FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 41, October 1999

 


 

Marty Fairbairn

The Ethics of Representation

A Review of _Jakob the Liar_; An Interview with Peter Kassovitz

Report from the Toronto International Film Festival 1999

 


 

 

_Jakob the Liar_ (1999)

Director: Peter Kassovitz.

Screenplay: Jurek Becker (adapted from his novel), Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin.

Producers: Nick Gillott, Steven Haft, Robin Williams, Marsha Garces Williams.

Cast: Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Zoltan Barabas, Michael Jeter, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams.

 

_Jakob the Liar_ is a film about hope in the face of hopelessness, faith in the face of overwhelming evidence of doom. During World War II, in Nazi-occupied Poland, poor Jewish cafe owner Jakob (Robin Williams) accidentally overhears a radio news bulletin signalling Soviet military successes against German forces on the Eastern front, only 400 kilometres away from the miserable Jewish ghetto in which he and his whole community are held captive. After Jakob tells Mischa about the Russian front, news travels fast, setting off wild speculations as well as endangering Jakob's life. Jakob's friends assume he has a radio, and radios are strictly forbidden by the Nazi authorities. Some fear German reprisals and want Jakob to destroy the radio. One man is shot dead simply trying to tell some concentration camp-bound prisoners locked in a box-car the news about the Russian advances. 'The truth can kill', but it can also save lives. Jakob decides to keep offering people fictitious news bulletins about Allied advances against the Nazis in order to fight the widespread depression in the ghetto, as well as its accompanying suicide rate. Jakob's lies keep hope and humour alive among the people of the ghetto. However, the Germans soon learn of the mythical radio and begin a search for the 'resistance hero' who dares to operate it.

 

Director/co-screenwriter Peter Kassovitz has crafted a fairy tale set amid the chaos of desolation. Jakob is one who has, as the saying goes, greatness thrust upon him. He doesn't want the job, he just wants to be left alone; but just as he has a moral obligation to take care of the little girl he finds outside the ghetto walls, he has a similar obligation to take care of his fellow prisoners by making the best use of the fateful misunderstanding that has befallen him. Heroism, it seems, is a combination of circumstances and obligation, not a function of some special, unique character trait. What is uplifting about this is that, surrounded by the forces of dehumanization, ordinary people in the ghetto rose to extraordinary heights of humanity and bravery, refusing to *become* brutal, like their captors.

 

The film features a sensitive central performance by Robin Williams as Jakob, as well as strong supporting performances by Bob Balaban as Kowalski the barber, Liev Schreiber as Mischa the boxer, and Alan Arkin. Williams and Kassovitz show appropriate restraint, reigning in Williams's formidable comedic gifts, allowing the humour to come out of the situations instead. The Polish streets still show signs of having been a war zone some 54 years ago, the scarred buildings bearing silent witness to the horrors committed in their shadows. But this is not a romantic Hollywood film; it is not a film about rescue, pace Spielberg (_Schindler's List_, 1995), nor is it a film about victims, such as Claude Lanzmann's _Shoah_ (1983); instead, it is a film about resoluteness in the face of adversity, and how the force of circumstance can turn anyone into a hero. Comparisons with 1998's _Life is Beautiful_ are as inevitable as they are wrong-headed: inevitable because here is another uplifting 'comedy' about the Holocaust (a phrase which freezes the fingers to the keyboard); wrong-headed because this superficial descriptor is where the comparison begins and ends. Kassovitz's film shows us the horrors of life in the Jewish ghetto in all their grimness, even going so far as to shoot the film on the original locations; whereas Roberto Benigni's film avoids the more brutal aspects of the Holocaust, choosing instead to concentrate on the comic innocence of boyhood.

 

For a film ostensibly about the positive effects of certain lies, _Jakob the Liar_ has surprisingly little to say on the subject. In the end, we're not certain where (or if) the truth lies, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that human beings maintained their humanity in the face of unspeakable horrors.

