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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Jakob the Liar is a 1999 movie in which Robin Williams plays a Jewish man trying to survive the Warsaw Ghetto of WW II who accidentally becomes a source of hope, courage, and resilience when he's believed to be hiding a radio and must make up good news about the near arrival of Allied troops on the verge of liberating them. There are hung bodies, beatings, shootings, torture, and psychological cruelty under the Nazi regime, as well as Jewish characters driven to suicide by hanging. There's occasional cigarette smoking, and some wine drinking. Profanity includes "s--t" and "bastard."
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What's the story?
Imprisoned within a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) overhears on a German radio the heartening news of Russian army advances. By sharing this forbidden information with a select few, he not only risks his own life, but also the life of young Lina (Hannah Taylor-Gordon), who he's secretly harboring in his attic. Rumors begin circulating that Jakob has a radio of his own. Suddenly he's treated with respect. The community clings to him for hope and for news. Because they won't believe the truth, he begins feeding his desperate companions lies about Allied advances against the Germans. Hope breeds bravery and talk of an uprising, and Jakob is elected to lead the resistance against their captors.
Is it any good?
Because director and co-writer Peter Kassovitz softens the reality of the Holocaust, the movie plays more like a Hogan's Heroes episode than the serious drama it alleges to be. But what may be less than satisfying for adults can be a good stepping stone for children taking an interest in the subject. The Nazis aren't terribly menacing, the scenes of violence and psychological torture are relatively mild, and the themes of perseverance and selflessness are strong.
Following closely after the success of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, this sentimental, watered-down tale (adapted from Jurek Becker's 1969 book) of one man's wartime attempt to spread hope fell through the cracks, despite star Robin Williams' box office magnetism. In the right movie, with his shtick and his histrionics seriously curtailed, Robin Williams can be a very capable actor. His characters in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society ably communicated both humor and emotional depth. But in JAKOB THE LIAR he delivers a Moscow on the Hudson performance, putting on an accent and a costume and asking audiences to forget his reputation for manic comedy even though scenes are filled with light humor. As a result, taking Williams seriously as a ghettoized Jew is nearly impossible.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk lying and the spreading of false hopes. Was it okay for Jakob to lie for good purposes? How can lies, even when meant to make people feel better, still harm?
There have been many movies about Jews enduring the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II. What are some other examples of Holocaust-centered movies, and how are they similar to and different from Jakob the Liar?
How does the movie show positive virtues like courage, resiliency, and humor in the face of unspeakable horror?
- In theaters: September 24, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: December 26, 2001
- Cast: Alan Arkin, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Robin Williams
- Studio: Columbia Tristar
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Courage, Perseverance
- Run time: 120 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: violene and disturbing images
- Last updated: April 23, 2020
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