Blind Faith

Writer-director Henry Bean opens The Believer with a classy Latin quote: "I hate and I love and who can tell me why?" As its title suggests, The Believer is steeped in irrationality, but pace Catullus, it's the Yiddish expression "hard to be a Jew" that permeates this taboo-breaking movie—a Sundance prizewinner too hot for any established distributor to touch.

Inspired by the story of a young American Nazi from Ozone Park, Queens, who committed suicide in 1965 after being outed as a Jew by The New York Times, The Believer is passionately intelligent pulp. Bean punches his lurid tale across while probing the psychology of anti-Semitism, internalized and otherwise. This is a case of "mirroring evil" that truly manages to go through the looking glass, beginning with a flashback to the young Danny Balint providing a heretical midrash on the biblical account of Isaac and Abraham. God, he maintains, demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son to demonstrate that "I'm everything and you're nothing."

Grown from a skinny yeshiva student into an angry skinhead in a red swastika T-shirt, Danny (Ryan Gosling) puts the "Jewish question" at the center of his politics. Attending a meeting at the home of glam fascists Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), he derails their mainstream agenda by suggesting they begin killing Jews. "Which ones?" someone asks. That another's automatic response of "Barbra Streisand" works as a laugh line for both characters and spectators demonstrates Bean's Hitchcockian knack for implicating the audience.

Arrogant conviction complicated by massive denial: Gosling and Phoenix in The Believer
photo: Fireworks
Arrogant conviction complicated by massive denial: Gosling and Phoenix in The Believer

Details

The Believer
Written and directed by Henry Bean
Fireworks
Angelika
Opens May 17

Late Marriage
Written and directed by Dover Kosashvili
Magnolia
Opens May 17

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Still, The Believer is more two-fisted case study than suspense thriller. Danny's background is almost immediately revealed to the viewer and is crucial for an appreciation of the movie's strongest scenes—many of which have to do with his articulate expression of a visceral anti-Semitism. Zampf and Moebius initially suspect him of being an FBI provocateur, as well they might. Consciously or not, Danny's mission is to precipitate, and hence expose, the hatred of Jews that he believes is already present in society—like his biblical namesake, he's only reading the writing on the wall. On the other hand, Danny is figuratively blind. His arrogant conviction is complicated by massive denial.

The Believer would scarcely work without Gosling's fierce performance—one requiring him both to brawl with beefy thugs at a Nazi training camp and then debate kashrut with the waiter in a dairy restaurant. Even more remarkably, Gosling imbues his odious character with a degree of pathos. In one blatantly sensationalist scene, Danny and his cohort are sentenced to sensitivity training with a group of elderly Holocaust survivors. This meeting throws the Jewish Nazi back into childhood—no less than the old Jews he is baiting, he begins to twitch and shake, condemning them for not attacking their enemies. One organizer of the infamous neo-Nazi march on Skokie, Illinois, in 1978 was the child of Auschwitz survivors. Danny's family history is vague in the film, but his pathology is also a reaction-formation to perceived Jewish weakness.

Indeed, Danny's critique has a long currency among Jewish ideologues, Zionist and Communist—namely the desire to re-educate, if not liquidate, the rootless diaspora Jew. (Hence his assertion that Israelis are no longer Jews because "they have soil.") You might wonder why this self-sculpted skinhead didn't find his reinvention with the Jewish Defense League. One answer could be that his is the most extreme possible identification with the aggressor; another is his inability to see himself in other Jews, even as remade healthy and strong.

This "muscle Jew" with a vengeance is a loner nursing a neurotic I/Thou relationship with the Author of the Universe, whom he memorably calls "a power-drunk madman" and a "conceited bully." Danny's übermensch fantasy, predicated on fear and rejection, is not so different from that of another son of Queens—the world-dominating Spider-Man. But then nearly everyone in The Believer is playing some sort of role up to a point. Lina Moebius's sultry, thrill-seeking daughter Carla (the estimable Summer Phoenix) gets the movie's key lines. "Hurt me," she brazenly demands after luring Danny to her bedroom, and then, "Ow, not that hard!"

Danny's personality is the most extreme characterization of this particular dynamic. He incites a group of skinheads to desecrate a synagogue but panics when they actually do so without understanding, as he does, just what it is they are desecrating. (In a later outburst, he refuses to let Carla stand naked before the Torah scroll.) This craziness saves The Believer from seeming overly schematic. Danny achieves his essential being in the grotesque scene wherein he wraps his torso with a tallis, samurai style, and begins to daven his sieg heils.

Danny imagines his reinvention complete. "Do I look Jewish to you?!!" he explodes when interviewed by the tweedy New York Times reporter (well played by A.D. Miles) who has gleaned his story. (Actually, with his long cranium and death's-head 'do, Danny could double for Timothy McVeigh.) As Bean audaciously insists on Danny as a Jewish type—the tormented apikoris—the movie's more astute characters don't need the Times to give them the scoop. As Carla observes, only a Jew would be so obsessed with Jewishness. This cultural narcissism hardly makes anti-Semitism any less real—although the film does run the risk of suggesting that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism, a formulation Bean attributes to Lina Moebius. Even before anyone suspects Danny might be Jewish, the fascists recognize him as an intellectual. (Why waste time with street brawls when he could be fundraising?) What they don't understand is that, closet Nietzschean that he is, Danny is casting himself as another Samson.

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