Friday, August 17, 2007


THE BELIEVER (2001, USA, Henry Bean, from a Mark Jacobson story)
I'm the only one who does believe. I see him for the power-drunk madman he is. And we're supposed to worship such a deity? I say never.

The yeshiva boy gets on the subway. A skinhead follows him onto the train, crowds him, bullies him, follows him off the train, then beats him savagely. It’s hard to watch, but it’s what comes at the end of the scene that’s uniquely troubling: the neo-Nazi pleads with his cowering victim to hit him back, but the boy cannot, or will not. Of course not: the Torah student perfectly embodies all that the vicious skinhead finds so repellent; the young man averts his eyes, his body closed in, elbows held close, shoulders collapsed. He wants to be invisible: his every gesture is an apology.

This film, like its central character, is concerned with power. Isaac’s powerlessness at the hands of Abraham, his father: God's power over Abraham. The power of the Nazis over the Jews, and the Jews' unwillingness to resist – particularly as played out in one holocaust story about a father and his three year old son. Danny finds all this abhorrent. Which isn’t surprising – Danny’s the young Jew we met in the subway scene, and he despises the weakness he sees in himself and his fellow Jews. More accurately – and here’s the kicker, the thing that makes this movie so controversial and so very interesting – Danny is one of the young Jews we met in the subway scene. The one with the shaved head and the Nazi tattoos branded into his skin.

After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Festival, nobody would pick up this incendiary, fact-based story of Jewish self-hatred for distribution. Danny is so bright, his anti-Semitic arguments so articulate, many feared the film could do more harm than good. Whether it was the fearless, frightening performance of Ryan Gosling in the lead or the recognition that, when it comes to selling tickets, any publicity is good publicity, the film was finally released in summer 2002.

Several critics insist that the film owed us a "what happened in his childhood" explanation for Danny's behaviour. Perhaps it was the presence of Teresa Russell in the film that reminded me of one great scene in the not-so-great BLACK WIDOW where a character provides the obligatory “here’s what happened in his childhood” explication of the psychology of a serial killer, only to laugh it all off with an "I made that up: nobody really knows why anybody does anything" payoff. Which may overstate the point, but the point remains: we want film makers to provide us with explanations of behaviours that we're uncomfortable with. If they'll name it for us, we'll have power over it: whatever uncomfortable feeling or challenging thought we may have had early in the movie, we want it psychologized down to manageable size in time to box it up and leave it in the theatre.

I'm glad "The Believer" doesn't offer facile explanations. It allows us to observe a troubled, complex young man who is virtually split in half by the dilemmas his faith presents him with. Those who care less hold these contradictions more lightly, and they’re not pulled apart by them. To Danny, they matter: they grip him hard, and threaten to tear him in two. Listening to the stories of holocaust survivors, other skinheads are simply dismissive: they don't engage, dismissing them with facile, thoughtless cliches about the holocaust being a myth, Hitler not really being so bad. Danny will have none of it: of course the holocaust is real. Why pretend it isn't? And though he’s dismissive of the victims, he can’t dismiss the events themselves, and from that point on he is haunted by the father-son story he hears from one of the men.

The film presents us with many outworkings of these questions of power and victimization. His relationship with his girlfriend plays out the "sexual dominance as power" theme which also surfaces in the diner interview with a young journalist, but it is a strength of the film that their relationship goes well beyond the expected dominance and submission we expect in this neo-Nazi setting. Her nascent interest in Judaism is complex and fascinating: is this identification with the Jews simply an extension of her desire to be overpowered, an attraction to a religion they boty see as a cult of victimhood? I think there’s something more: she finds a centre, a strength, and as she does so, Danny's threat of physical violence loses its power.

As Danny teaches her about the Jewish religion, another intriguing dichotomy comes to the fore. He insists that Judaism is not about dogma but about practice: it is all about doing the rituals, observing the law, but not necessarily about what you believe, certainly not about understanding God. But as the title of the film tells us, Danny is a Believer: for all that he mocks the Jewish intellectual tradition as being impotent and without action, he is a man of ideas, a man of words and argument.

Perhaps the centre of the whole issue is this: Danny is utterly a part of his tradition in his love of argument, his ability to dispute, to wield the subtle and incisive blade of his mind and words in an intellectual fight. What infuriates him is the lack of continuity he sees in his people between their words and their actions. For Danny, it’s a logical extension to carry through the expression of power he exercises verbally into physical force. But this is not in keeping with the way his people conduct themselves in the world, and he can’t stand it.

Danny is obsessed with the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the film plays it out three times from subtly different points of view. Danny is convinced that it was "all over" as soon as Abraham raised the knife: even though God stopped the actual killing, Abraham had committed the murder in his heart (and in this we hear the echo of another Jewish rabbi, Jesus). The damage had been done, the relationship violated, and neither the son nor the father could ever be the same again. Surely Isaac would have every right to question why his father had lacked the power to stand up to God the murderer, just as Danny challenged the Jewish man who had watched his own son murdered by a Nazi soldier and had done nothing to resist.

