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Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

“Neither the product nor the process of adaptation exists in a vacuum: they all have context—a time and a place, a society and a culture” (xvi).  
    - Linda Hutcheon

The East German film Jakob der Lügner directed by Frank Beyer (1974) and the American film Jakob the Liar directed by Peter Kassovitz (1999) are not, as many often assume, the typical pairing of original foreign film and American remake, but rather two filmic adaptations of Jurek Becker’s novel of the same title.1 Not surprisingly, this triad has intrigued literary scholars and film experts who have compared the two films with respect to their adherence to the novel (Bjornstad; Corkhill), the differing film industries in East Germany and Hollywood (Bjornstad), and the role the Holocaust and its history play in each respective country (Corkhill; Ó Dochartaigh). All paint the similarities and differences between the two films with broad strokes, mentioning either the lack of non-omniscient narrator or the efforts to capture this aspect of the novel through the use of intertitles in the East German film and the intrusive narrator and double ending in the American adaptation (Bjornstad 61-62; Ó Dochartaigh 463; O’Doherty 314-315). They come to the predictable conclusion that the films are indeed symptomatic of two very different cinematic traditions and cultures, both in terms of production practices and portrayals of the Jewish ghettos during World War II. Yet none of these analyses approaches the films as the final products of a series of adaptations; ultimately, they both are adaptations of a novel, which is an adaptation of a screenplay based on an oral history passed from father to son. It is from this complex mix that a statement on the Holocaust and eyewitnesses emerges.

The misclassification of Jakob the Liar as a remake of Jakob der Lügner has distracted critics, scholars and viewers from delving deeply into the insights offered by the two adaptations of the same novel made at different times and in different cinematic traditions, while the classification of both films as Holocaust films has evoked in viewers set expectations. Above all, viewers have a strong preference for realistic portrayals of the Holocaust that appear to relate actual events (Kerner 1). On the one hand, this reflects the self-evident need to document this tragedy and to ensure that no one ever forgets what occurred. On the other hand, it complicates an appreciation for and acknowledgement of narrative complexity. Adaptation audiences also often experience a related desire for resemblance—or, fidelity—to the texts on which films are based, despite well-meaning critiques of such attitudes ad nauseum for decades within adaptation studies. Although it is widely acknowledged that the adaptation process entails a necessary alteration in a novel’s content to bring it to the screen, audiences and critics alike still express dismay at the changes made, given the undercurrent expectation that the adaptation at least gives the appearance of remaining true to the story originally told by the literary work.2 As Linda Hutcheon, however, reminds us, the process of making a movie based on a literary work “is repetition, but repetition without replication” (7), and “an adaptation is a derivation that is not derivative—a work that is second without being secondary. It is its own palimpsestic thing” (9). Although the stories of Jakob and his make-believe radio that both films tell are in many ways unique, they are cinematic experiences built on the layers of visual imagery and narratives that precede them and are representative of the traditions in which they were made. The misassumption that the second film is a remake of an East German film rather than an adaptation of the novel in its own right is reductionist and misguides viewers to embrace the straightforward singular storyline of Jakob and his fabricated radio to the detriment of others narrative threads and perspectives.

Becker’s novel Jakob der Lügner tells the story of Jakob, a resident in a Polish ghetto during World War II. Caught out after curfew one evening, a German guard sends him to the police station to report his curfew violation, and there he overhears a radio report about Russian troops approaching Bezanika. Just one snippet of information from the outside world plants the seed for Jakob’s radio, an imaginary forbidden device that begins to supply news of encroaching Russian forces giving the Jews in the ghetto the hope that the end of the war and their liberation from the ghetto are nigh. This storyline supplies all the standard elements essential for a successful adaptation for the screen and for satisfying expectations viewers have for Holocaust films. As Aaron Kerner states in his Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films, “Holocaust films, like most films, adhere to the general principles of dramatic structure where a protagonist negotiates a conflict, and is subsequently compelled to undergo a transformation” (31). Jakob must navigate the web of actions and reactions of his fellow ghetto inhabitants sparked by his imaginary radio and its news of approaching Russian forces. In so doing, he realizes that his simple lie brings with it not just the power to instill hope and sustain life, but also the responsibility for the lives of others that this entails.

