The story of the Holocaust has been told from many
different angles, but the approach that East German
director Frank Beyer took in his 1974 film Jacob
the Liar (spelled Jakob the Liar in the film's credits) must have seemed especially brave. At
times this tale (which won the best foreign language
Oscar) of a simple Jewish ghetto resident who
innocently fabricates a story about having an illegal
radio on which he hears tales of the approaching
Russian army uses different types of comedy: Sweet
humor, sardonic wit, black humor, and straight
deadpan. A few films have approached this subject
matter with humor since, but Beyer's original doesn't
go for the overt sentimentality of Roberto Benini's
emotional Life is Beautiful or the maudlin
obviousness of the Robin Williams remake Jakob
the Liar. Instead, Beyer's film is dry and mostly
unsentimental. It approaches its material, even the
comedy bits, with a sobriety and a shuffle that
underlies the hopelessness of the situation.
What makes the mundane, lifeless existence of the Jews
under Nazi control even more clear is Beyer's
sprinkling of the film with bits of fantasy and
remembrance of times past. These sequences employ a
beautiful color saturation that the bulk of the film
replaces with sepia toned drabness. These stylistic
touches are rare enough that they don't give the
impression that the film is trying to skirt the
life-and-death issues at hand, but they do open the
look of the film up enough that there is no question
of whether or not these prisoners know what they're
Part of what makes the film so powerful is the way the cast consistently underact. Vlastimil Brodsky is exceptional as Jacob. His sleepy-eyed, weather beaten face betrays the hardness that life under these conditions has given him. In flashbacks to his former life, however, Brodsky transforms to a different person, not just in wardrobe and make-up but in the way his entire physical presence appears. He straightens up and beams. Similarly, his friend Kowalski (Erwin Geschonneck) is seen to be falling apart in his current condition. Jacob's lies give Kowalski hope, however, and his demeanor changes noticeably. When the truth is revealed later on the transformation becomes visible. He practically shrinks at the news. Manuela Simon plays Lina, a small parentless child who lives alternately with different residents of Jacob's building. Her sweetness and innocence are so strikingly at odds with where she lives that just simple acts like her listening to a story about a princess are heartbreaking.
(One note: Noted character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl is given top billing on the packaging, but his role is minimal.)
When dealing with such an impossibly huge subject it's easy to get caught up in morals and lessons. By approaching the material from such a seemingly small, personal viewpoint Beyer was able to really drive at the tragedy of the Holocaust. Through the sudden, sickeningly sad ending, Jacob the Liar is one of the subtlest, most effective films ever made on this subject.
The full frame picture reflects the drabness of the
original look, although the image looks to be a little
worn and faded beyond Beyer's intent. There is a bit
of damage, including one incident of missing frames at
a particular inopportune moment (during a pratfall).
Still, considering that the film has probably not been
well preserved it looks acceptable.
The German stereo audio track is fine, if modest.
Voices are clear and the spare score sounds fine.
There are subtitles in English, Spanish, French, and
Buried in the director's bio is a feature simply
called "interview" which is actually an hour long
interview with the director that includes a very
generous portion of clips from his nearly half century
career. Many of the films look fascinating, including
the black and white films like Star-Crossed
Lovers and they show the director returning to
certain themes again and again: War, fascism, lack of
freedom. Beyer is articulate and intelligent and
illuminates his complex career well. The piece is in
German with English subtitles.
There is also a 12 minute montage of clips from other
films produced by East Germany's DEFA studio. Edited
in such topics are Anti-Fascist and Post-War, this
segment gives a good impression of a film company with
a mission to produce enlightening and challenging
work. Hopefully more of these films will find their
way onto DVD.
Jacob the Liar is a beautiful, simple film that
doesn't attempt to tell more of a story than it can
handle in its short running time. Instead, it sketches
out a few interesting characters trapped in a life
that is both deadly and mundane and, through their
very human emotions, makes a statement about how all
people need even the slightest glimmer of hope to