant fear of the guards and dare not disobey any rules lest one wants to be severely punished or killed. It also tells us that in the event that Jakob gets killed, he will be leaving his young and sick niece to care for herself.
The character's actions and mood also imply of a prevailing state of constant fear - whether that of being killed or seeing someone close to you die a meaningless death.The Jews in the film were waiting for an inevitable annihilation, a fate they have long accepted until Jakob gave them an alternate view of the future because of his news of a possible liberation by the Russians.
Through out the film, we are still constantly given pieces of Jewish life before the ghetto. Through flashbacks and what the characters say, we are presented concrete glimpses of how their lives of the films protagonists were before the ghetto. We also shown that in the ghetto, former actors, lawyers, businessmen and even people from the church lose their former identities. In the ghetto, they are made to wear the star and made to work and follow rules like everybody else, albeit their former position or affiliation. Everybody suffers, everyone is subjected to the harshness of ghetto life everyday there's no distinction in class, social status, age and/or sex. We see old people doing hard labor, children getting sick and eating mere crumbs or pieces of vegetables. We see the protagonists picking flies out of their soup and making a feast out of minced onion and a slice of bread. Frank Bayer told the story and made us feel what the characters felt using visuals and very powerful visuals at that.
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