Summary of the Movie "Jakob the Liar"

by Samuel Hamilton
Starring Robin Williams,

Starring Robin Williams, "Jakob the Liar" offers a difficult tale of Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

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Peter Kassovitz adapted and directed the 1999 drama "Jakob the Liar" based upon Jurek Becker's 1969 novel "Jacob the Liar" and the 1975 German film "Jakob, der Lugner," directed by Frank Beyer. The 1999 film starred Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Bob Balaban, Alan Arkin and Armin Mueller-Stahl, among others.


The film takes place in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1944. The primary action of the plot, as well as the interactions between most characters, occurs in a Jewish ghetto in central Poland. Subsettings include nearby work yards in which the male inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto are forced to work during the day, the living quarters and former cafe of the title character, other living spaces and former businesses of other ghetto inhabitants, and the Nazi headquarters that neighbor the ghetto.


The title character, Jakob Heym, is the former owner of a pancake cafe and the ex-manager of Mischa, a boxer prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Jakob shelters Lina, a young girl who escapes a Nazi transport, leaving her parents, family and friends before stumbling into Jakob as he enters the ghetto. Jakob closest friend, Kowalsky, owns and operates a barbershop, which Jakob continues to patronize throughout the Nazi occupation. Within the ghetto, other notable characters include the town doctor, a world renowned cardiologist, Professor Kirschbaum, as well as a former actor, Frankfurter. Frankfurter's daughter, Rosa, is engaged to Mischa.


While chasing a fluttering newspaper, Jakob finds himself on the streets of the ghetto close to the curfew time. He is ordered by a Nazi guard to see the Commandant, who will dole out the appropriate punishment. While waiting in the Commandant's office, Jakob hears news of the Russian's advance to a town only 400 kilometers northeast of his ghetto. When he returns to the ghetto, he inadvertently shares this information with Mischa, who in turn shares it with the ghetto, telling his friends and family that Jakob is in possession of a radio, a capital offense in the ghetto. Uplifted by the news of Russia's advance, the ghetto seeks more information from Jakob, eventually organizing into a loose group that plans to resist Nazi control. Ultimately the chatter about the radio and the resistances reaches Nazi authorities, who command Jakob to tell his fellow ghetto inhabitants that he was a liar. In final acts of defiance, Kowalsky hangs himself to avoid further persecution, Kirschbaum poisons himself to avoid treating the sickly Nazi Commandant and Jakob refuses to admit that he never had a radio and is killed by the Nazi Commandant. The Commandant then orders the ghetto's inhabitants onto a train for future mass execution. As their train travels to the death camp, however, it is liberated by Russian forces, who have been advancing steadily since Jakob first overheard the news of their advance.


While Becker's novel and Beyer's initial film adaptation received widespread acclaim, Kassovitz's contemporary remake was widely panned by both commercial audiences and professional critics. Many attribute this to the relatively contemporaneous release of Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," as well as the oddly comic accents of some of the main characters, specifically Williams's Jakob Heym. Additionally, while many audiences understood Jakob's death at the end of the film as a final act of righteous defiance, they were unable to make sense of Kirschbaum's and Kowalsky's suicides.

About the Author

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.

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