There are a few East German films that, in spite of the political differences, are acknowledged as classics on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Stars, The Murderers Are Among Us, and The Rabbit is Me have all entered that exclusive group, but—with the exception of Stars—these films did not receive much attention until after the wall fell. Jakob the Liar (Jakob, der Lügner), on the other hand, was immediately recognized as a classic. So much so that it was nominated, against all odds, for an Academy Award, and Hollywood felt the need to create its own heavy-handed version starring Robin Williams.
Jakob the Liar is the story of people living in a Jewish ghetto, near the end of WWII. They are always in imminent danger of being shipped off to the concentration camps, and the question that’s on everyone’s mind is: Will the Russians get there before its too late? When a man named Jakob Heym overhears that the Russian troops aren’t far away, he tells everyone that he heard it on his secret radio. In fact, he heard it while he was waiting to be chastised at the local military headquarters. As time goes by, the lie gets bigger and everyone in the ghetto turns to him for hope. We know nothing good can come of this scenario, but the film manages to maintain a fine balance between hope and tragedy. This is thanks largely to the deftly written screenplay by Jurek Becker.
Becker first wrote the story as a film script in 1968, but DEFA—still under the influence of the 11th Plenum’s rules against anything even remotely provocative—nixed the idea. Becker turned his screenplay into a book, and the book proved to be popular on both sides of the wall. After Erich Honecker took over the reins of government from Walter Ulbricht, the restrictions against films were relaxed a bit. Becker’s screenplay was dusted off, and the film was greenlighted for production.
Jurek Becker was born in Łódź, Poland, probably in 1937 (his actual birthdate is something of a mystery). Being Jewish, he and his family were moved into the Łódź Ghetto in 1939, and later shipped out to concentration camps. He and his mother ended up first in Ravensbruck, then in Sachsenhausen at the Königs Wusterhausen sub-camp, where his mother died of malnutrition shortly after the camp was liberated. His father was sent to Auchschwitz, and miraculously survived. Jurek was reunited with his father after the war and the two of them moved to the Soviet Sector because his father felt that the Russians were doing a better job of curbing anti-Semitism than the western allies.
At first, the young man fit well with East German society, but while still at school studying philosophy, he got in trouble for his contrary views and was expelled. Becker spent the next few years working as a freelance writer, writing articles and screenplays. Jakob the Liar was his first novel, but was followed by many others, including The Boxer (Der Boxer), Sleepless Days (Schlaflose Tage), and Bronstein’s Children (Bronsteins Kinder), all of which have been made into movies (primarily for German television).
Frank Beyer directed Jakob the Liar. Beyer was well-respected for his WWII films, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), a politically-charged love triangle during WWII; Carbide and Sorrel, a comedy set in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden; and Naked Among Wolves, the first DEFA film to examine life inside a concentration camp. In the wake of the 11th Plenum, Beyer’s film, The Trace of Stones, became the biggest bugbear of the East German government and Beyer spent the next ten years working at the Dresden State Theater, and later in television. Jakob the Liar was also originally intended for television, but its popularity led to theater distribution.
Jakob the Liar shows the sure hand of a director who, through earlier experimentation and a variety of different film projects, has mastered his craft. Every scene is composed to tell the story as economically as possible. The experimental camera angles and scene compositions of his earlier work—most notably Königskinder—have been toned down in favor of straight-forward storytelling. The cinematographer was Günter Marczinkowsky, who had shot every Beyer film since Eine alte Liebe (An Old Love) in 1959. Here, he and costume designer Joachim Dittrich work from a palette of grays, browns and olive drabs that create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. In 1980, Marczinkowsky left East Germany to work in the west, where he continued in television production until 1989.
After success of Jakob the Liar, Becker teamed up with Beyer a second time to create The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), starring Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann. It was during the production of this film that Wolf Biermann was forcibly expatriated. Several popular East German film people signed a letter of protest about this. Among the signatories were Beyer, Becker, Hoffmann and Krug. The SED, running scared by this time, ended up driving most of these people—along with Angelica Dömrose, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and several other of East Germany’s brightest talents—out of the country.
Becker was given a two-year visa, which he used to move to the United States and teach for six-months. After that he moved to West Berlin and continued writing, although his books were no longer published in the GDR. Beyer found himself in the doghouse once more, but, remarkably, he was given a work permit to make films for West German television. Nonetheless, he did not give up his East German citizenship and continued working on both sides of the border, making a few more feature films for DEFA before the wall came down. After the Wende, Beyer worked primarily in television. He has since retired. His last film was the TV-movie, Abgehauen (roughly translated: Beat It), based on Manfred Krug’s autobiographical account of the events that led to that actor’s expulsion from the GDR.
Jakob the Liar’s minimal but haunting score was by Joachim Werzlau. Beyer and Werzlau had worked together many times before, starting with Beyer’s first feature film for DEFA, Zwei Mütter. Zwerlau was born to make music. His father was an orchestra musician who taught him to play piano and violin, and the boy was already trying his hand at classical composition at the age of twelve. At first he did not study music, but began working at the Blüthner piano factory. later he was accepted at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, but was kicked out because of his left-leaning associations. After the war he was a member of the Cultural Alliance for Democratic Renewal of Germany and composed “Weil Wir Jung Sind, Ist Die Welt So Schön” (“Because We Are Young, The World Is So Beautiful”), a song frequently sung at FDJ meetings (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, the official socialist youth movement of the SED).
Jakob the Liar was Zwerlau’s last film score. Like Simeon Pironkov’s score for Stars, its inspiration comes from Jewish folk tunes and is hauntingly melancholy. After this film, Werzlau concentrated on his classical compositions, in particular, his opera, Meister Röckle, based on the book by Ilse and Vilmos Korn that was adapted from a version of a old fairy tale that Karl Marx had re-interpreted.
No examination of Jakob the Liar would be complete without mentioning the film’s exceptional cast. To play the lead, Beyer cast Vlastimil Brodský, a Czech actor whose sad-sack expression was perfect for the part. The Czech spoke German very badly, so his voice was dubbed. Scenes of dialog between Brodský and other actors were reportedly very difficult for all involved. Sadly, Brodský committed suicide in 2002.
Playing Jakob’s best friend, Kowalski, is Erwin Geschonneck, arguably the best actor in East Germany. Geschonneck had wanted to play Jakob, but Beyer convinced him that a smaller, more inconspicuous man was needed. [For more information on Erwin Geschonneck, see the article on Carbide and Sorrel.]
Most of the leading actors in the film went on the have successful careers in unified Germany. Among them, Henry Hübchen and Blanche Kommerell, who played the young lovers, Mischa and Rosa, and, of course, Armin Mueller-Stahl, who has the singular distinction of appearing in both film versions of the story. Worthy of special mention is the charming performance by Manuela Simon as the young girl, Lina, who serves as the last symbol and childhood innocence in the ghetto. It is her only film performance, and it is a heartbreaker.
Although the film did not win the Academy Award (that honor went to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color), Frank Beyer won the Interfilm Award for his directing, and Vlastimil Brodský won the Silver Bear for best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1975. The Holllywood version of the story went unnominated by the Motion Picture Academy, but Robin Williams did garner a Golden Raspberry award nomination for worst actor (he lost to Adam Sandler in Big Daddy).