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RE-RELEASED AND REMADE

 

 

The Tale of Jacob
UMass' DEFA archive revives a German classic

Photo: caption below

Front-row center at MoMA: UMass DEFA head Barton Byg, with director Frank Beyer, left, and Gerhard Sieber of Icestorm Entertainment.

 

 

What a long, strange life it's been for Jacob the Liar. One of the few motion pictures to find success on both sides of the Iron Curtain when it was released in the 1970s, the film languished for years amidst the decaying communism of East Germany. It was subsequently flattened by the steamroller of western privatization, then liberated, imitated, remade – and finally re-released in its original form some twenty-five years later.

     Born Jakob der Lügner in the former German Democratic Republic, the film was a product of the state-owned Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft (DEFA) studios. Its creators were Polish-born Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker, the author of the original novel and screenplay, and East German director Frank Beyer. Beyer filmed Becker's story in 1974 after being black-listed for nearly ten years by government officials who accused movie-makers of "spreading skepticism and pessimism."

     Despite its origins and its release in the midst of the Cold War, the movie was hailed in the West as well as within the communist bloc. In 1975 the Berlin Film Festival gave Czech actor Vlastimil Brodsky its coveted Silver Bear Prize for his performance in the title role. In 1977 Jacob was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards.

     But the decline and fall of communism orphaned Jacob. Together with thousands of its celluloid comrades, it was overlooked in the rush of privatization that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The DEFA studios closed in 1992, and, says Germanic languages and literature professor Barton Byg, in the new, reunified Germany there was little interest in anything recalling the "bad old days."

     Byg is director of the DEFA Film Library at UMass and one of those responsible for breathing new life into Jacob. He says the champions of privatization in Germany in the early '90s were "mostly interested in real estate – things like buildings and factories." Intellectual properties were too nebulous to deal with. As a result, thousands of movie prints from the former GDR – feature films, documentaries, newsreels, children's films – were liquidated or lost. Primarily through the efforts of Byg, who's been studying and teaching East German film since he was a graduate student in the '70s, hundreds of those forgotten prints, including Jacob, have since found a home at UMass.

     When the DEFA Film Library opened in Herter Hall in 1998, it became the only East German cinema archive and study center outside Europe. Besides Jacob, the DEFA library includes some 750 films on 35mm, 16mm, or video. Nearly half are available for rent for educational use. Byg and DEFA also work closely with the German company Icestorm International, which owns the VHS and DVD rights for the films and controls commercial sales for the DEFA collection, plus thousands of other titles.


Now Jacob the Liar, arguably the star of the archive, has made a heroic comeback. In 1998, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which many critics say echoes Jacob in its portrayal of hope and innocence in the face of the Holocaust, won three Oscars. In 1999, a remake starring Robin Williams was released by Columbia Tristar. And last November, a restored print of the original movie was released through an agreement between UMass, Icestorm, and Progress Film-Verleih GmbH, the East German firm that holds the movie's worldwide distribution rights.

     One of the first public showings of the newly-restored Jacob was last November 9 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Director Frank Beyer was in attendance, and the date was a potent one: the anniversary of Hitler's "Beer Hall Putsch" of 1923 and Kristallnacht – the "Night of Broken Glass" – in 1938, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. MoMA's Titus Theater was packed for the occasion with elderly Jews and young Germans, historians, and film buffs.

     The warm but tragic story of Jacob's attempt to sustain hope in a Jewish ghetto, even as internees are herded off to camps, enraptured the MoMA audience, and most stayed afterward to hear Beyer speak about his work. Some questioned the film's use of humor in the face of such tragedy, and its portrayal of Nazi soldiers as sometimes sensitive and vulnerable beings. Beyer responded that his choice was to make a "poetic version" of Becker's novel. (Byg notes that the Columbia remake relies much more on portraying the Germans as villains. In Beyer's film, "the Nazis are shown as fallible and inept – not as all-powerful, which is the way they wanted to be shown.")

     The relationship between UMass and its contemporary German partner, Icestorm, has blossomed in just two years, Byg says, and has been a boon to the University and the state. The UMass logo appears on every DEFA video cassette Icestorm sells, and the University receives a royalty for its use. Icestorm, which has opened an office in Northampton, also contracts within the state to print catalogues and overdub and produce videos. So far the company has made fifty DEFA films available for sale and anticipates expanding its catalogue by thirty films each year. DEFA and Icestorm also co-sponsor conferences and organize film series for screening at festivals, art houses, museums, and universities. A series titled "Berlin: Divided Heaven - From the Ice Age to the Thaw," which includes films from both East and West Germany, will tour next season, Byg reports.

     As for Beyer, he, like his Jacob, has discovered that life in German cinema is uncertain no matter who's at the helm. After his 1966 film Spur der Steine (Traces of Stones) was banned by the state, he was prevented from directing until he made Jacob. In the '90s, as a former East German, he has struggled to find work in a new economic system, and has mostly made television movies.

     "In East Germany, we had censorship," Beyer told the crowd at MoMA. "In West Germany we have sponsorship. Sponsorship is much like censorship."

– Ben Barnhart

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