In "The Survivor," his great examination of the literature of the death camps, the late Terrence Des Pres observes, "Extremity makes bad art because events are too obviously symbolic. The structure of experience is so clear and complete that it appears to be deliberately contrived."
To which Robin Williams replies: Naaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Thus "Jakob the Liar," one of a recent series of movies that have insisted upon dramatizing the undramatizable, in all its melodramatic frenzy and obvious symbolism: dogs, machine pistols, barbed wire, trains cruising through night and fog, SS-Gruppenfuehrers in black leather, huddled masses of frightened people caught between squalor and obliteration. It's not exactly entertainment.
Yet this movie has an odd staying power. It honors an act of heroic defiance that was all the more heroic and all the more defiant because it was so meaningless.
Williams, who produces and stars in this version of Jurek Becker's novel, plays a little man crushed by the immensity of history, with no weapons save his imagination, somewhat inefficient against a Panther tank.
Formerly a potato pancake merchant in a ghetto that's now a train ride away from the Final Solution, Jakob Heym shuffles about, trying not to incur the wrath of his oppressors. He's not exactly heroic. Health, warmth, food and, most of all, hope are in short supply; Jakob's only contribution to the Warsaw ghetto's survival is his humor, black though it is. The movie even opens with a joke as Jakob explains: "Hitler goes to a fortune teller who tells him he will die on a Jewish holiday. Which one? asks Hitler. The fortune teller replies, any day you die will be a Jewish holiday!"
The movie makes an immediate demand up front. Can you tolerate a Holocaust re-created by rather full-faced American actors--besides Williams, there are Michael Jeter, Liev Schrieber, Alan Arkin and Bob Balaban--swaddled in rags and speaking in thick, fake European accents? If not, then stay away. At least it was filmed in a ghetto in Poland where such atrocities originally occurred, so that if the actors can't quite live up to the tragic immensity of their task, the immense woe sunk into the brick of the buildings carries a kind of intensity that no art director could create.
And the movie turns on an interesting idea. Jakob overhears a radio announcement suggesting that the Russians are closer than anyone thought (it's October 1944). Without thinking much about it, he passes this information on to despondent friends and is suddenly the subject of rumors that he has an illegal-on-pain-of-death radio. He's also a font of hope, a blessed thing for so many who've all but abandoned it.
Meanwhile, the community is divided. The radicals believe the time has come for revolt. Others counsel passivity on the theory that help is close at hand. Only Jakob knows help isn't close at hand.
Other subplots are threaded through this dilemma--the Nazi officer in charge has a heart condition and only a Jewish doctor (played with customary brilliance by Armin Mueller-Stahl, whose accent is not phony) can save him. Will he? At what cost?
But the best thing about "Jakob the Liar" is that it's not "Patch Adams at Auschwitz." Williams, who can be so nauseatingly sanctimonious it puts your teeth on edge, plays his role with restraint and modesty, and is happy to be a part of an ensemble. He's put his ego on hold, and allows us to imagine the unimaginable.
Jakob the Liar (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 and has reenactments of the Holocaust that may be disturbing to children.
CAPTION: Robin Williams as Jakob, whose reports of impending deliverance bring hope to the Warsaw ghetto.