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So, Nu?

Robin Williams takes on the humor of the Holocaust

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 16, 1999 | 8:00 pm

There is an old joke from the Holocaust, Robin Williams says.

Two old Jews want to kill Hitler. The fuhrer doesn't show up. "So one turns to the other and says, 'My God, I hope nothing happened to him,' " Williams quips.

Williams, the pre-eminent comic actor of his generation, cites the joke flawlessly. But he does not laugh, nor is there a trace of his signature, rapid-fire improvisational comedy. He recites the bit reverently, as if delivering a eulogy rather than a joke. There is something sacred about the humor, he suggests.

Speaking quietly by telephone from his home in San Francisco, Williams says he discovered the joke in a book on humor from the Holocaust, one he studied to prepare for his upcoming role in Peter Kassovitz's Holocaust drama, "Jakob the Liar." In the movie, set in the last, desperate days of a Polish-Jewish ghetto, Williams portrays Jakob Heym, a latke vendor who shelters a young girl and boosts morale with humor and tall tales after overhearing a forbidden radio broadcast.

The humor in the film, like the joke book, is dark, bleak, shocking, but not tasteless, Williams insists. Jakob tells a friend that he will make a good-looking corpse; a neighbor's favorite gag is to bang on the door and pretend he is the Gestapo. "For the survivors, the humor prevented soul death," Williams says. "It was a gift that they gave to each other."

During the first days of production in October 1997, however, Williams was hesitant about some of the comedy. The first week of shooting took place in Piotrkow, Poland, once the first Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, liquidated exactly 55 years before the beginning week of production. Williams arrived on the set, donned his heavy, threadbare costume with its yellow star and wandered streets and alleys where carnage had once occurred. "The effect was immediate," he says. The Holocaust ghosts seemed to come to life. And suddenly, Williams worried that the comedy in the script was, perhaps, inappropriate. "I was like, 'My God, can we do this?' " he says.

Director Kassovitz, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, diagnosed the problem early. "Robin had moments of doubt about doing something funny," Kassovitz explains. "He was a little bit anxious about the material ... Like the other American actors, he had a guilt, not to have been a victim of the Nazis." In a fatherly fashion, Kassovitz took the veteran comic actor aside for a pep talk. "He said, 'Do not be afraid of the humor, because it existed. It was a survival mechanism,' " the actor recalls.

Perhaps the ultimate permission, for Williams, came from fellow cast member Janos Gosztony, the survivor of a brutal work camp. "Janos said that the Nazis would force people to stand at attention for 24 hours at a time," Williams says. "And if you fell over or passed out, you'd be shot. It was the humor that kept people going. It was bleak humor, always whispered, anything to keep each other awake."

"Jakob the Liar" went into production about a year before the release of Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," another film in which the hero uses humor to assuage the despair of the Holocaust. Both films feature a child and a prominent comic actor (Benigni is known as the "Italian Robin Williams"), and already the comparisons between the two movies are emerging. Several weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly remarked that "Sony's going to have to convince us we didn't see a very similar-sounding movie last year, starring a goofy, awards-happy Italian guy."

Williams is gently miffed at the snipe. "Is there humor in the film? Yes, I'm not going to deny that," he says. "But this movie is different. It's based on a novel by a Holocaust survivor; it's an ensemble piece; it's set in a ghetto. People say they've seen this before. But how many police movies do we see every year? How many exploding asteroids? People can tolerate that, but they say, 'Oh God, another Holocaust film. Can't have that! Seen that!' "

The role in "Jakob the Liar" is a natural for Williams, who has played other iconoclastic healers in films such as "Awakenings," "Good Will Hunting" and "Patch Adams." "I play a lot of survivors and widowers," he admits. "I call it the Dead Wives' Club."

