DEFA Film Library
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cinema of East Germany
Shadows and Sojourners:
Images of Jews and Antifascism in East German Film
Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar)
1974, East Germany
(DEFA and GDR TV co-production), color, 101 min. Feature
Jacob the Liar is the story of a Jewish man who invents news stories about impending Nazi defeat to bolster the spirits and return hope to the lives of the other Jews living in his Polish ghetto. This film is a story about hope, human dignity, responsibility, and guilt, and it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 in the category of Best Foreign Film. Featuring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jacob the Liar was remade in Hollywood by TriStar Pictures in 1999 and starred Robin Williams.
Jakob Heym is sent to the police station for allegedly disobeying the curfew imposed on the Jewish ghetto in which he lives. While there, he overhears a radio broadcast about the advancing Russian army. A short time later, Jakob tells young Mischa, who works alongside him at the freightyard, of the Red Army’s location. Mischa is disbelieving until Jakob says that he listens to the news on his own contraband radio. Before long, the entire ghetto knows of Jakob’s radio. They pester him for updates on the war, leaving Jakob torn between telling the truth, or living a lie that brings hope to so many. Indeed, no further suicides have occurred in the ghetto since people began pressuring him to relate more stories. Some Jews, however, fear that Jakob’s radio, if discovered by the Nazis, would bring certain retribution. When the faith of all those in the ghetto hangs on his invented news reports, Jakob becomes a hero in spite of himself.
For the story of Jacob the Liar, the journey from conception to its cinematic debut on April 17, 1975 lasted well over a decade. As a college student, Jurek Becker’s father had told him of a man who once owned a clandestine radio while living in the Polish ghetto of Lodz. Under threat of execution, the man succeeded in passing news of the outside world and of the advancing Red Army to people the ghetto. Both Jurek and his father were captivated by the story; they themselves had survived life in the Lodz ghetto and later the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. From this small tale, Jurek further imagined a scenario in which the man had invented his radio to spread hope to people who had none. In 1964, at the age of twenty-five, Jurek Becker completed a script entitled Jacob the Liar. Within a year, Becker was teamed up with film director Frank Beyer, with whom he further developed the script. Yet once completed, momentum for the project stalled. Not long after the city of Krakow was selected as the primary location for filming, Polish cultural authorities withdrew their support. Anti-Semitism and the existence of Polish ghettos, such as the one in Krakow, and were still topics of some taboo.
Eight years would pass before Beyer and Becker moved forward on the film. In the meantime, Becker had turned the screenplay into a novel of the same title. His book enjoyed surprising success throughout the GDR, and was published internationally in several languages. Of the book, scholar Sander Gilman has said it is “the best and most moving novel about the Shoah from the present generation of Jewish writers in Germany.” The success of Jacob the Liar’s print version proved encouraging to studio executives. Indeed the question of who to cast in the role of Jacob went straight to Erich Honecker, the leader of the East Germany, himself. Beyer had been torn between casting an old friend, Vlastimil Brodsky, or Heinz Rühmann, who was enjoying considerable popularity at the time. Honecker, however, had the last word; he decided for Brodsky, reasoning that casting the Czech actor and not a German would help to avoid a “unified German culture-nation” (Beyer 2001, 189). Filming was also scheduled to begin in the abandoned Czechoslovakian town of Most, whose residents had been relocated to make way for coal mining. But first, the two lead actors — Brodsky who played Jacob, and Erwin Geschonneck who played Kowalski — had to overcome a sizable language barrier; Brodsky spoke little German and Geschonneck knew no Czech.