The idea for the story of Jakob and his radio originates from an account from the Łódź Ghetto told to Becker by his father (Beyer 180). A unique series of events adds yet another layer to the evolution of the novel Jakob der Lügner. Its genesis lies in earlier drafts of what eventually became the screenplay for the East German adaptation, creating a multi-directional tension between the novel and several versions of the screenplay. In 1963, Becker pitched the exposé for the film to DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft). Although East German film director Frank Beyer first became familiar with the project in spring 1964, it originally was assigned to Kurt Bartel, who eventually passed it on to Beyer (Beyer 182). Using his original short prose narrative, Becker and Beyer drafted the first screenplay fall 1965, which was accepted in 1966 and slated for production that fall (Beyer 183). Production delays, however, ensued. Given the project’s depiction of Jews in Polish ghettos, Polish cultural authorities denied DEFA permission to film in Poland. Moreover, Beyer’s contentious film Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones; 1965) resulted in his loss of directorial rights, since he refused to acknowledge that he had made a film that was damaging to the country’s socialist regime (Heiduschke 112). This unfortunate set of circumstances, however, eventually proved fortuitous. In retrospect, Beyer in fact sees the standoff between DEFA management and the Polish cultural authorities and the resulting delay in film production as the precipitating events that led to Becker transforming the screenplays into a novel (187). Thus, in this case, the tension between novel and screenplay present in all filmic adaptations also has origins in the interplay between earlier drafts of the screenplay, which did not make it to the screen at that time, and what eventually became the novel. In 1969, Becker published Jakob der Lügner with Aufbau-Verlag; Luchterhand published the first West German edition in 1970 (O’Doherty 308).

Due to the novel’s international success, other directors became interested in adapting it for film, but Becker remained committed to working with Beyer on the project (Beyer 188). In 1972, DEFA finally commissioned Beyer to move forward with the production of the film (Corkhill 95). In the end, it was produced in East Germany during a resurgence in interest in the Third Reich, a time when, as Sabine Hake articulates, DEFA “turned to the history of anti-Semitism to initiate a fundamental reassessment of the categories of class, race, ethnicity, and nation” (146), an agenda for the collective rather than the individual. Given that eight years had passed, Becker and Beyer wrote a third script incorporating elements that Becker had included from the second script in the novel along with new elements from the novel, for example Jakob’s memories (Beyer 190) and the more poetic elements of the novel’s two endings with Lina remembering the fairytale Jakob told her as they are being deported (Beyer 196). This new script was more clearly oriented toward the novel than the earlier two scripts (Becker, C.)

The significance of Jakob der Lügner in the DEFA lineup is now widely acknowledged. It distinguished itself from previous DEFA productions by more explicitly addressing the Holocaust and German crimes, and in 1975 it became the first and only East German film nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film (Cooke and Silberman 4). Furthermore, given the timing of the film’s release and its international acclaim, it primed American audiences for the television miniseries Holocaust (1978), a media event that introduced the Holocaust to mainstream America (Cole 13), sparked public memory of the Nazi period internationally (Kapczynski and McGlothlin 2), and ultimately led to the building of the federally funded United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (Kerner 28).4 As Daniela Berghahn unequivocally states, the adaptation of Becker’s novel is “DEFA’s most famous Holocaust film and the first film to link the representation of Jews with the theme of resistance” (176).
Despite the film’s legacy as a great East German cinematic achievement, Becker granted Hungarian-born director Peter Kassovitz the rights in the early nineties to tell the story to English-language audiences in the hope that Kassovitz’s version would tend more toward the comedic (Becker, C.). Becker considered Jakob der Lügner to be a “Roman-Verfilmung” (“film adaptation of a novel”) and in his personal opinion it could have had more humor, ergo his decision to grant Kassovitz permission to adapt the novel a second time for the screen (Becker, C.). Kassovitz then wrote a new script with Didier Decoin based on the French translation of Becker’s novel (Corkhill 97). This is documented in the film’s credits, which state that the film is based on the novel and do not reference the original East German film.5 The timing of the film’s release could not have been more impeccable. Jakob the Liar appeared in U.S. theaters in the wake of such major Oscar-winning Holocaust films as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and the Italian film La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful; 1997)  and followed in the footsteps of other comedic portrayals of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, such as Das schreckliche Mädchen (1990), Genghis Cohn (1993), Mutters Courage (1994/1995), the aforementioned La vita è Bella (1997), and Train de vie (1998), that used humor that made audiences uneasy and had protagonists whose actions bordered on resistance (Insdorf 277).

