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Weekly Alibi Life is Beautiful 2: Electric Boogaloo

By Heather Iger

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Well, they've done it again. Some genius has yanked out yet another feel-good Holocaust film from out of their bulging pockets. This isn't a new genre: "Hogan's Heroes" made light of prisoners of war some years ago, but still had enough of time's distancing so as not to cause a tremendous uproar among the real former prisoners who had to endure deplorable, humorless conditions. And apparently, after some 50-odd years, the off-limits tape for slapstick comedians playing Jewish victims of the Holocaust has been cut as well. This time the "silver-lining in every train bound to Auschwitz" is presented in Robin Williams' gauche production, Jakob the Liar.

The film begins with a narrative explanation of Jewish dark humor, which could also be read as an apologetic pretense for the film's ensuing treatment of the material. Robin Williams is Jakob, a Jew wandering around the ghettos of occupied Poland chasing a newspaper that the wind has absconded with. As he bumbles along, the opening credits roll down with barbed wire borders about them, all set to the tune of some whimsical klezmer music. But that's only the beginning of the nauseating playfulness that accompanies Jakob during one of the most horrific moments in human history.

During an interrogation, Jakob overhears news from the front on a German radio. He reiterates the information to his friend Mischa (Liev Schreiber), who mistakenly presumes that Jakob has a radio of his own (an offence punishable by death). Mischa rattles off the rumor to a crowded room, and it's supposed to be very funny that this bungler has jeopardized his friend's life for his own selfish reasons. Pretty soon, the whole ghetto believes Jakob has a radio, and they rally about him to hear news of the forthcoming liberation. Jakob improvises tales of approaching Russian military while incidental march music trumpets about them. This scenario provides Williams the opportunity to do a repeat performance of his Good Morning Vietnam skit.

The secondary players in the film, insulting representations of Polish Jews with bad accents, are enthralled by these stories and look to Jakob as the avatar of their hopes. Thus, Jakob's preschool dilemma unfolds; does he tell the truth and pummel the community's hopes or continue to lie and salvage their spirits at risk of endangering his own life?

Throughout the film, Mischa plays a cruel hoax upon his friends. Whenever he shows up at their apartments, he hammers on their doors yelling, "Gestapo! Open up!" This brand of sick joke works just about as effectively as the film's ludicrous handling of its subject matter. There is a form of manipulation working here, pulling at our heartstrings -- smile, be happy, everything's going to be all right.

Eventually, Jakob's whole charade comes crashing down upon him as the Nazis catch wind of his fictitious radio and decide to ransack the ghetto in search of it. At the end of the film, the inevitable happens. The viewer is given the choice of believing that the Jews are freed by the Russians or killed in the gas chambers. In other words, we are given Jakob's option of knowing the devastating, historical truth or hoping that these characters might be among the much smaller percentile of survivors.

Perhaps, this "triumph of the spirit/hope above all" message is an attempt to assuage our collective horror of the real occurrences during that era. The question is, is it really necessary or beneficial to revamp the Holocaust in such a light? Wouldn't we all be better off watching the Shoah documentary on PBS rather than comedic movie dramatizations with a presumably happy ending? What's next? Jim Carrey in The Killing Fields or, better yet, Mike Myers as an ethnic Albanian?

Some things are just better left undone.

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