Inspired by the true story of a young articulate Jewish man who joined
the American Nazi Party and Ku Klux Klan and was arrested at a 1965 New
York KKK rally, The Believer is a fictionalized account of Daniel Burros of Queens. The only completely true to life sequence occurs during the interview with the reporter, where he threatens to commit suicide if his identity is revealed in the New York Times. Just the headline makes for compelling drama—it boggles the mind how any Jew could become a Nazi and join demonstrations against his cultural roots.
The 2001 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner predictably has swirled in controversy. An intolerant reception at Simon Wiesenthal Center screening prevented distributors from picking it up until the fervor died down. Released theatrically on a limited basis in 2002, the film continues to stir passions and has received extremely mixed reviews. Long on my list of films I've wanted to check out, The Believer finally was screened in Phoenix last night (one time only) at the annual Jewish Film Festival. Judging from the reactions I overheard during the film and the brief discussion afterwards, director Henry Bean's debut feature film continues to spark controversy and split audiences.
It's not for everyone, but I don't agree with the ASU Chair of Jewish Studies that hosted the film, who stated that the film is meant for Jewish audiences. He based his assertion primarily on the fact that Roger Ebert gave it only a 3-star review and "was confused" by the film, insinuating that only Jewish people would "understand" the references. That's a bunch of hooey! If "being confused" eliminates potential audiences, who is qualified to see Mulholland Drive, for example, or practically any other David Lynch film?
This film certainly challenges viewers and requires active participation to follow the intellectual and religious concepts, but it doesn't require a year of academic study of postmodern Jewish philosophy to gain from it. Anyone who's seen a few Woody Allen movies will be familiar with these basic precepts. I'm not Jewish, but came away from the film with multiple thoughts and greater understanding about religious belief. As Ebert states, "this is the kind of movie where you need to go budget in time afterwards for a cup of coffee and some conversation." Too many films are easy to dismiss and forget about as soon as you reach the parking lot—not this one!
Serving as main metaphor is God's supreme test of Abraham, commonly referred to in Hebrew as the Akedah (binding of Isaac). Traditionally God stops Abraham from killing his son at the last minute, recognizing Abraham's willingness to obey his command; however, the version that the film works from holds that Isaac is sacrificed only to be resurrected later. While knowing this adds a dimension to Bean's film, it's not necessary to be familiar with Shalom Spiegel's scholarly study of Akedah (The Last Trial) to appreciate the film. The Believer contains enough internal references to gain insights.
Conventional teachings hold that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son proves his servitude and a model that we all should carry out God's laws and commandments. But Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) challenges conventional thinking, often accompanied with recurring flashbacks of Danny as a young student questioning why God would act like such a "conceited bully," declaring that God is about "Power," and daring God to strike him dead. Danny imagines on all three positions (a Trinity of sorts with God, the father, and the son) with another recurring parallel image to the Akedah—a Holocaust survivor vividly describes a horrific incident where an SS soldier wrests his baby son away and bayonets him overhead. Danny's eyes light up, and he instantly asks the father what actions he took?
Rationales about being powerless to Danny are not justified. Why would any father simply stand by and watch his son be sacrificed? It's one of the reasons that he's become disillusioned with Judaism. The acceptance of the all Powerful God, and passivity of the "chosen people" to suffer without a fight to him is "stupid." To be Jewish in modern society seems to mean studying the text and following rituals, and Danny is far too intellectual to accept such a passive state. He wants to live a life of significance and do something�weight lifting and provoking Jewish anger are all part of the power trip, both a rebellion and a sign of a deep personal struggle. Note Danny's shocking disgust when he realizes how the Nazi organizers want to use his special talents—as a speaker, promoter, and fundraiser. All decidedly "Jewish" abilities, Danny cannot rid himself of his nature and heritage.
Initially Danny appears simply as a hateful neo-Nazi, complete with skinhead and tattoo makeover and swastika T-shirt, obsessed with beating up nice Jewish boys on the NYC subway. The fact that Danny becomes a sympathetic protagonist is both a tribute to Bean's imagery and to Gosling's incredible acting. The film could easily sink from the occasionally cheesy dialogue and the over the top violence of the Nazi thugs, yet Gosling brings so much inner conflict to light through his eyes and other subtle facial movements that he continually captivates. I can't recall Gosling's role in Remember the Titans, but his charisma unforgettably carries this film—a powerful performance akin to James Dean's brooding rebel or Brando's animalistic Stanley Kowalski. Too bad relatively few people will see this film.
Even fewer will dig deep enough through its blatant anti-Semitism veneer to find its deeper themes. The Believer will be difficult for many to watch—though the actual on screen violence is far less than what the viewer imagines. The anti-Jewish rhetoric that even carries over into Danny's explicit description of Jewish sexuality will offend viewers unprepared for modern films that question traditional values or refuse to paint clear cut black and white heroes and villains.
At its core Bean's provocative film explores "belief" in a larger context. We all believe in "something" whether it's a religious conviction or Nazism, accepting Fate or taking the initiative, God or His non-existence. If God is truly all-powerful, how can any one small individual do something that is not under His control? Some will see Danny as one messed up individual, in need of massive psycho-analysis and therapy—a self-hating Jew who maintains respect and belief in the word of God, but can't come to terms with society. Reflecting on the many flashbacks and the final scene of implied redemption, I see him more sympathetically as a deeply conflicted intellectual endlessly searching for Truth.
Far from perfect, this polarizing film deserves a wider audience, not necessarily limited to Jews (though some fear that it'll tap into hidden anti-Semetic feelings). Although background in religious studies would certainly help, even more useful is an inquiring mind that automatically questions any faith-based issue. Strength of subject matter often overwhelms the artistic treatment of Holocaust related films, but The Believer contains enough depth and handles abstractions well enough to warrant multiple viewing. Audiences are unlikely to react lukewarmly to the material, so heat up the coffee. The discussions it will inspire more than make up for any shortcomings that some critics cite. Ironically DVD copies are currently only available in Europe and Asia, but not in the freedom loving U.S.