Unless you’re lucky enough to have been catatonic for the past 12 months, you’ll be acutely aware that today marks the coming of “Star Wars: Episode II; Attack of the Clones.” Not even exile to the outer reaches of space could have afforded protection from the cinematic hype – Hollywood’s PR machine has greater pull than the Galactic Empire.
A long time ago, however, before “Star Wars” was commodified by the dark side of tinsel town, George Lucas conceived of a pure and inherently human inquiry for his epic narrative: How could a man struggle to identify the essential elements of his person, only to turn, blade drawn, toward the annihilation of those same traits? Like many a good idea, the fatal flaw occurred in execution. Henry Bean’s film “The Believer” proves there’s no need to travel to a galaxy far, far away for an exploration of the human psyche; self-contradiction is rife all around us.
“The Believer” is the story of a young man, Daniel Ballint, raised in the Jewish faith, but who shuns his religion and becomes a neo-Nazi leader. While such a premise naturally begs the question of how such a transformation could occur, Bean steers the film toward the more complex issue of what draws us to such self-contradiction.
“I wasn’t interested in the ‘how.’ In fact, in some senses the film refuses to answer the question, ‘how.’ The most common negative reaction that I have gotten to the film is people saying, ‘You never do explain how he gets to be this way.'” Bean said. “And to that I have two answers: the way a person gets to be that way is infinitely mysterious, and any definitive explanation would be false and unsatisfying. The other answer is that I guess I feel that in some way no explanation is necessary because everybody is like that; it is just that [Daniel] is an exaggerated version of it.”
In fact, Bean believes that while this film relates to Judaism, it could have just as easily been the story of a homophobic gay man or a misogynistic woman.
“I was drawn, above all, to the way that [Daniel] was drawn to self-contradiction, because I feel that self-contradiction, or what we would call it if we were being logical, is not only very human, I think there is almost an impulse toward it,” Bean said.
A true story from the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement inspired the film. Daniel Burros was an influential and high-ranking member of both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Neo-Nazi Party. In 1965, an editor from the New York Times discovered that Burros was in fact Jewish, and sent a reporter to confront him about an expository story the paper intended to run. Burros was inflamed, he threatened to kill the reporter and himself if the story was printed. The article ran the following Sunday, and Burros fatally shot himself.
“Daniel Burros … was not a guy who interested me very much; I think he was kind of loathsome and unfortunate, and I really wouldn’t have known quite what to say about him,” Bean said. “Much of what I read [about Burros] was utterly predictable if you wanted to figure out how a nice bar mitzvah boy became an anti-Semite; it was easy to predict. But one detail that was interesting was that when Burros was a member of the American [Neo] Nazi Party, and obviously hiding his Judaism from all these other Neo-Nazis, he would never the less bring knishes back to the Nazi headquarters and hang out with girls who people thought were obviously Jewish. He was hiding it, and giving it away at the same time – that was interesting. There was a duplicity there that I found very appealing.”
Conflicting abstractions characterize the film. The themes of submission and oppression twist and invert so quickly in Daniel that audiences are privy to the extreme proximity of polar opposites. The plot shifts halfway through the film when Daniel is forced to listen to stories from Holocaust survivors. While his Neo-Nazi friends argue that the Holocaust never occurred, Daniel is disgusted, not by the horror of the stories, but by the passivity of the Jews. At the same time, however, he is mesmerized and drawn back to his religion. Daniel’s self-contradiction is complete when he attends Jewish services by day and bombs synagogues by night.
“[The second half of the movie] begins with the scene where [Daniel] goes into the synagogue and finds himself, through his loathing, moved by all of this, and then goes on to lead a double life,” Bean said. “The sense of that double life, the sense of someone who wants to be both a Jew and a Nazi – for whom anything less than being a Jew and a Nazi is really insufficient – I thought there was a tremendous truth in that, which felt new and fresh and important to me.”
Bean intended the film to examine such concepts in a multi-layered way. In regards to submission, “The easiest, or most obvious level, is that for many, many Jews the horror of Jewish history is a horror of passivity and acceptance of oppression,” Bean said. “I think there is also a whole different meaning, which is submission as transcendence; submission as a way of getting past the ego, the pride, the will.”
“It is not a film about a Jewish Nazi; it is just a film about being Jewish. It is a film about the kinds of overly melodramatic feelings that pull you in different ways. It is a love poem [about my religion] for a number of reasons. One is that the humor of it … is very Jewish because it is very much about self-contradiction and self-deprecation,” Bean said. “It is also very much involved in the whole argumentative aspect of Judaism.”
With the exception of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the film’s provocative content has been well received by Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. However, major movie studios, including Paramount, have been reluctant to touch such a potentially inflammatory work, which caused extended delays in the film’s release. “The Believer” will be released by Fireworks Entertainment at selected theaters on May 17.
The film stands out as a profoundly sensitive work in tolerance. This is due in large part to Bean’s outstanding casting, which includes Billy Zane and Summer Phoenix in supporting roles. Ryan Gosling’s remarkable portrayal of Daniel Ballint creates a caricature of the film’s protagonist, effectively delegitimizing the extreme statements he makes without having to directly address the bigotry. Gosling’s performance saves the film from becoming a heavy-handed tutorial in political correctness.
“The movie is what I want it to be,” Bean said. “But if I have to summarize it into a statement, I guess that I want audiences to appreciate the multiplicity that is inside them, and to recognize and accept their own contradictions.”
Arts and Lectures will screen “The Believer” on May 22 at 7:30 p.m. in Campbell Hall. Director/Writer Henry Bean will be available after the screening for a question-and-answer session.