Friday, August 3, 2012

"The Believer" 2001


The 2001 film "The Believer" is worth seeing for Ryan Gosling's riveting performance as Daniel Balint, a violent, mentally disturbed American, Jewish, neo-Nazi. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not anywhere as good as Gosling's central performance. Gosling is onscreen throughout most of the film, though. I rarely watch movies at home in one sitting and I sat through this entire film, almost afraid to look away, Gosling was so intimidating and fascinating.

"The Believer" was inspired by Daniel Burros, (1937-1965) a Jewish man who became Grand Dragon of the NY Ku Klux Klan. After the New York Times revealed Burros' ancestry, he killed himself.

"The Believer" opens with Balint menacing a wimpy Jewish student on the New York City subway. The Jewish student cringes, cowers, and attempts to scurry away. Balint menaces him before he gets into the subway car, on the subway car itself, and on the street outside the subway, where he finally pounces, beating the student into a bloody, broken mess. It's a horrible scene to watch. The soundtrack expertly wrings the scene for all the tension and terror it is worth.

As brilliantly manipulative as this scene is, there's a problem with it. As much as you hate what you are seeing, you end up identifying with Balint. The Jewish student is weak and cowardly and refuses to defend himself. Balint at least has the integrity to act on his vile ideals. Even if you didn't know that Gosling is playing a self-hating Jewish character, you would be able to read that from his facial expressions. He sneers as if smelling something foul. He begs the student to defend himself. You know that he is beating the student because he hates the despised potential Jewish victim inside himself.

That theme – the theme of Jewish self-hatred as a reaction to the Holocaust – is one of the movie's big ideas, and it is not a worthy one. After committing one of many hate crimes, Balint is forced to undergo sensitivity training. He is lectured by three elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors. One describes the Nazis bayonetting his son, peeling the corpse of the son off the bayonet, and dropping the corpse on the ground at the man's feet. Balint turns the table and lectures these survivors. Why didn't you fight? He asks. At least then you would have had your dignity. You were going to die anyway.

The film allows that question to go unanswered, and that is not right. Jews *did* fight. Jews fought in the Polish Army when the Nazis first invaded Poland, and in the Anders Army at famous battlegrounds like Monte Cassino. Jews fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first urban, civilian uprising in Nazi-occupied Europe. Jews fought in the forests with the Bielski Brothers. Jews fought in the Treblinka concentration camp uprising. Jews fought in non-martial ways, as well. There were poetry readings in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Sabbath commemorations in concentration camps. To remember your own culture in the face of death is also a revolt against death. It isn't the responsibility of "The Believer" to provide viewers with this detailed history lesson, but it lessens the value of the film to allow Daniel Balint, a Jewish neo-Nazi, to go unrefuted.

Other than Gosling's performance, there isn't much to recommend the film. There are shadowy scenes of fascist plotters meeting in New York City apartments, strategizing ways to take over America. Billy Zane is pretty much wasted in his few scenes as a fascist theorist. Summer Phoenix, River's little sister, has a gratuitous, exploitative, topless scene. She plays the part of a depressive, masochistic fascist sex toy. Through Balint, she becomes obsessed with Judaism, and begins to practice, lighting Sabbath candles and attending synagogue services. This is the movie's second big idea: if you look at it through the right kaleidoscope, being a member of a Jewish community is in some ways comparable to being a member of a hate group like the Nazis. This is just simple-minded, undercooked, grandiose thinking, and this is why, outside of Gosling's performance, I can't recommend this film.

There is some incoherent, implausible plotting: fascists meet in the woods and beat each other up; there is a bungled assassination attempt; there are a couple of synagogue bombings. None of this goes anywhere.

There's another problem with this film. It is very much in the cinematic tradition of Sexy Nazis like "Inglorious Bastard's" Colonel Hans Landa, "Black Book's" Ludwig Muntze, Oskar Werner, Maximilian Schell, and too many others to mention . Ryan Gosling is a very attractive man and in this film he is shown shirtless, lifting weights, and masterfully beating other men. In real life, Daniel Burros was not so omnipotent, not so sexy. In fact, journalist William Bryk said of Burros that he "was an inept paratrooper: overweight, poorly coordinated and slow. He wore thick-lensed glasses that made his eyes look larger than they were. The other guys in the barracks laughed at him. He had no friends. Finally, he made three phony suicide attempts: a few shallow razor cuts on the wrist; an overdose of aspirin; and again the razor … The Army discharged him 'by reasons of unsuitability, character, and behavior disorder.'"

In short, Burros was mentally ill, as is Daniel Balint in this film. Given that the film is about a man who is not processing reality accurately, it is unfortunate that the film provides no coherent counter voice to the flawed conclusions Balint lives by.

8 comments:

  1. Once again, I think you should have reviewed movies - and books - as a profession. I wasn't wanting to see this - but I wouldn't need to now anyway having read your incisive review. It sounds like Hollywood glamourising violence as usual - trying to get us to love something that our Creator hates.

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  2. Sue, I'd never even heard of the movie but I was watching another movie on youtube (best years of our lives, one of the best films ever made) and "The Believer" showed up in the queue.

    I think it's another attempt to complicate Nazism.

    Nazism is pretty straightforward, as this blog has shown: Scientific Racism, Social Darwinism, Germany's WW I defeat, the defenselessness of those the Nazis targeted -- it was a perfect storm of factors combining. It really wasn't about handsome, sensitive young men like Ryan Gosling who had problems with their own Jewishness.

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    1. Peter RechniewskiAugust 9, 2012 at 9:06 PM

      In light of the latest scholarship, one now has to take account of the influence of Tacitus's De Germania on the development of the German sense of racial superiority which pre-dated the emergence of "scientific" racism.

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  3. My post is maybe a little off topic, but I was looking for some books about Polish Jews serving in Polish Army and Resistance. Here's what I've found. Some of the titles are in Polish. I don't know if those books were translated into English.
    Adam Broner "My War against the Nazis"
    Chaim Goldberg "I Remember Like Now: The Odyssey of a Polish Jew"
    Pinkas Rosengarten "Zapiski rabina Wojska Polskiego"
    Stanisław Aronson "Years of Turmoil"
    Marian Apfelbaum "Two Flags: Return to the Warsaw Ghetto"
    Simha Rotem "Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter"
    Feliks Pisarewski-Parry "Orły i reszki"
    Benjamin Meirtchak "Jewish Military Casualties in the Polih Armies in W.W.II"

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    1. The most comprehensive English-language book on Jews serving in Poland's military forces during WWII is a book by Meirtchak, more recent than the Meirtchak book you cite on your list. To read my review of it, please click on my name in this specific posting.

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    2. The Apfelbaum book that Lukasz lists has also been translated into English. To read my review of it, please click on my name in this specific posting;

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    3. The Rotem book is also available in English at Amazon. To see my review of it, please click on my name in this specific posting.

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    4. The book by Pisarewski-Parry has not, to my knowledge, been translated into English. However, the Polish version of it is on Amazon. To read my English-language review of it, please click on my name in this specific posting.

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