The Believer (15)

Can our sympathies extend to a Jewish Nazi?
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The Independent Culture

The Believer, director Henry Bean (15)

You know a film means business when it quotes Catullus in its epigram, when it liberally engages in Talmudic dispute, and when it's produced by an outfit called Fuller Films. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that the company was named in homage to the legendary American director Samuel Fuller, whose films tackled social and political issues with confrontational tabloid toughness. But even the maker of Shock Corridor and White Dog, both dealing with racial hatred, would have had his hands full with the contentious subject of Henry Bean's The Believer – an Orthodox Jew turned extremely unorthodox neo-Nazi.

As a screenwriter, Bean, who wrote Deep Cover and Internal Affairs, has often been interested in people caught in contradictory, self-destructive positions. The Believer starts with just such a contradiction, as a scowling skinhead in boots and braces administers a vicious beating to a young scholar in a yarmulke. The twist is that both are Jews, but only one looks it; the other is in grotesque fancy dress.

Bean's film is based on a true story, but that doesn't mean the viewer has any less of a credibility gap to vault. The Believer addresses an unfathomable paradox, and Bean's challenge is to persuade us that there is something coherent about his anti-hero's chosen creed – even that there is something in Jewish thinking itself that leads him to fascism. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) is no ordinary confused thug: we see him as a child, an earnest young scholar in Torah class, passionately arguing about Abraham's submission to a bullying God. He's kicked out for being a troublemaker, which is where his bitterness begins. Danny's rage is against what he sees as Jewish passivity: behind his hatred seems to be a conviction that he has been sent to toughen his people up.

Bean goes out of his way to avoid stereotypes – the first essential in a film about people who thrive on them. Danny may hang out with meatheads, but his closest affinity is with the sophisticated uptown Nazis – charismatic, denimed ideologue Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and his smooth, enigmatic consort Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), with whose masochistic daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix) he starts an affair.

Bean also offers more familiar material, such as a visit to a supremacist country camp, that overlaps with the terrain recently mapped out in Tony Kaye's awkward American History X. But he is more generally interested in stranger turns and conundrums. Danny tells his skinhead cohorts that if they really hate Jews, they should take the trouble to understand them; rebuking them for not knowing the difference between "Kaddish" and "Kiddush", he tells them to emulate Eichmann, the Nazis' most erudite Hebrew scholar. The bizarre upshot is that Carla asks Danny to teach her Hebrew; she proves such an enthusiastic student that before long, she's cooking him traditional Jewish meals, to his rage.

Things take a more complex turn when the hyper-articulate Danny is recruited as spokesman for Zampf's new respectable, overground fascist movement. Before long, he's baffling recruits with his confident rhetoric, telling them they simply hate Jews because they do, that the word "Jew" is itself meaningless (a riff here on Lenny Bruce's tactic of dismantling racial insults by repetition). Then he outrages a gathering of wealthy right-wingers by announcing that Jews thrive on hatred, so the only way to wipe them out is by loving them. Bean's underlying argument seems to be that, just as it takes a Jew to really understand anti-semitism, it takes a Nazi to deconstruct the monstrosity of Nazism.

The film's most serious problem is the way it attempts to combine such mind-bending and often verbose sophistry with more brutal B-movie shock tactics, sometimes to grating effect. There's an incredibly ham-fisted dream sequence in which Danny imagines himself during World War Two first as a stormtrooper, then as his Jewish victim. But the scene I really felt uncomfortable watching – and which I found myself wishing Bean hadn't included – was the skinheads' violation of a synagogue. It's all the more distressing for the perversity of its payoff, as Danny's background stops him from being able to desecrate the Scrolls of the Law; he even ends up discreetly patching them up at home. Nazify himself as he might, upbringing will out – a situation given graphic form when he wraps a prayer shawl round his waist, then gives a Nazi salute. It's a powerful, shocking image but somehow, I can't help feeling, crass comic-book material, weakening the film's claim to seriousness.

There's the inevitable nagging worry that, despite itself, the film glamorises neo-Nazism: as played by the intense, well-sculpted Gosling, Danny is a disturbingly dashing figure, a brute intellectual gone to the bad. More fundamentally, though, the underlying implication is that even anti-Semitism can be laid at the doorstep of those crazy Jews, that it can be seen as an exotic but logical outcrop of Jewish neurosis and self-hatred. Bean may be delving into hitherto unexplored dark zones of Jewish self-image, but it's less certain that he says anything new about Nazism, and his investigative finesse seems primarily theological. One of those tortured examinations of how it takes a heretic to have true faith, traditionally the domain of Catholic artists, The Believer is less a political essay than a kind of Jewish variation on Scorsese's Mean Streets. The moral: religion, it screws you up, but the Big Guy wins in the end.

And ultimately, Bean can't make you believe in the origins of Danny's craziness. He was kicked out of Bible class for being argumentative, so he became a Nazi – as if the broad manor of Judaism couldn't accommodate his scepticism? Rebellious, articulate, troubled Jewish boys don't, as a rule, become Eichmann – they become Philip Roth, or Jackie Mason, or Todd Solondz. Or, I suppose, they become Henry Bean, which is what makes the film indisputably honest, though not any easier to agree with.