In many respects, Jakob the Liar is representative of the Americanization of the Holocaust at that time. As Peter Novick argues in his book The Holocaust in American Life (1999), the nineties were a time when the Holocaust was “the point where Americans could agree on nothing else, all could join together in deploring the Holocaust” (13). Jakob’s almost singular narrative voice; the leather-clad, jackboot-wearing German officers; graphically depicted violence against ghetto residents; and the brutal staging of Jakob’s execution by the Nazis, are points around which American viewers could rally and unequivocally agree that the Holocaust was a horrific crime against humanity. In this sense, the film also crosses class, racial, and religious lines to cultivate a collective voice that condemns the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the film did not enjoy the same box office success as its forerunners. With an estimated budget of $45,000,000, gross box office sales only totaled $4,956,401 (IMDB.com).  

Novel and Narrative

Jakob der Lügner (1969) is noteworthy not only for its unique genesis and the compelling story it tells of Jakob and his imaginary radio, but also for its complex narrative structure, a framed narrative told by a narrator who is both a participant in the story he is recounting and a witness to Jakob’s tale.6 The 275-page novel unfolds in a series of vignettes separated only by breaks in the text, rather than division into individual chapters, an organizational structure reminiscent of scene changes in the previous versions of the screenplay. Quite early in the novel, the narrator asserts his narrative authority: “Immerhin erzähle ich die Geschichte, nicht er, Jakob ist tot, und außerdem erzähle ich nicht seine Geschichte, sondern eine Geschichte” (“After all, I [emphasis in translation]am telling the story, not Jakob: Jakob is dead, and besides, I’m not telling his story but a story”; 44; Vennewitz 33). With this directive, the narrator establishes almost from the beginning of the story that the subject of his narration and the namesake of the novel is deceased. As an intra-homodiegetic narrator, he enters the story and communicates who he is, why he is telling this story, his limitations as a storyteller, and the roles that both he and Jakob play (Halverson 455). As an extra-homodiegetic narrator, he essentially recounts the majority of Jakob’s story by drawing on the many perspectives, thoughts, and actions of others to give the most complete account of Jakob’s imaginary radio and its impact on life in the ghetto. The use of this narrative terminology – intra-homodiegetic and extra-homodiegetic – may appear to be misplaced in the discussion of filmic adaptations. However, these designations most accurately capture the narrative structure of Becker’s novel, one with two narrators who are in of themselves the same person: one telling the story as it transpires around him (i.e. the intra-homodiegetic narrator) and one retelling the story in which he participated (i.e. the extra-homodiegetic narrator). This internal-external narrative dynamic imbues the novel with destabilizing narrative threads that force readers to grapple with the fact that there is more than one side to the story being told. It is the extra-homodiegetic narrator whom the intra-homodiegetic narrator continuously interrupts and in so doing introduces a vagueness that embraces both fact and fiction and counters the idea that there is one Holocaust narrative (Bjornstad 56). In fact, with his frequent comments, the narrator elevates narration to one of the major themes the novel addresses (O’Doherty 314). Thomas C. Fox cites Becker’s narrator in hand with Fred Wander’s narrator in Der siebente Brunnen [The Seventh Well] as innovative East German Holocaust narratives: “These Jewish narrators know they have survived by accident. Lonely, melancholy, and sometimes bitter, removed from the easy answers of religious or political dogma, they grope with their writing toward tentative meaning” (120). Fox’s commentary underscores the prominent role that the narrator and his narrative play in Becker’s novel.