 

 

An Interview with Peter Kassovitz

 

Conducted Saturday, September 18, 1999

 

Representation of the Holocaust in dramatic terms is problematic at best, at worst obscene. [1] Claude Lanzmann, producer of the venerated Holocaust documentary _Shoah_ (1985), in an essay entitled 'Holocauste, la representation impossible', went so far as to claim that representation of these events in any quasi-fictional drama is a betrayal of their fundamentally irrepresentable nature, at least from a moral point of view. [2] On the other hand, the importance of conveying the horrors of the Holocaust to a contemporary audience is generally thought to be a moral imperative. And narrative representations may turn out to be preferable to the documentary form, for, as Paul Ricoeur puts it: 'Fiction gives eyes to the horrified narrator. Eyes to see and to weep. The present state of literature on the Holocaust provides ample proof of this . . . one counts the cadavers or one tells the story of the victims'. [3] Navigating this moral minefield from the perspective of the director's chair is, among others, Peter Kassovitz, director and co-screenwriter of _Jakob the Liar_. I spoke with Mr. Kassovitz, himself a Holocaust survivor, about the ethics of representation the day following the North American premiere of his film. We started the interview by reading what Jean-Francois Lyotard says in _Heidegger et les 'juifs'_ about representing the Holocaust in images:

 

'To represent 'Auschwitz' in images . . . is a way of forgetting it. I'm not just thinking here of B movies and soap opera series and pulp novel or testimonies. I'm also thinking of those (narrative) representations which can and could best make us not forget by virtue of their exactness or severity. Even such efforts represent what should remain unpresentable in order not to be forgotten precisely as forgotten. Claude Lanzmann's film, _Shoah_, is perhaps a singular exception. Not only because he resists the use of representation in images and music, but also because he hardly offers a single testimony where the unrepresentable character of the extermination is not indicated, even momentarily, by an alteration of voice, a tightening of throat, a tear, a sob, the disparition of a witness out of frame, an upset in the tone of the narrative, some uncontrolled gesture. We thus know that the witnesses are surely lying, or 'playing the role' or hiding something, however impassive they may appear.' [4]

 

Peter Kassovitz: Well, what can you say? He's right. But you could also say, 'can you represent handicapped children?', 'can you represent a blind man?', 'can you represent starving Africans?' So, I understand someone saying this; it's right, but who owns the property? _Shoah_ is not a feature film; it's witnessing. But even witnessing is problematic. You've been there; you tell the story for the camera, but you have make-up on, you are being filmed, and you are telling the story in your own way, from your own perspective. So, then perhaps you can only have black and white photos of the real thing? I think there should be colours. I don't think that this is the only thing you can say. I don't think the Holocaust is like private property such that you can't touch it.

 

But it's true that it is physically impossible to make an exact representation of the camps . . . because you don't have a thousand people, extras, who weigh just 30 kilograms. These must remain memories.

 

But it's true that it is very touchy to make a feature film which tries to communicate with a large audience. Suddenly, Jews are talking English, . . . they look like Robin Williams, etc. You know when you see this that it's a movie. The researcher's representation can be expressed in a documentary form, rather than in a movie.

 

Marty Fairbairn: Yes, in fact Lyotard talks about misrepresentation of historical events by lying witnesses.

 

PK: Yes. Not only that, but in the case of the documentary there is also a director, a cameraman, an editor, maybe also a music supervisor. There is only maybe one film which you cannot accuse of being false and that is Alain Resnais's _Nuit et Brouillard_, which consists of document footage showing the deaths of many people. [5] He just had the real documents. It was terrible.

 

MF: I'd like to ask you about Spielberg's Holocaust film, _Schindler's List_ (1995). My own reaction, for example, was anger; anger because Spielberg's is a 'Hollywood' film, a film about 'rescue' in the midst of genocide! It seems to me that your film shows more respect for its subject.

 

PK: Yes, but it started it, don't you think? It's a start. It's a vision, an interesting vision. I think the vision he offered of the ghetto and the camps was very realistic. It was very dark, showing those who died and how they died. All this was very real. I agree with you insofar as at the end, there is some Hollywood romanticism; like: 'We are all friends; we can shake hands, and we are all brothers.' For me, this ending looked more like Russian cinema, a big, romantic vision of humanity. But that's only at the end. For me, the rest was dark.

 

And it is important for audiences to see something very strong about this period of history. For those who don't know about it, it's important for them to see it. This is the criticism which _Life is Beautiful_ is vulnerable to: he just avoids the horrific elements of life in the camps, so there could be some misunderstanding from this film, such that the viewer could think: 'Oh, well, that wasn't so terrible.'

