By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
FROM A CERTAIN PERSPECTIVE, DANNY'S STRUGGLE with his religion in The Believer is a dvar torah, a Torah commentary, in its own right. For all its studied excess, The Believer is less a provocation about the extremes of Jewish and Nazi identity than it is a meditation on Jewish identity in general. Certainly it's an unfashionable, even anachronistic one in America, where Jewish identity typically is informed either by indifference or by the Holocaust. Twice in The Believer, Danny is told, first by a neofascist and then by a secular Jewish stock investor, that there is no Jewish problem anymore, that anti-Semitism is dead and nobody cares. This is the dilemma of Jewish identity in an open society. "If Judaism is not defined negatively," says Bean, "then Danny doesn't know how to know himself without that oppression." Hence Danny's statement to a group of visibly twitchy weekend fascists that if Hitler hadn't existed, the Jews would have had to invent him.
A book written after the Daniel Burros case by Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, both at that time rising stars at The New York Times, portrayed Burros as a self-hating casualty of the Holocaust. Had Bean chosen to follow that line of reasoning, it's likely The Believer would have had a smoother path to distribution. To the extent that Jewish themes have seeped into recent Hollywood movies, it's been through the prism of the European Jewish experience in World War II, which offers an easily digested narrative arc from oppression to nobility. Though the Shoah has its place in The Believer -- for all his hatred of the "weak Jew," Danny is haunted by a story told him by Holocaust survivors about a little boy whose father fails to protect him from the Nazis -- Danny's fierce hatred of Jewish passivity runs against the passion of American Jews, in an age of identity politics and the culture of the victim, for repossessing the Holocaust as their own story.
Whether as a Jew or as a writer of tales of power for the movies, Bean shares Danny's unease with narratives of Jewish weakness. "To me, the Holocaust as a defining attribute of Judaism is a nightmare," he says. "It's really a German story in the most basic Drama 101 sense. The Germans are the actors, the ones who make it happen. And that's why the Jews are just victims, and why today they are having this defining experience around a) they're victimized and b) they don't do anything except die, √Ę and rather shamefully. And what's happened is that the Holocaust has become this cudgel that can be used on people." Small wonder that Rabbi Cooper and the Wiesenthal Center, whose goal is to keep the Holocaust alive in the American psyche, objected to The Believer.
"The Holocaust, for all its horrible magnificence," says Bean, "is not nearly as interesting or complex as this absolutely unparalleled tradition, this unique, magnificent, incredibly profound tradition that has produced one of the great cultures of the world. That's what I wanted to talk about in my movie." But even the movie's dialogue with religion was a problem for Rabbi Cooper, who was offended by a scene in which Danny and his Nazi pals lay waste to a synagogue. At the time, Bean was infuriated by Cooper's response, which he had solicited. Though he's more philosophical -- or diplomatic -- today, he still can't resist giving Cooper a little shove: "I thought of having a coda saying 'No Torah was desecrated in the making of this film.'"
In fact, The Believer grew precisely out of the scene that so rattled Cooper, and that serves as a turning point in Danny's rabid rejection of the very tradition Bean has grown to love. When, in the synagogue, Danny and his fellow thugs begin to defile the Torah, we see him trying to conceal his anger and anxiety. He steals the Torah, takes it home, lovingly repairs it, wraps a prayer shawl around his waist, then struts around giving the Nazi salute and chanting the prayer that accompanies the removal of the Torah from the ark. Thereafter he lives a schizoid life, part Jew, part Nazi, two irreconcilable tracks that can only end in disaster.
THOUGH DANNY BALINT IS A PERSONification, however exaggerated, of the dilemma of the modern Jew, who can't live with his Judaism, yet can't live without it, that's not the only reason Bean stubbornly resisted redeeming him to reassure the audience. "I am really a creature of excess, at least in my imaginative life," he says. "I liked the operatic, over-the-top-ness of it." Indeed, he sees Danny as a Dostoyevskian figure. "As Danny's life becomes increasingly schizoid, he becomes more completely himself. He's going to play the whole thing out, and I find that heroic. It's terribly destructive to be that way, because you can't live a life that admits everything. But the impulse to do so, though very adolescent, is nevertheless grand."
Maybe a little too grand, even for the indie crowd. Though The Believer received four nominations for the Independent Feature Project Spirit Awards last March, it took away not a single prize. Perhaps the movie was a provocation on too many fronts -- too Jewish, too unresolved, too unwilling to cede an inch of ground to American political correctness, and, finally, too vocal and funny on subjects we've been trained to treat with silent reverence. Perhaps the movie creates a hero we can't bear, a man who owns to what is worst in him, as well as what is best. Perhaps, in our resurgently fanatical age, we can only avert our gaze from a man of such extremes. Nothing deterred, Bean is hard at work (with his old friend Nicholas Kazan) on a new movie about another fanatic, a man who is being driven crazy by the noise in New York City and who, once he tries to do something about it, can't stop, even though his efforts are hopeless. "It's a comedy, obviously," says Bean with a wolfish grin. "But I hope the noise in the film functions a bit like the rats in The Plague."