Say what you will about the acting, staging and direction -- all of which are excellent -- you've got to be tough to enjoy "Jakob the Liar." Despite the presence of comic genius Robin Williams, this story of life in a Polish ghetto during the final days of World War II cloaks its considerable humor in the darkest possible garments: Take my life, please.
Williams takes the title role, a deposed restaurateur eking out a living as slave labor for the Gestapo along with the frightened remains of a once-lively Jewish village. The Jews, targeted for disposal by the Third Reich, all live under the assumption that unless the war ends and they are freed, they will die.
Writer-director Peter Kassovitz sets this scene in grays and blacks, with barely enough color left for the yellow stars of David on the front and back of each Jew's coat. No sun shines, and the sky is only slightly brighter than the expressions on the people's faces.
A simple misunderstanding one day places Jakob within earshot of a radio, and he overhears a scrap of optimistic war news, that the Russians are making gains against the Nazis. He tells a friend in secrecy, but soon everyone knows it and hungers for more. The salutary effect of good news on the ghetto convinces Jakob he shouldn't deny he has access to a radio. Before long, he's become a local hero -- and a target for Nazi punishment.
Jakob manages his precarious situation with bits of black humor, as the irony of living surrounded by death makes some contradictions impossible to miss. But Kassovitz doesn't allow the atmosphere to turn light. Instead, he maintains a relentless gray -- both visual and vocal -- in his characters. They include a talkative ex-boxer (Liev Schreiber), a learned doctor (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a depressed barber (Bob Balaban).
Williams does get a chance to show off some of his comic invention, as he imitates radio broadcasts for a 10-year-old girl (Anne Frank look-alike Hannah Taylor Gordon) who finds refuge in Jakob's attic. But most of this story simply repeats the horrific messages of the Gestapo oppression of European Jews.
The source book of the same name comes from the 1969 autobiographical novel by Jurek Becker, who also wrote screenplays for "The Hiding Place" and "David," and whose novels "The Boxer" and "Bronstein's Children" were also made into films.
It serves as an intense vehicle for Williams, who every so often makes an effort to perform "serious" work. Those movies, notably "Seize the Day" and "Being Human," didn't succeed at the box office, and it's likely "Jakob the Liar" won't break ticket sales records either.
Its appeal will rely on viewer interest in Nazi inhumanity and Jewish survivalism, both well-plowed fields. That it's a well-made film with first-rate performances distinguishes it from others with the same themes in only a limited way.