May 30, 2002
If Seeing Is Believing, Who’s Seeing?
As an amateur film critic, I pride myself on being able to separate the subject from the art. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, a movie is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about what it's about. In past years, I've enjoyed wonderful films about heroin use, pedophilia and Holocaust denial, though I strongly condemn all three acts. It is the nature of the critic to think beyond his prejudices.
On paper, "The Believer," Henry Bean's award-winning film about an Orthodox Jew who becomes a neo-Nazi, had all the makings of a provocative, disturbing and revealing motion picture. But after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, "The Believer" failed to pick up theatrical distribution, in large part due to a thumbs-down from Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who called the film "a primer for anti-Semitism." After Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum praised "The Believer" and scolded the entire industry for failing to rush it into theaters, I was distressed that comments from a rabbi in my own community would keep important art from being seen. No one would see this film and become a skinhead, I wanted to tell him, and after all, I'd never even seen a neo-Nazi before.
A few weeks ago, my brother and two friends were walking back to my house on a Friday night. On a quiet street, a car pulled over and two neo-Nazi skinheads emerged, throwing punches and spewing anti-Semitic epithets. When the story reached the police, Cooper greatly aided the cause, holding a news conference and stating that rooting out anti-Semitism was his top priority. I still wasn't convinced that his condemning "The Believer" was a fair course of action, but I hadn't even seen the film.
I saw "The Believer" a few days later, in the wake of heavy discussion, both in and out of school, of the inexplicable hatred of neo-Nazis. The first scene of the film shows a skinhead stalking a Yeshiva student on a subway train, and beating him to a bloody pulp. It wasn't really something I wanted to see. The skinhead, called Daniel Balint in the film (and played remarkably by Ryan Gosling), grew up an Orthodox Jew, and uses his knowledge of Judaism to fuel his hatred for it. The character is full of unbelievable contradiction, saluting the Torah with a "Heil Hitler" and comparing the letter alef to a swastika. Though "The Believer" is based on a true story, Daniel's actions will come across to most Jews as totally implausible. The film doesn't help out with any psychological explanation for Daniel's behavior.
Last week, I had the chance to speak to writer-director Bean about his film, and I explained why I saw "The Believer" to be dangerous. Daniel lives by the doctrine that one must truly know something in order to hate it. He's not an ignorant Jew-hater. He's weighed the facts, presented his case and made an educated decision that harming his own people is the right course of action. Daniel cites many reasons for his hatred. He scolds a group of Holocaust survivors for not fighting back against their Nazi perpetrators. He fights eloquently with his rabbi in grade school about God's decision to command Abraham to kill Isaac. He even points out that Eichmann went to Israel to study Judaism, and still became a Jew-hunter. Gosling is such a convincing actor that one can't help but understand his hatred, even if his clinging to Judaism seems impossible.
Because "The Believer" never passes judgment on Daniel's actions, and never sacrifices artistic integrity to state a "message" (unlike "American History X," a recent Hollywood movie about neo-Nazis), the disturbing film belongs in art-house cinemas, like the ones in which the small Fireworks Pictures released the film a couple weeks ago in New York and Los Angeles. In big cities with a large Jewish population, audiences are less likely to misconstrue Daniel's actions as justified.
After the Sundance Film Festival, however, when "The Believer" couldn't find theatrical distribution, Showtime, the premium cable channel, offered to premiere the film on its network. Showtime caters to a largely Midwestern audience that wouldn't have been able to see "The Believer" in theaters. Because there is no large Jewish population in most Midwestern states, viewers there won't get a Jewish opinion on how wrong and self-debasing Daniel's actions are, and are more likely to see "The Believer" as a "primer for anti-Semitism." Most people don't turn on Showtime every evening to see high art. Nevertheless, "The Believer" premiered on Showtime this past March.
Bean, a Conservative Jew, had this to say in defense. "Do we really need the film to tell us that being a Nazi is wrong? The people who want to hate ... always want to hate, and they need to hate. What I'm trying to do is make them look at their own hatred in a way that might surprise them. Mixed in with hatred is, invariably, other feelings like ... love."
"The Believer," which is the first film in Bean's trilogy about fanatics, is "a work of art, not a work of politics. To have the film in some way pass judgment on a character whose own life, I think, passes as much judgment on himself as can be passed, would be an artistic flaw."
The critic in me respected Bean's integrity, his refusal to compromise. I hope one day to be a filmmaker, and make thought-provoking films about Jewish life, like "The Believer." But the part of me whose brother was attacked by skinheads, the part of me who reads about daily attacks on Jews in Europe, cannot see the film as anything but irresponsible. "The Believer" is that all-too-rare commodity: the important Jewish film. In fact, Bean sees it as a film about being Jewish. But "The Believer" is also, in a year when anti-Semitism is becoming increasingly prevalent, a powder keg that must be kept where it can't explode.
Akiva Gottlieb is a junior at Shalhevet High School. He has been writing film criticism for over three years. He currently writes for Film Written Magazine (www.filmwritten.org).