In an interview from 1975, Director Frank Beyer said of Jacob the Liar, “The theme of this film … is not that of the antifascist resistance. Naturally, Jacob is a resistance fighter and antifascist, one of the greatest of his kind even. The theme of the film goes further yet; it has something to do with the relationship of people to reality, with their relationships to the truth and to lies” (Wischnewski 1975, 19). Jacob the Liar has been recognized as one of the 100 most important German films of all time in a survey of film critics, historians, and filmmakers from Deutsche Kinemathek of Berlin. In 1977, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Frank Beyer was born in Nobitz, Thuringia in 1932. After completing his Gymnasium studies in 1950, he became a member of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany). He began studying directing in 1952 at the famed Prague Film School (FAMU) with Milos Forman and other budding Czechoslovakian directors. It was during this time that he had the opportunity to assist important DEFA directors like Hans Müller, Kurt Maetzig and Kurt Jung-Alsen. After completing Zwei Mütter, his thesis film, Beyer began directing at the DEFA Studios in 1957.
His early films dealt mainly with antifascist topics. In 1963 he directed the first DEFA feature film to portray life in a concentration camp, Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked among Wolves). Though Beyer was a party member whose philosophy was primarily in line with that of the SED, his film Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, 1966) was banned by GDR state officials for being “politically inappropriate” and was not shown again until 1989. This was a tragic blow to Beyer’s career as a filmmaker, and because he would not confess to having made an “inappropriate” film, he was not welcome to continue making films for DEFA. He resorted to directing plays in a Dresden theater and to making television films throughout the early 70s.
His return to DEFA came in 1974 with Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar), which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film at the Academy Awards in 1977. Geschlossene Gesellschaft, Beyer’s 1978 TV movie, led to another split with DEFA; as a result, he directed two films in West Germany before returning to DEFA in 1982. Since DEFA’s dissolve he continues to work primarily on films for television that take a socially critical stance, such as Ende der Unschuld and Nikolaikirche. His most recent project is Abgehauen, a biographical film about the East German actor Manfred Krug. Beyer is known for directing some of the most powerful and historically significant films at DEFA.
Zwei Mütter (Two Mothers, 1957), Eine alte Liebe (An Old Love, 1959), Fünf Patronenhülsen (Five Cartridges 1960), Königskinder (And Your Love Too, 1962), Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves, 1963), Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel, 1963), Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, 1966), Das Versteck (The Hiding Place, 1977), Geschlossene Gesellschaft (Closed Society, 1978), Die zweite Haut (The Second Skin, 1981), Der Aufenthalt (The Turning Point, 1982), Bockshorn (Ram’s Horn, 1983), Der Bruch (The Break, 1988), Ende der Unschuld (End of Innocence, 1991), Der Verdacht (The Suspicion, 1991), Nikolaikirche (Nikolai Church, 1995), Abgehauen (1998).
Becker, Jurek. Jacob the Liar. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. New York: Arcade, 1990.
Beyer, Frank. “Die wahre Geschichte von Jakob dem Lügner.” Wenn der Wind sich dreht. Munich: Econ, 2001. 180-197.
“Jakob der Luegner.” Variety. 16 July 1975.
Kent, Leticia. “From East Germany: A Look Back on the Nazi Terror.” New York Times. 3 April 1977.
Kersten, Heinz. “Jakob der Lügner.” So viele Träume. DEFA-Film-Kritiken aus drei Jahrzehnten. Ed. Christel Drawer. Berlin: Vistas, 1996.
Lennon, Peter. “Once upon a time in the east: Peter Lennon on what Hollywood could learn from film-makers behind the Iron Curtain.” Guardian. 12 March 2002.
Pioch, Bruno, ed. Kino-Information: Studiofilme. Anregungen zur Diskussion. Berlin: PROGRESS Filmverleih, 1976. 12-14.
Schieber, Elke. “An der Wahrheit sterben. Jakob der Lügner 1974.” Regie: Frank Beyer. Ed. Ralf Schenk. Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1995.
Weiler, A.H. “Jacob the Liar.” New York Times. 25 April 1977.
Wischnewski, Klaus. “Über Jakob und andere.” Film und Fernsehen. Feb 1975. 18-24.
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