Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

Imagery of Anger in a Troubled Mind

March 16, 2002


Imagery of Anger in a Troubled Mind


In "The Believer," winner of the grand jury prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, a young Jew helps his skinhead friends desecrate and try to destroy a synagogue. He doesn't protest when one of them urinates from the balcony, but some residual religiosity makes him urge the others to stop tossing around a Torah and put it back where they got it.

He is Danny Balint, presented as a clever Yeshiva student who has grown up to be a neo-Nazi. As played by Ryan Gosling, Danny is bursting with ideas, as well as with self-loathing and ambivalence. This willfully provocative film portrait, picked up by Showtime and playing tomorrow night, offers lots of raging, vulgarity and shock but little insight into the character's psychopathology.

Like Danny, the movie fulminates with inchoate thoughts and proceeds with more energy than coherence. Danny hates Judaism; he's protective of it. He identifies with Hitler in part because the Nazis recognized the importance of the Jews. He's frustrated because the fascists he's befriended aren't that interested in persecuting Jews. "Forget the Jewish stuff," one of the leaders tells him. "It doesn't play anymore."

No doubt the movie wowed them at Sundance because of its unnerving combination of willful sacrilege and religious desire wrapped in the bristling package of Mr. Gosling's muscular performance, delivered with the cinematographer Jim Denault's visual punch.

But "The Believer," written and directed by Henry Bean, assaults far better than it illuminates. Why is Danny so angry? His adolescent frustration with Hebrew school, shown in flashbacks, hardly seems cataclysmic. Generations of smart Jewish children have questioned God's decision to order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, as Danny does, and have dealt with unreceptive religious school teachers. Some of these disappointed students leave the faith; in real life hardly any of them shave their heads, wear swastikas and try to blow up synagogues as Danny does.

Mr. Bean and his story collaborator, Mark Jacobson, say they were inspired by a 1965 news article about a man, arrested at a Ku Klux Klan demonstration, who turned out to be Jewish. When a reporter for The New York Times confronted the K.K.K. man with his past, he threatened to kill himself if the paper revealed his background. The article was published and he carried out his threat.

Heady stuff, but the movie merely toys with questions of identity and identification with the oppressor, substituting startling imagery for psychological analysis and character revelation. It's arresting and horrifying to watch Mr. Gosling's Danny put on a prayer shawl and chant sections from a religious service as he gives a Nazi salute, combining two rituals into one. But its meaning, apart from choreography, is unclear, if it exists at all. Danny becomes romantically involved with the daughter (Summer Phoenix) of one of the fascist leaders. She, in turn, becomes obsessed with Jewish liturgy and even learns to read Hebrew. Yet like Danny, her motivation seems whimsical and inexplicable.

The movie suggests that Danny represents a feeling of Jewish impotence at being unable to fight both God (in the case of the Abraham- Isaac story) and the Nazis. But neither Danny's rage nor his eventual reconciliation is given real dimension or insight. The movie's most telling moment comes when Danny confronts Holocaust survivors about why they allowed themselves to be brutalized. One of them, an old man, responds by asking, "And what shall we learn from you, Daniel?" It's a good question, never answered.

THE BELIEVER Showtime, Sunday at 8 p.m.

Henry Bean, screenplay and director; Susan Hoffman and Christopher Roberts, producers; Jay Firestone, Adam Haight, Daniel Diamond and Eric Sandys, executive producers.

WITH: Ryan Gosling (Danny), Peter Meadows (orthodox student), Garret Dillahunt (Billings), Kris Eivers (Carleton), Joel Garland (O. L.), Billy Zane (Curtis), Theresa Russell (Lina), Summer Phoenix (Carla), Jack Drummond (Old Coot), Sig Libowitz (Rav Zingesser) and Ronald Guttman (Danny's Father).

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