Quite significantly, the importance of narrative to the adaptation process is widely recognized as well,7 and the emphasis on narrative in Jakob der Lügner ultimately proves to be the thread that runs from earlier versions of the screenplay through the novel to the adaptation of the novel for the screen. Given that the novel’s self-referential narrative structure figures explicitly in the telling of Jakob’s story and elevates how the story is told to a level on par with the story itself, it thus becomes imperative to identify how this significant narrative feature was translated for the screen beyond the aforementioned use of intertitles and different endings.

Despite its roots in earlier versions of the screenplay, adapting the novel for the screen presented unique challenges to Becker and Beyer. With respect to the novel’s narrative structure, Beyer was adamant. He did not want the narrator Becker had introduced in the novel to create a distance between the film viewers and the story, instead the audience should be emotionally drawn into the story (190). Clearly rejecting the novel’s intra-homodiegetic narrator, he instead allowed the ever-present camera to supplant the novel’s narrators, choosing de facto an omniscient narrator for the film that has the ability to circumscribe the perspective from which viewers follow Jakob’s story. Yet upon closer examination, several aspects of the film capture the novel’s narrative complexity far more than previously has been acknowledged. Just as the novel is composed of a series of distinct vignettes with nary a transition between them, Beyer’s film unrolls as a series of clearly defined scenes with embedded flashbacks to Jakob’s earlier life, in essence incorporating elements of the novel that have their origin in earlier versions of the screenplay. The flashbacks insert cameos of Jakob as both a small businessman with a restaurant that serves latkes in the winter and ice cream in the summer and a late-in-life suitor of an attractive woman who is seeking the greater commitment of marriage. Additional techniques introduce elements that disrupt the narrative continuity and explicitly direct the viewer’s attention to specific aspects of a scene that the characters in the scene may or may not observe. The use of color, linked and overlaid heterodiegetic and homodiegetic music, and close-ups at key points interrupt the narrative line established by the predominant use of static wide-angle scene shots, panning shots, and shot-reverse shot segments. In this way, Beyer inserts an additional narrator into the film, who comments on Jakob’s story. He remarks specifically on his use of color in the film to make viewers aware of what was absent in the ghetto and clarify their narrative function as well:

Mir war lange unklar, wie man die Abwesenheit von etwas deutlich machen könnte. Zunächst ist es da nichts Auffälliges, vermütlich wäre die Abwesenheit der Farbe Grün vom Publikum gar nicht bemerkt worden. Dann fiel mir ein, ich könnte die Farbe Grün hin und wieder zitieren, zum Beispiel durch eine einzelne Pflanze, die jemand ausgräbt und mitnimmt oder durch den grünen Hügel mit der Burg außerhalb des Gettos, zu dem die sehnsüchtigen Blicke der kleinen Lina gehe. (190-191)
It was unclear to me for a long time, how one could make the absence of something clear. Initially, there isn’t anything obvious there; presumably, the audience wouldn’t even notice the absence of the color green. Then it occurred to me, I could reference the color green now and again, for example with a single plant that someone digs up and takes with them or with the green hill outside the ghetto with the fortress to which Lina casts longing glances. (my trans.)

Beyer’s comments highlight how he used color to compensate for the narrative voice he chose not to transfer from the novel to the film, but also underscore the power of visual dimension of film to serve an implicit narrative function in a cinematic context.

