Jakob The Liar

Jakob The Liar (1999)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Armin Müller-Stahl
Extras: Commentary track, Featurette, Isolated score

Robin Williams is certainly no stranger to dramatic roles, although most people prefer to see him in his flat-out comedic parts. In Columbia TriStar Home Video’s latest release, "Jakob The Liar" Robin Williams finally has the chance to show what he is really made of. An actor of format who easily balances a tragic part that requires him to pull off the entire palette of acting skills, ranging from dramatic and emotional moments to very human and funny ones. If anyone has ever had doubts about Williams’ versatility or depth as an actor, "Jakob The Liar" is the movie to watch. You will never see the man with the same eyes again.

Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) is a Jewish café owner in Poland who, like most other Polish Jews during the Third Reich, has been isolated to live in the ghetto. Hopelessness is spreading through the people in the ghetto like a disease and suicides are the order of the day. Without any contact to the outer world, these people are left without any hope or future during their harshest times, watching the trains go by, loaded with fellowmen who are deported to the concentration camp. It is only a matter of time until they will be led to the slaughter as well – and they know it.
One day, Jakob is discriminated by a German guard while walking the streets and sent to report to an official for breaking curfew. While waiting for the German official he overhears a radio bulletin indicating that the Russian armies are a mere 400 kilometers away. It is the only indication of what is going on in the world after months of strict isolation, and it raises his hopes that the war may be over soon with the Russians so close. The next day he tells the story to a friend and before he even knows it, the news spreads like a wildfire through the ghetto, stipulating that Jakob actually owned a radio, something that could easily cost him his life.

Rapidly, everyone is beginning to approach the poor man, trying to obtain more information, to hear more about the progress of the war. Soon Jakob realizes that his message is the only glimpse of hope these people have had in months and it inspires them to have faith in the future again. He begins to make up more new bulletins to keep this spirit – and his people – alive and tells them fantastic stories about the progress of the war, how the allied troops and the Russians slowly crush down on the German forces.
Before long however, the Germans learn of the illegal "radio" and are determined to find out who the person is that owns it, and Jakob’s own faith is put to the test.

The story of "Jakob The Liar" is as powerful as it is touching. There are moments where Jakob’s high spirited imagination illuminates his fellows’ lives and you can see the feverish excitement in their eyes as they are glued to every word he says. The impact he has on the Jewish people in the ghetto is jumping off the screen, making it clear for the viewer just how important these few word of "news" must have been for these people. Within split seconds however, the film also takes violent turns and shows us the brutality, the cruelty and the arbitrariness with which the Germans abused and killed the Jews. It creates a breathtaking contrast to Jakob’s humanity, one that hits the viewer like a sledgehammer and carves deep emotional moments into viewers’ minds. The inconsolable world of the ghetto is a harsh and cold world, and it was only through people like Jakob that many of these people had been held alive. Jakob was a hero – especially as you will see in the movie’s final seconds – and Robin Williams’ portrayal of this man pays full tribute to the hope he represented.

Columbia TriStar Home Video’s DVD of "Jakob The Liar" is another one of the studio’s reference quality discs. The transfer is absolutely free of defects from the source print and exhibits a staggering level of detail. Presented in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> version in the movie’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and a <$PS,full frame> transfer, this is one of the best video transfers you will find on DVD. The color delineation is superb without any signs of bleeding, faithfully rendering the bleak tones that make up so much of the movie’s production design. But also the warm colors that are sometimes brought in to create moments of hope and humanity are finely reproduced. Fleshtones are always naturally rendered and with its deep blacks, the transfer has a very dimensional quality. However the movie’s cinematography was designed to create an image with rather low contrasts at time in order to emphasize the cold bleakness of the world inside the ghetto, a world that was often left without electricity. The DVD restores this look absolutely faithfully by reproducing even the subtlest shades and grades. No signs of compression artifacts are evident in the transfer, leaving every bit of detail intact, and no noticeable signs of edge-enhancement or the ringing artifacts it introduces are evident. The <$PS,fullframe> transfer presented on the disc is not a <$PS,pan and scan> transfer but an <$OpenMatte,open matte> presentation that adds some image information at the top and the bottom of the screen rather than cropping the image on the sides.

"Jakob The Liar" contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track in English that is as captivating as the images. The track makes quite aggressive use of the discrete surrounds sometimes to create an almost ravenous atmosphere of threat. In other moments, the mix utilizes the surrounds to create a breathing atmosphere of oppressing silence through the usage of ambiance that conjures up vivid images of the hollow narrow streets of the ghetto. Carefully placed ambient sound effects bring the silence to life, always maintaining this subliminal atmosphere of imminent danger. The haunting score by Edward Shearmur also adds to this atmosphere, elevating the emotional impact of many scenes to their maximum. The track has a very wide frequency response and also makes good use of the bass extension of the <$5.1,5.1 mix>. High ends are crystal clear and always well defined without harshness or distortion. Dialogues are perfectly mixed into the sound field, always understandable and on top of things.

This DVD contains the movie’s music score on a separate audio track. It is a great opportunity to witness how much impact the music has on the overall quality of the film, and how it is used in certain scenes to build emotional or dramatic impressions. Beautifully mixed in <$5.1,5.1 channel>s, this presentation will make your heart break. A short "Making Of" featurette is also part of the release, but it offers little to nothing that you have not seen or experienced while watching the movie itself. And then there is the <$commentary,commentary track> by director Peter Kassovitz, a very informative commentary that shows more of the intent the filmmaker had when creating the movie and gives some very insightful information. Kassovitz does a great job pointing out special moments and scenes in the film, making sure to cover as many aspects of the production as possible. The track contains a few pauses in which Kassovitz allows viewers to take in certain scenes before he continues to point out specifics about what we are just witnessing.

"Jakob The Liar" is an incredibly sensitive movie that takes its subject matter very seriously, yet at the same time tries to create a story around it that is compelling, accessible and not too depressing – which is rather hard given the subject matter. Robin Williams executive produced this film, obviously as a vehicle to show his versatility and the result is nothing short of a stroke of genius, making "Jakob The Liar" one of the greatest films of recent times.
If you missed this breathtaking movie in theaters, do make sure to get this DVD!