1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #11: "Life During Wartime (Part Two)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 18, 1999

I could be accused of cheating by including Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900 in this section, since it has very little to do with World War 2. The justification, however, comes from the time period it spans. The Legend of 1900 begins in 1900 and concludes sometime around 1950. The entire story takes place aboard a cruise ship, far from the battles of either global conflict. The Virginian navigates the Atlantic Ocean during the first half of this century, beginning its journeys before Titanic set sail and not ending them until after both Fat Man and Little Boy have been dropped.

"1900" (Tim Roth), as he's called, has lived his entire life on the ship. Left on board as a baby, he was "adopted" by one of the workers and kept hidden through most of his childhood. By the time he reached adulthood, he had become a virtuoso jazz pianist, and his reputation as an entertainer drew crowds every night that he played. On one occasion, Jelly Roll Morton came on board to challenge him to a piano duel (this is the film's most entertaining sequence). But, even when a chance at love arrived, his phobia of dry land would not allow him to leave the safe confines of the ship. It was where he was born and where he intended to die.

The Legend of 1900 has many of the qualities that made Tornatore's best-known film, Cinema Paradiso, such a joyful and emotionally rewarding experience. The director has blended one part fantasy, one part whimsy, one part comedy, and one part drama into a whole that is entirely magical. The Legend of 1900 is an uplifting experience - the kind of movie that can make a hardened movie-goer laugh and cry at the same time. Sure, there's some manipulation involved, but it's skillful and never feels forced. During a pre-screening introduction, actor Tim Roth (whose performance is flawless) noted that this film is the "antidote for The War Zone", and he couldn't have put it more aptly. Those who enjoyed Cinema Paradiso are almost guaranteed to appreciate The Legend of 1900; the movies share many of the same strengths, and the overall feel is similar. And, although Cinema Paradiso is the better movie, The Legend of 1900 has one great advantage - it's in English, so the subtitle-phobes won't be chased away. Of the more than 30 films I have seen at this festival, few offered a greater sense of simple pleasure.

The opposite is true of Peter Kassovitz's Jakob the Liar, a vaguely distasteful wartime drama that uses the Holocaust as a plot device to generate emotions that the script does not earn. While I won't go so far as to say that I found Jakob the Liar's use of the Holocaust to be repugnant, it's definitely questionable. Some might call this the American version of Life Is Beautiful, but, while both films have certain thematic similarities, the 1999 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner possessed an emotional impact that Jakob the Liar lacks.

A miscast Robin Williams plays the title character, a former restaurant owner trapped in a ghetto for Polish Jews. One day, after Jakob relays encouraging information he overheard about a victory by the Russian army, many of his fellow captives believe he has a radio. Playing along with this fabrication, Jakob begins to spread rumors about supposed Allied victories. Eventually, the Germans become aware of what's happening, and begin to harass the Jews in an attempt to find the radio. Jakob must decide which is more important - maintaining the fiction of the radio or confessing all to the Nazis so they will lessen the pressure on the others.

With Jakob the Liar coming in the wake of last year's Patch Adams, one has to begin to wonder whether Robin Williams is capable of starring in a drama that doesn't involve nauseating amounts of heavy-handed manipulation. The screenplay for Jakob the Liar feels like a cobbled-together group of clichés about the Holocaust. Events have been heavily sanitized. The death count is low, the Nazis come across like cartoon bullies, and the ghetto doesn't seem like a bad place to live. In contrast to all of the recent documentaries and serious dramas about this period of history, Jakob the Liar is almost an affront - an obvious attempt to make a few dollars by combining Williams' box office clout with a maudlin melodrama about hope shining in darkness. Sadly, there probably is an audience for this film - those who like to pretend that the Holocaust wasn't as bad as the historical record indicates. Life Is Beautiful understood that the Holocaust was a terrible event; Jakob the Liar doesn't seem to care.

Those seeking a measure of insight into the Nazi mindset have been given opportunities at this year's festival. After the Truth has Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," defending his position in relation to the Final Solution. The Specialist reviews key portions of the Adolf Eichmann trial, an international sensation in 1961. And, in Moloch, the latest from Russian director Alexandr Sokurov, we are given the opportunity to spend 24 hours in the intimate company of none other than Adolf Hitler. Most movies understandably portray Hitler as the quintessence of evil, but Sokurov is after a deeper understanding of the man. Moloch should not be viewed as an apology for the late Fuhrer, but it seeks to view him as a complex individual rather than a cartoon villain.

Unfortunately, the movie, which is presented from the perspective of Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, is deadly dull. It turns out that a day in the life of Hitler isn't much more interesting than a day in the life of anyone else. All the "action" takes place in a strange, sinister fortress in the clouds, where the sun seemingly never shines and everything is photographed using desaturated color. The Fuhrer is revealed to be a hypochondriac with a bad temper. The instances when he goes into a towering rage are balanced by a playful side (he engages in a childish game where he chases Eva around a table and through the halls). Perhaps this slow approach, where dialogue is at a premium (there are lapses of as long as 15 minutes where no one speaks), might have worked in a short, but, for a feature, it's interminable. The running length may only be 103 minutes, but these 24 hours with Hitler seem to be unfolding in real time.

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