Jakob the Liar [1999]

The inspiration for the 1999 Robin Williams comedy Jakob the Liar didn't come from Roberto Begnini's acclaimed tragifarce Life Is Beautiful; it's a remake of a 1976 German film. Curiously enough, the original wasn't so much a comedy as a wistful, sad drama of the human spirit buoyed by memories, fantasies, and a lie that takes on a life of its own. Set in the waning days of the Warsaw ghetto when the Polish Jews have all but given up hope as the population dwindles and rumors fly, sad sack Jakob (Vlastimil Brodsky) overhears news of a Russian advance on a nearby German town while detained at the police station. Because no one will believe he survived a visit to the Nazi police, he makes up a story of a hidden radio. News of Jakob's secret spreads like wildfire through the town, lifting spirits and starting debates, and he's forced to start making up news to keep the neighbors satisfied. In the film's most touching scene, Jakob creates a mock broadcast for the orphaned girl he looks after. She peeks around the corner to see his handiwork, then chooses to believe the fantasy instead and sits back down to enjoy his stories. Frank Beyer's picture, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1977, becomes a quiet, gently ironic tale about the need to believe, against all evidence. --Sean Axmaker

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