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Anti-Semitism Within a Review of The Believer

A profoundly disturbing film, The Believer, written and directed by Henry Bean, an observant Jew, explores the emotional damage anti-Semitism has done to one brilliant, independent-minded Jew, Danny Balint.

Although the film was made before Sept. 11, well before the dramatic international upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents, its release–on May 17 in New York and Los Angeles–is timely.

The film begins with a quote from Catallus, “I love and I hate. Who can tell me why?”

We then observe a yeshiva (Jewish school), with young boys and a teacher discussing the meaning of the biblical story in which Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. The young Danny interprets the story not as a test of faith, but as a demonstration of power: that God is proving his power in contrast to the powerlessness of Abraham.

Obviously obsessed with the issue of power, and repulsed by those who are powerless, 22-year-old Danny (Ryan Gosling) chooses to identify with Nazis as opposed to Jews.

On a New York subway one day, Danny, looking like a skinhead not a Jew, harasses a yeshiva student, and then, when the boy suddenly darts off the subway, follows and attacks him.

Given that the film is being released during a time of greatly increased anti-Semitism, I watched this scene with great discomfort, afraid that it would encourage copycat attacks.

After attacking the yeshiva student, Danny joins a neo-Nazi group, where he proposes killing Jews. When the others ask why, he spews out a ream of negative stereotypes of Jews, including “The modern world is a Jewish disease.” Finally, he says, “Not for any rational reason, but because we know we hate them, because we want them gone.”

Again, although the other Jews in the film are portrayed positively and its ultimate point is to disagree with the anti-Semitism exhibited, I feared that the suggestion–to kill Jews–might be taken up by some film viewers. The film even names specific, well-known Jews as possible targets.

After getting involved with the neo-Nazi group, Danny’s obsession with Jews propels him to organize an attack on a synagogue. In one distressing scene, in which one of his fellow neo-Nazis urinates from the bimah (podium), another one discovers the ark and pulls out a Torah.

Suddenly, Danny’s years of yeshiva education restrain him: He may despise Jews, but he still reveres the Torah. Although he does his best to prevent any desecration of the Torah, it is nonetheless ripped. Danny lovingly scoops the Torah up and brings it home, wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl), where he begins to carefully repair it. He also starts wearing the tallit underneath his shirt.

Danny has meanwhile become involved with Carla (Summer Phoenix), who is the daughter of Lina (Theresa Russell), the leader of the neo-Nazi group. A rebel herself, Carla finds Judaism fascinating. At her request, Danny teaches her Hebrew and they start lighting Shabbat (Sabbath), candles together.

As the film progresses, Danny reconnects with Judaism and with former classmates, but is unable to relinquish his neo-Nazism. He now identifies as both a Nazi and a Jew, as seen by his images of a horrifying story told to him by a survivor. Earlier in the film, when he recalled the story, he had identified with the Nazi in it, but at this point in his life he identifies with both the Nazi and the Jew.

In one startling scene, Danny uses Nazi-like gestures while chanting a Jewish prayer. His double life ultimately becomes impossible to maintain, and the film concludes with the inevitable final scene.

Ryan Gosling, a relatively unknown actor, is superb as Danny, showing both his initial heartlessness, his vulnerability around Carla, and his ultimate torment. Summer Phoenix’s Carla is a complex, equally brilliant and self-hating young adult. On the whole, I find The Believer a worthwhile film for interfaith couples to see in order to become more aware of the ways anti-Semitism can be internalized, but I fear the consequences if it is seen by anti-Semites.

The disturbing yet riveting film leaves viewers full of questions, eager to discuss it. Just in time to answer many of these questions, the Sundance Channel will air, on May 19 at 7:30 p.m., and on May 26 at 11 p.m., a fascinating documentary, Anatomy of a Scene: The Believer, in which writer/director Henry Bean discusses many of the thought processes that went into making the film, specific choices he made in the pivotal scene in which Danny repairs the Torah, why he chose Ryan Gosling to portray Danny, and aesthetic issues such as the use of a hand-held camera and the choice of a grainy-looking type of film.

Anatomy of a Scene: The Believer was edited by Jenny Raskin, Lisa M. Jones and Bill Shaw.

The Believer, which was inspired by a real story Bean read in the New York Times, won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in 2001.

Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.