One gets the idea that Williams, 47, has long used humor to overcome the pain in his own life. He has often described growing up, without siblings, in a rambling, 40-room mansion in a suburb of Detroit. There was a gatehouse, an empty garage with room for 25 cars, but few playmates; the shy, lonely child was frequently left alone with the maid. Williams sometimes referred to his father, then a stern, auto industry executive, as Lord Stokesbury, Viceroy of India. His mother, a former model, was often away at benefits, but Williams connected with her by making her laugh. As he once said, "I'll make Mommy laugh, and that'll be OK."

Williams continued to make people laugh while attending Julliard and working the comedy clubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s. In 1978, he was cast as the manic extra-terrestrial in the hit TV series, "Mork and Mindy," and he became an instant celebrity. His "breakthrough" film was "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), which earned him the first of three Oscar nominations.

Williams also starred in "Hook" for director Steven Spielberg, whom he telephoned often on the set of "Schindler's List." "At times, the movie was so hard for Steven that I would call him on the weekends and just make him laugh," Williams says.

When Williams finally won an Oscar for his role as a troubled psychologist in "Good Will Hunting" in 1997, he thanked the "Mishpoche Weinstein" brothers of Miramax.

Yes, the actor knows Yiddish, so much so that "People tend to think I'm Jewish," Williams says. "I love Yiddish because it is a great language for comedy. There are so many great words. And 'nu' is the greatest word of all. It encompasses everything: 'What? How are you? Everything good? Bad? Hmmmm? Nu?"

The Yiddish and the humor, in part, was what drew Williams to "Jakob the Liar" when Kassovitz's manager sent the script to his production company three years ago. The performer was so taken with the project that he agreed to serve as its executive producer; the movie is the second to be produced by Blue Wolf Prods., the company Williams runs with his wife, Marsha Garces Williams.

Before traveling to Poland, the actor immersed himself in research, reading the chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto and watching the Claude Lanzmann documentary, "Shoah," among other endeavors. Today, the man who specializes in portraying optimists and healers says he would like to play a villain, preferably one who illustrates Hannah Arendt's concept of "The banality of evil." "To portray that right on, would serve a great purpose," he says.




Peter Kassovitz's Comedy

Long before Roberto Benigni envisioned "Life Is Beautiful," Peter Kassovitz, a Hungarian-born director living in Paris, plucked a Holocaust-themed book from his parents' bookshelf. Jurek Becker's "Jakob the Liar" immediately captivated the director: A somber Holocaust drama, it read "like a vaudeville," the director says. "It was told like a comedy."

Kassovitz knows something about humor and the Holocaust. His father, a survivor of Mauthausen, was a prominent Hungarian caricaturist, with a penchant for gallows humor, who continued drawing even in the camps. Kassovitz recently gave Yad VaShem several of his father's Holocaust-era caricatures: In the first frame of one cartoon, a man complains about his wife's cooking; in the second, he is a skeleton eating mud in a concentration camp.

Kassovitz, 61, was a child when the Nazis came to Budapest. At the age of 6, he was beaten by a Hitler Youth in the street; his mother used to remove his little yellow star so he could purchase items forbidden to Jews at the grocery store. When she was deported to Ravensbruck, Kassovitz was hidden with a Catholic family -- a series of events that seemed "normal" to a boy raised in the shadow of the Holocaust.

So when Kassovitz approached Becker about adapting "Jakob the Liar," the novelist knew he would treat the book with respect. The author had only one condition for the director: In the 1974, East German film version of "Jakob the Liar," Becker felt the brutality of ghetto life had been sanitized. "He said, 'Please don't make the ghetto look like an operetta,' " Kassovitz recalls.

The director complied by studying period photographs and documents and, with his set and costume designer, he meticulously re-created the brutal milieu of the Polish ghetto. In the movie, Jews are graphically beaten and tortured and hanged, and they eat a dead horse in the street. Herein lines the difference between "Jakob the Liar" and Roberto Benigni's Holocaust comedy, "Life Is Beautiful," Kassovitz suggests. "Benigni's film is a fable, while 'Jakob' is closer to reality."

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