I was completely stunned at how well Robin Williams pulled off more serious dramatic roles, since he's much more well-known for high-energy comedy. But his roles as the bad guy in movies like Insomnia or, even better, One Hour Photo display the extent of his acting abilities, since he is able to pull off such different characters so well. In Jakob the Liar, his comedic talents are restricted just enough so that he is able to function properly within the atmosphere of the movie, but is still allowed a scene or two in which his ability to get laughs can come out. He plays Jakob, a Jewish shopkeeper in a Nazi ghetto who tells a friend that he has a radio in order to prevent that friend from committing suicide.
Things do not appear to be going well within the ghetto, the war seems like it will never end, and morale among the imprisoned Jews is steadily waning, resulting in suicides left and right. As Jakob finds a friend of his doing something that will certainly get him killed by the Nazis (this particular friend decided to make a ham-handed attempt at escape rather than overtly kill himself), Jakob runs to him and tells him that he heard on the radio that the Russians were closing in and would liberate them any day. His skeptical friend doubts him, so Jakob quickly tells him that he has a radio so that he will believe the Russians will be there to save them all soon, and his friend's suicide is prevented.
By the next morning, literally everyone in the ghetto knows that Jakob Heym has a radio, and so he is venerated like a God and constantly hounded about what the newest news is, and thus enters the main conflict of the movie. And speaking of which, one of the things that I really liked about the movie was the complexity of its conflict. It's a conflict that you sit there knowing what needs to happen for a happy ending and so you sit there and hope for that, because every option has terrible consequences.
Jakob, first and foremost, is absolutely terrified that word will reach the Nazis who will execute him if they discover he has a radio (whether he really has it or not), yet at the same time he can't let it get out within the ghetto that he DOESN'T have a radio, because since the whole rumor began the rampant suicides have completely ceased. What he has to do, then, is walk the fine line between delivering lots of fictitious good news to the whole ghetto without letting the Nazis find out about it.
There is definitely something that needs to be said about the importance of a movie like this. Obviously, holocaust movies are nothing new, and different depictions of the holocaust have been especially in the spotlight since Roberto Benigni made a holocaust movie called Life Is Beautiful in 1997, at least half of which was a comedy. A lot of people felt that it was distasteful to present something as serious and tragic as the holocaust in such a light. And not just average moviegoers like me, either. Spielberg thought it was too lighthearted for such weighty subject matter, and from a certain point of view, he's right. On the other hand, however, the fact that you laughed during the film does not change the meaning of the war that it focuses on. The Nazis killed funny people, too.
I read a review on the title page for Jakob the Liar here on the IMDb, where a reviewer who completely missed the boat on this movie criticized it for things like the comedic content, the behavior and presentation of the Jews of the ghetto, and the choice of Robin Williams for the role of Jakob Heym. To be perfectly honest, I can never understand people like that. The way I see it, as long as a movie takes the holocaust seriously then it should not be criticized for being a holocaust film that's not in the right format or that had an actor who has done too many comedy roles. This same reviewer, by the way, praised Life Is Beautiful, a spectacular film, as is Jakob the Liar.
I can certainly understand that there are people who are touchy about the holocaust. It is inarguably one of the most tragic events in all of recorded human history, made even more tragic by the fact that it was perpetrated by humans against other humans. It's sickening. But there are no jokes about the holocaust in Jakob the Liar. The Jews do not act like victims. It is historically accurate and does not compromise the truth of what happened for the sake of entertainment. It presents a story of a ghetto full of captive Jews who have had their lives stolen from them and are desperate for some hope, and one man tries to help and inadvertently finds himself in a position to provide massive amounts of hope to them, but at massive risk to his own safety.
So if you don't like to see Robin Williams playing serious, dramatic roles (roles at which he is increasingly displaying his massive talent ), don't watch the movie! It is neither a secret that Williams is in the movie, nor that it's a serious role. One look at the cover box will tell you that. But if it's the holocaust being taken seriously that troubles you, maybe you should be more concerned about the fact that there are people, alive TODAY, here in the 21st Century, and presumably relatively educated American citizens, who DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THE HOLOCAUST EVER EVEN HAPPENED. So like I said, if you're that concerned about the portrayal of the holocaust, maybe focus your efforts on these nutcases who have convinced themselves that the holocaust itself is just a fable. Maybe a myth that mothers started telling their kids to make them scared of Germans or some other such nonsense.
Jakob the Liar has no illusions, it takes a tragedy in human history and tells a story of a man who did what he could to help those suffering around him, and Robin Williams should obviously be commended for the power of his performance, as should the rest of the cast. The thing to keep in mind is that there is no certain perspective from which to view things like the holocaust. Everyone has different thoughts and feelings about it, and in the movies these different perspectives can be provided in different ways without compromising the severity and finality of the event itself. Jakob the Liar does not at all trivialize the holocaust in any way, what it does is honor the loss of its victims, who came from all walks of life.