Follow TV Tropes


Film / Jakob the Liar

Go To

"Hitler goes to a fortune-teller and asks, 'When will I die?' And the fortune-teller replies, 'On a Jewish holiday.' Hitler then asks, 'How do you know that?' And she replies, 'Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.'"
Jakob Heym

Jakob the Liar is a 1999 film directed by Peter Kassovitz, starring Robin Williams.

It tells the tale of Jakob Heym (Williams), a Jewish shopkeeper in the ghettos during World War II. When he's caught out late one night, Jakob is sent to the Kommandant for being smart with the guard. While there, he hears news of advancing Russian troops. On the way back he finds a girl who managed to escape from a transport train, and begins to look after her. From there he finds himself risking life, limb, and more than a few lies as he tries to keep the spirits of his friends up, and give them the courage to face the next day in hope that the Soviets will free them from Nazi occupation.

The story first appeared as a 1969 novel by Jurek Becker, who originally intended it as a screenplay; appropriately, it's been filmed twice. The first movie was an East German-Czechoslovakian film from 1975, Jacob the Liar.


  • Adaptational Badass: In both versions, the first person Jakob tells about the Russians is his friend Mischa, to save him from a suicidal act. In the book, Mischa was just going to try and steal some food, but in the movie, he was using a crowbar to pry loose the floorboards in the cattle cars, in order to give prisoners who might be placed in them later a better chance of escape.
  • All Take and No Give: Humorously done when Kowalsky accuses Jakob of abusing a deal they made before the war where Kowalsky would give Jakob free haircuts, for free pancakes at Jakob's cafe, pointing out that due to rationing Jakob hasn't served him any pancakes in years, but continues showing up for free haircuts.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Depending on your interpretation, The Russians arrive to save the Jews at the end, but it could very well just be another lie from Jakob, who is also the narrator.
  • Consummate Liar: Jakob. Played for Drama, because in the end he's just trying to keep going a "Fawlty Towers" Plot that will get him (and everybody else) killed.
  • Cool Old Guy: Dr. Kirschbaum, a cardiologist who provides medical treatment to the ghetto, is friendly to Jakob, and generally serves as the voice of reason between the over-worried and the over-eager.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Kowalsky dies before Jakob in the movie, meaning that he's dead no matter which ending is true, but in the book, he only suffers this fate in the unhappy ending.
    • Herschel, in the sense that the scene where he dies while trying to communicate with deportees in cattle cars takes place much earlier in the film than it does in the book.
  • Defiant to the End: Both Jakob and Kirschbaum die refusing to help the Nazi's.
  • Dumb Muscle: Downplayed with Mischa (who used to be a boxer). He has noble instincts and isn't a complete idiot, but he keeps blurting out the secret after Jakob first confides in him, and blunders into a lot of things.
  • Greek Chorus: Frankfurter and the other ghetto leaders arguably provide one, following Jakob around, and discussing the alleged radio and its implications.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Jakob ultimately dies to give his friends hope.
  • Hope Bringer: A Deconstruction. Jakob's status as the Hope Bringer is based on a massive lie, and if the Germans learn of it, all the Jews could suffer for it. Jakob himself is aware of this, but feels compelled to keep it going due to how it prevents suicides and Death by Despair.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Jakob walks in just in time to keep Kowalsky from hanging himself.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: The sadistic commandant of the ghetto has a potentially fatal heart condition and the only man around who could help him (Dr. Kirschbaum) is obviously disinclined to do so.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Frankfurter is a good man doing what he thinks will help the ghetto, but is utterly convinced that the situation is bleak, that the supposed radio is dangerous and that Jakob should get rid of it.
  • Moment Killer: Its heavily implied that the main reason Jakob isn't shot in the commandants office is because the duty officer has brought a girl over and knows she'll be turned off him shooting someone (or having him shot) in front of her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Twice in a row. Jakob is horrified when one of his friends is killed by the Germans for trying to tell prisoners in a cattle car passing through the news about the Russians. This causes him to admit to another man that he's lying about the radio, only for that man to die from despair, leaving Jakob unsure which option is the right one anymore.
  • New Old Flame: Mischa has long been in love with Frankfruter's daughter Rosa, but confinement in the ghetto and a conviction that their going to die soon anyway fizzled down their passion for each other. Once Jakob has him convinced that liberation is a real possibility, one of the first things Mischa does is go to the Frankfruters to restart their relationship and then ask Rosa's father for permission to marry her.
  • Parental Substitute: Jakob slowly becomes father figure to a young girl he's hiding who escaped from one of the trains.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The more optimistic possible ending after Jakob is shot:
    Jakob: ...But maybe it wasn't like that at all. Because you know, as Frankfurter says: "Until the last line has been spoken, the curtain cannot come down."
    Rosa: Mischa!
    Jakob: About 50 kilometers out of town, the train was stopped by Russian troops, who had just taken Bizonika, and Pratt...
  • Remake Cameo: Armin Mueller-Stahl starred in the 1975 German film, and here appears playing a different character.