In the conjunction of these two stories perhaps, is the troubling centre of the film. In each of these stories which haunt Danny's memory (and consequently the film itself) there is the child victim, the unresisting father bystander, and the powerful initiator: there is a parallel between Isaac and the three-year-old boy, between Abraham and the father whose passivity allows him to survive the holocaust, and between Jehovah and the Nazi soldier. And Danny is utterly torn as he identifies at different times with the various characters in the story. Danny cannot hold these terrible, unresolvable stories at a distance: he must grapple with them, striving to find a place for himself in their cast of characters. He pictures himself in the role of the murderous Nazi soldier, a role he is playing out in the Nazi skinhead persona he lives out in his young adult life: but when he hears the holocaust survivor's story, it is clear that he perceives the act of the Nazi soldier as horrific and evil, one which the now-elderly Jewish man should have opposed. Eventually Danny re-imagines the holocaust story, seeing himself as the victim: now he is the man seeing his son brutally murdered, and now he is moved to act, to strike out, violently resist the evil. But ultimately, it seems, he adopts the third role in these stories of sacrifice: planting the pipe-bomb in the altar of the synagogue, stepping back into the familiar roles of his own childhood, he leads the people in worship and offers himself up as some sort of sacrifice. Ultimately, he chooses the role of Isaac, of the three-year-old boy emerging from the hay wagon.

And then what to make of the final scene, so reminiscent of a similarly ambitious, befuddling, Old Testament preoccupied genre-bender from a dozen years ago that wanted to play for keeps with the spiritual implications of its storyline? This ascent into the light, up the stairs of the Yeshiva, past the Torah teacher, on up into mystery. An image that was just right for Danny's questing, relentless soul. But wasn't it also implying a sort of reward for this violent, sick young man? That he had attained some sort of superiority that allowed him to ascend into this Holy Place after death? How could this be?

On reflection, I find my answer in the chaos of the synagogue scene. As the scene begins, it seems that Danny's original intention is not only to die but also to take the congregation with him – a hate crime, but one which expresses not only his hatred of the Jewish worshippers but also of himself, just as inescapably and hatefully a Jew. It seems that the culmination of the events of the story will come down to a simple suicidal act of self-loathing – or, more precisely, a murder suicide, that ultimate act of despair and hatred. Except that Danny arrives only to find something wrong with his plan: his girlfriend, drawn further and further into the realities of Judaism, is among the worshippers. He tries to get her to leave, but cannot: her identification with the Jewish faith is to strong, she is too committed to this new way she is discovering to be willing to leave it just because Danny orders her to do so.

And I believe that Danny's heart is revealed in the action he subsequently takes. He could have gone ahead with the original plan and let them all die with him, his girlfriend included: why spare her, now that she has clearly given herself over to this hated religion, just another Jew? But instead he chooses to reveal his intention: he clears the synagogue and enters into his final moments at the altar alone.

This act of compassion is, essentially, unlike anything we've seen in Danny before. Or is it? Certainly he shows a conflicted, inexplicable reverence to the Torah scrolls when he leads the skinheads into the synagogue – but that may be as much a sort of supersitious fear of the Lord as it is true reverence (though we are pointed away from that reading by the juxtaposition of the "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" comment spouted by an ignorant skinhead). Against his wishes, he complies when his sister asks him to sit with their dying father and eat some noodles. He doesn't shoot the Jewish financier, though he has him in the cross-hairs of the sniper's rifle – an ambiguous moment to be sure, since he is not a good shot, as he protests to his fellow skinhead, but certainly the possibility is there that Danny cannot bring himself to kill this man.

This choice is of a higher order, a deeper testing of his soul. This is a flesh and blood person, and indeed one whom he knows and, as it turns out, loves. Ironically, or perhaps tellingly, she is his own Torah student, the one he has tutored in the ways of Judaism. And he simply cannot see her killed. He chooses to spare the innocent victim, even though his intention had apparently been a bloodbath.

Ultimately, Danny chooses the same way that Jehovah chose on Mount Moriah. Having the means of death at hand, he compassionately spares his innocent victims. And perhaps he also, then, takes on the role of the fourth character in the Genesis story – in a sense, he then offers himself up as the ram.

In Christian understanding, the ram is a figure of Christ, dying in Isaac's place. Danny is not a Christ figure here – indeed, this is not a Christian perspective on the Moriah story. There is no propitiatory or substitutionary value to his death – it was not needed, he could have walked out of the synagogue with the other worshippers. But it is a sacrificial death, and somehow seems right. It's not just that is Danny saturated in sin, and a good death seems somehow an act of repentance if not self-atonement. More, there is the sense that this is the ultimate act of a man of action: an intentional choice to place himself in the hands of Jehovah, an act of trust as much as an act of confrontation. An act of surrender.


Available at Videomatica

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