Judaism had a long history of persecution. I could sit here and name them all, but I am sure you are just as aware of the many atrocities that beset the Jewish population as I am. But all of these waves of persecution are nothing compared to the psychological damage individual Jews do to themselves. If this statement baffles you, I would suggest you listen to a couple of episodes of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast or sit down and read the Torah or seek out a Jewish person to talk to. The Jewish religion invites thought, contradiction, and knowledge but what comes with these ideals is self-doubt. A beautiful example of this self-doubt taken to a wild extreme is this film, the Believer. About a Jewish Neo-Nazi, this film illustrates the weird ways the Jewish religion can manifest in someone’s life.
Ryan Gosling plays this young man who is at war with himself. Stuck in a city that seems overwhelmed with wimps, he longs to not be one of them. He reads Mein Kampf and other works and identifies with the ideals of fascism. But what is intrinsic to fascism at least in the Hitler interpretation is the hatred and killing of Jews. He soaks up this knowledge and becomes a very articulate advocate for the genocide of his own people. He joins an underground movement of Fascists and he is trained on combat. However he knows that he cannot reconcile his past with his present.
The performance is put forth by Ryan is what makes this film. An angry skinhead who wants nothing more than to kill his own people would be hard for anyone to play let alone someone who is just starting out in the acting world like Ryan was. This is his second film that he was ever in and yet he seems to have knocked it out of the park. Every gesture, every grimace, every spitting of the word Jew out of his mouth wreaks of this character. He isn’t the sensitive quiet man in The Notebook or the jock from Remember the Titans. He is something else here. He is intelligent, abrasive, angry, and conflicted. He is shades of grey instead of black and white. He shows the promise that will later come to fruition in films that are more high-profile like Drive or Half Nelson.
I liked this film because it did not just venerate Judaism as the best religion to be a part of like most films who incorporate this subject matter does. Through conversation with other Jews and with other Fascists, you learn the shortfalls of both religions. The Jewish people should not be left off the hook because of the atrocities that they have suffered in the past. Just because their people were murdered in the Holucaust does not give them the right to force Palestinians out of their homeland and into shanty town like settlements. At the same time just because they have strange rituals that don’t make sense from an outsider perspective or that they seem to run everything (a myth!) in the government and financial worlds, doesn’t mean that we should hate them vehemently.
There are several problems that I had with the structure of the film. For instance the reliance on flashbacks is particularly grating. The director continues to insert shots from a time in this character’s past where he confronts his rabbi. The scene is played again and again throughout the film to the point of nauseum. The audience understands that he at one time confronted and then left his religion. We don’t need it spelled out to us every time he is alone in his room. Once is enough. Also the example of the Nazi impaling a young Jewish boy in front of his father is used too much and in horrible black and white coloring. I knew from the first shot that all they did was take color footage and put a black and white filter over those scenes. It looks awful. If you wanted it in black and white then shoot it in black and white. Filters never look good. With this story and the constant flashback to the classroom where he confronts his rabbi, the last third is eaten up by these flashbacks which slows down the action and makes it annoying to watch. I understand that he is conflicted, that he is truly Jewish and will always be Jewish and that he can’t bring himself to kill other Jews. I understood that from the first moment you showed me this footage. You do not need to show to me again and again and again. It is too much.
Despite the problems I ranted about above, I still think this film is an interesting experiment. The performance is strong enough to penetrate even the worst cinematography and the subject matter is strong enough to sustain the repeat in narrative. I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoys seeing good acting but not to anyone who values cinematography.