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Bean & Nothingness 

The Believer’s creator is an observant Jewish agnostic

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

TWENTY MINUTES INTO AN OVERFLOW SCREENING OF THE BELIEVER AT THE 2001 SUNDANCE Film Festival, I was enthralled -- and scribbling in my notes that the movie will never fly with audiences who are not obsessed Jews like me, let alone snag a distributor. Henry Bean's fevered tale of an Orthodox Jew who remodels himself into a Nazi skinhead, then rediscovers his roots in the Torah and ends up living a vibrantly terrible double life as a Jew and a fascist, is a capable thriller with emotional intensity to burn and more than a few sly laughs. But Bean's script is laden with Midrashic commentary on the Jewish Torah; its star is a relatively unknown, if prodigiously talented, young Canadian actor; and the supporting cast is resolutely B-list and below.

The Believer brought down the house at Sundance and went on to win a Grand Jury award, which ordinarily is enough to draw a swarm of big independent distributors, cash in hand. They sniffed, but didn't buy. The critics liked the movie, and it played to appreciative audiences at festivals in Moscow and Munich, neither of which is famed for its philo-Semitic culture, and in Israel, where it was most likely to give offense. It's done very well in commercial release in England, a country with a long and queasy tradition of tolerating its Jews, on condition they don't act Jewish. But in the United States, home to one of the biggest, freest and least put-upon Jewish communities in the world, the movie couldn't find a distributor. It didn't help that Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a self-appointed film critic and gatekeeper to Hollywood of movies with Jewish content, told potential buyer Paramount Classics that the film didn't work: It lacked a good script, failed to provide motivation for the protagonist, and, he said, one crucial scene of a synagogue desecration offered a potential "primer for anti-Semitism." Although Cooper's may have been no more than the vote that tipped the scales in an industry notoriously skittish about making films with Jewish themes, Paramount did, in fact, pass, whereupon Showtime jumped in and bought the movie for cable. Then came September 11, with its attendant Hollywood nervousness about terrorist themes. Now, at last, IDP, the distribution arm of The Believer's production company, Fireworks Pictures, is giving the film a modest bicoastal release, to be followed, if all goes well, by 20 top markets around the country.

AT THE OUTSET, THE BELIEVER ANNOUNCES ITSELF as a simple story of Jewish self-hatred. Danny Balint, played by Ryan Gosling (former Mouseketeer, cohort of Britney Spears) with a taut blend of contempt, icy intelligence and naked vulnerability, is a young man driven by opposing forces. He's the puny, bespectacled yeshiva bocher arguing with his Hebrew teacher about the power of God; and he's the sneering, muscled überkind in a swastika T-shirt who likes to beat the shit out of puny, bespectacled yeshiva bochers. Obsessed with powerful fathers (God, Abraham) and powerless children (Isaac, the rest of us), Danny is, to all outward appearances, the powerful son of a weak, broken father. So dedicated a hater is Danny of himself and the forces that have shaped him that he is willing to try to annihilate both. Fascism is his ticket out of Judaism -- and, as the consequences of his defection and his betrayals come home to roost, his ticket back into it. The Torah is Danny's scourge, and his delight; his shame, and his pride.

Like many truly preposterous fictional characters, Danny Balint is drawn from life. In October 1965, The New York Times ran an interview with Daniel Burros, a former member of the American Nazi Party who had become King Kleagle in a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. When the reporter confronted Burros with the fact that he was a Jew, the young man threatened to kill both the writer and himself if his cover was blown. One hour after the story appeared, Burros shot himself in the head. It wasn't until 10 years after Burros' death that Henry Bean and his friend Mark Jacobson, neither of whom was in the film business yet, toyed with the idea of making a movie out of it. "Like millions of others," Bean wrote in an essay recently published together with The Believer's screenplay and several commentaries by prominent Jewish scholars, "we spent a good deal of time imagining the films we would make without imagining very hard that we would actually make them. For this purpose, the 'Danny Burros Story' was perfect: the craziness, the self-destructive fury and, above all, the endless ironies."

Bean did manage to write a short treatment, which he and Jacobson submitted to Dustin Hoffman's production company. They never heard back, and dropped the project when, in the early '70s, Jacobson moved to New York to study journalism. In 1977, Bean took off for Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. The Jewish-Nazi project languished for 15 years. "It wasn't that I was lazy or even stupid," writes Bean. "Perhaps, as with my inability to keep kosher or honor the Sabbath, there was a terror of what happiness I might find, like someone afraid to fall in love." By the time Bean returned to the project in earnest in the early '90s, his life had undergone a sea change, one that led him to make his character, unlike Daniel Burros, an Orthodox Jew.

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