 

MF: _Jakob the Liar_ strikes me as a story about faith in the face of desolation, faith being defined as a belief in something for which one has no evidence, a story about hope in the midst of hopelessness. This is something that people in that situation would have to face every day; how can I believe that things are going to get better in the face of all the evidence to the contrary?

 

PK: Yes, this is one thing you *can* learn from the Holocaust: you can keep your *humanity* even when the situation is desperate. Actually, there is not really hope. The hope is that you will not lose your humanity. You might go to the gas, you might be exterminated, but you will be a human being. This requires self-discipline.

 

MF: So, the challenge, aside from just staying alive, is not to succumb to the brutality and become brutal oneself?

 

PK: Yes, It's the same anywhere there is this kind of inhuman treatment -- Africa, Kosovo. Actually, the film shows some of this temptation to give hope because hope is more necessary than food. The novel was more dark in the sense that in the book he doesn't pretend that there is any hope. [6] Of course Jakob has to give hope because people in the ghetto are committing suicide and this is worse. This is why he has to go on. But Becker doesn't believe there is any hope.

 

MF: So, is it better to feel better by believing in a lie, or at least by entertaining a lie, than it is to hang onto the truth with both hands and be desolate?

 

PK: Well, the leader of the small community, 'the professor', knows that Jakob is lying but he appreciates that he is at least trying to have hope, so he says that he must go on; but others, like Kowalski, find the truth unacceptable and decide to end their suffering. So, everyone has a different relation to the truth.

 

MF: On a broader level, what do you believe is the relationship between art and culture? What is the responsibility of the artist? Is he or she a truth-teller, an entertainer, philosopher?

 

PK: I think there are a lot of different options; there is no rule. This is something that changes from time to time and from society to society. Sometimes art plays an important role in a culture, sometimes not. Besides, you can never predict exactly what effect your art is having on a culture. For instance, we have this impression that the movies are very important, but I think it's a bit overdone, by the people who are doing the movies. They think that the movies are very powerful influences, that they can change people's minds.

 

MF: They have an interest in believing that.

 

PK: Lenin said so, too! He knew that film was an important propaganda tool. Maybe in some way movies cause change, but maybe not in the way we think. Certainly young Europeans wear blue jeans because they see them in the movies, but can a film like _Jakob_ change people's minds about the Holocaust, about fascism? Frankly, I don't know. I think there are much more subtle, insidious, underground ideas circulating over the TV, the real impact of which we won't really understand for a hundred years. But nevertheless you still have a responsibility with respect to what you are doing as a film maker, even if it doesn't change anything. You still have to be careful. I like the French saying: 'You can laugh about everything, but not with everybody.' So, you have to be careful and consider who can use your work; who will use it and how?

 

We make films to earn a lot of money. But on the other hand, thanks to the money people, we can do a film about the Holocaust. Who will abuse it? You don't know. But we'd like the audience to see the film, so we meet with journalists to talk about it. But they are free to say what they want to . . . it's a dance. Some aspects are controlled by the studio, but what relationship the film will have with the culture, no one knows.

 

MF: As an artist, do you ever get discouraged by this perpetual dance?

 

PK: No, not really. I am generally more concerned with more practical questions such as: how are we going to get the film made?; are we going to be able to get the cast together?; etc. My theory is that you don't have to *try* to express your personality. Your personality will be there, if you have one. You can call this personality or talent. I like to call it talent, and it will show.

 

MF: Of course, there are levels of consistency of expression. You may have all kinds of talent but may not be able to work your way through the minefield of production.

 

PK: Yes, of course, exactly, but that is a special skill, to let your talent express itself. Of course there are a lot of people who are very talented but no one will ever know it because they don't have the special talent to carry it through to the end.

 

*

 

As the interview draws to a close, I show Mr. Kassovitz a quote from David Mamet's _Make-Believe Town_, where he talks about Spielberg's _Schindler's List_, and ask him for a reaction. Mamet writes:

 

'It is to my mind _Mandingo_ for Jews. _Mandingo_ was a slave epic made for those interested in watching well-built black men being mistreated. _Schindler's List_ is another example of emotional pornography. It is not the Holocaust we are watching. It is a movie, and the people in the film are not actually being abused, they are acting out a drama to enable the audience to exercise a portion of its ego and call that exercise 'compassion'. _Schindler's List, _Dances with Wolves_, _Gentleman's Agreement_ -- these films show a member of a dominant culture who condescends to aid those less racially fortunate than himself -- who tries to save them and fails, thereby ennobling himself and, by extension, his race. This comfortable theme is more than a sham -- it is a lie . . . The very assertion that the film is instructive is harmful. It is destructive. The audience comes to the theatre in order to, and leaves the theatre feeling they have looked down on actions that they have been assured -- this is the film's central lesson -- they would never commit. This 'lesson' is a lie. The audience is not superior to 'those bad Nazis'. Any of us has the capacity for atrocity -- just as any of us has the capacity for heroism. But the film panders to the audience. It invites them (as does any melodrama) to reward themselves for Seeing That the Villain's Bad; and, in the Liberal Fallacy, of feeling this perception is a moral accomplishment.' [7]

 

PK: Yes, it's true and yet not true. It's terribly hard, but thought-provoking. I have this feeling, too, but on the other hand I think it's great for the Jews to say: 'Yes, this guy was a fascist pig, but he *became* a human being.' There is not necessarily any contradiction. Mamet is being a little unfair I think.

 

Kassovitz would likely agree with Paul Ricoeur when he writes: 'By fusing . . . with history, fiction carries history back to their common origin in the epic. More precisely, what the epic did in the sphere of the admirable, the story of victims does in the sphere of the horrible. This almost negative epic preserves the memory of suffering, on the scale of peoples, as epic and history in its beginnings transformed the ephemeral glory of heroes into a lasting fame. In both cases, fiction is placed in the service of the unforgettable.' [8] As Hannah Arendt has said, quoting Isak Dinesen: 'All sorrows can be borne, if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.' [9]

 

Guelph, Ontario, Canada

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See, for example, Yosefa Loshitzky, ed., _Spielberg's Holocaust_, especially pp. 119-139; Jean-Francois Lyotard, _Heidegger et les 'juifs'_; Richard Kearney, _Poetics of Imagining_, pp. 251-55; David Mamet, _Make-Believe Town_, pp. 141-42; Paul Ricoeur, _Time and Narrative, Volume 3_, pp. 180-192, especially pp. 188-89. I use the word obscene in both its well known sense, that is, offensive to decency, and in its less well known sense, ill-omened or ominous. _Schindler's List_, for example, is ominous in the sense that it opens up the possibility of treating the Holocaust as grist for the melodrama mill, and hence with less than the appropriate solemnity and respect.

 

2. Kearney, _Poetics of Imagining_, p. 252.

 

3. Paul Ricoeur, 'Life in quest of narrative', pp. 22-3; as quoted in Kearney, _Poetics of Imagining_, p. 253.

 

4. Quoted in Kearney, _Poetics of Imagining_, p. 252.

 

5. Wartime footage that is inter-cut with a serene, post-war Auschwitz of the 1950s.

 

6. Jurek Becker wrote the novel, and also co-wrote the screenplay.

 

7. David Mamet, _Make-Believe Town_, pp. 141-42.

 

8. Paul Ricoeur, _Time and Narrative, Vol. 3_, pp. 188-9.

 

9. Hannah Arendt, _The Human Condition_, p. 175, as quoted in Ricoeur, _Time and Narrative, Volume 3_, pp. 320-21 n. 8.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Arendt, Hannah, _The Human Condition_ (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958).

 

Kearney, Richard, _Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Post-modern_ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

 

Loshitzky, Yosefa, ed., _Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on _Schindler's List__ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

 

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, _Heidegger et les 'juifs'_ (Paris: Galilee, 1988).

 

Mamet, David, _Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances_ (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1996).

 

Ricoeur, Paul, _Time and Narrative, Volume 3_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

--- 'Life in Quest of Narrative', in David Wood, ed., _On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation_ (London: Routledge, 1991).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Marty Fairbairn, 'The Ethics of Representation: A Review of _Jakob the Liar_; An Interview with Peter Kassovitz',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 41, October 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n41faribairn>.

 

  

 

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