The intra-homodiegetic narrator does not appear in the American adaptation of the novel either. In this version, Jakob serves both as the off-screen narrator of his own story and as the subject of the story the ever-present camera communicates to viewers. By conflating the novel’s intra-homodiegetic and extra-homodiegetic narrators, the American adaptation eliminates any question as to whose story is being told; the film tells the story of Jakob and his radio as told by Jakob himself. This is a radical departure from the novel where the narrator explicitly states that he is not Jakob and that furthermore he is not telling Jakob’s story. This information in the novel also alerts the reader quite early in the story that Jakob is not a survivor, something that is never confirmed in the East German film and is dramatically established at the conclusion of the American film. The point that it is not Jakob’s story that is being told, but a story, is also crucial to understanding the two filmic adaptations. In the case of the novel and the two films, additional narrative threads vie for equal page and screen time: Lina’s tenuous existence; Mischa and Rosa’s love story; Rosa’s parents, the Frankfurters; Kowalski and his barbershop; Herschel and Roman Schtamm; and Professor Kirschbaum and his sister. True, lives of these characters are all tangentially linked to Jakob, and his radio certainly has an impact on their outlook for the future. However, their stories exist independent of Jakob and his radio to a large degree, and therefore underscore that Jakob’s is only one of many possible ghetto stories, despite the dominance of his narrative in the American version. As will become clear in parallel analyses of key scenes common to both films, the camera both captures and adds to the narrative complexity of the novel, ensuring its presence visually in the two films and elevating viewer awareness of who is telling the story of life in the ghetto.  

Opening Scenes

The first minutes of each film anchor the narratives that follow. Jakob der Lügner opens with the credit sequence (00:00:00-00:01:32); a static camera offers three different glimpses of the courtyard through a doorway as the credits appear on the screen with no mention that the film is based on Becker’s novel. Using the doorway to frame the courtyard, the camera limits the perspective to one third of the courtyard and surrounding apartment building; the scene is void of people. The other two thirds of the screen are dark, creating a backdrop for the credits (see Figure 1). Thus, from the beginning, the camera overtly establishes for the viewer its ability to limit and define perspective. Solo violin is the only accompanying soundtrack. Shots of Jakob leaving his apartment, depositing the key in the hole in the wall, and going up the stairs to the attic where Lina lies sick interspliced with intertitles (00:01:32-00:02:33) function as an epigraph:

“Die Geschichte von Jakob der Lügner hat sich niemals so zugetragen.”/ “The tale of Jacob the liar is not true.”
“Ganz bestimmt nicht.”/ “Honest.”
“Vielleicht hat sie sich doch so zugetragen.”/ “But maybe it is true after all.”

This commentary punctuates the conclusion of the opening sequence with playfully articulated doubt about the veracity of the story that follows and in so doing implicitly confronts the the viewer with the question of whether there is one “true” perspective. Furthermore, unlike the novel, it clarifies that the story to follow is indeed Jakob’s.

Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: 
Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

, Rachel J. Halverson
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Framed courtyard with opening credits

A black screen opens Jakob the Liar (00:00:00-00:03:26) with Jakob speaking off screen telling a Jewish joke, immediately fulfilling Becker’s wish for a more comedic tone and establishing humor as a signature characteristic of Jakob’s narrative voice. With Robin Williams, who is also the film’s executive producer, in this lead role, the film’s commitment to the comedic is overt. The streets of the ghetto appear next with a few people scurrying into buildings, text flashes on the screen – “Somewhere in Poland 1944” – and the camera pans from the top of Jakob’s hat to show his whole upper body. His off-screen voice continues with jokes about how they survived. A rear shot shows Jakob sitting at the ghetto wall looking at a green tree on the other side, the site of his and Hannah’s first kiss (see Figure 2). His mention of the name Hannah links Jakob to the intra-homodiegetic narrator in Becker’s novel whose wife’s name is Chana, Hebrew for Hannah, who was executed under a tree (8). This information is included in the film at a later point when Jakob tells Lina why he and his wife did not have children (00:14:19). Although this explicitly links the film to the novel, it also transfers aspects of the narrator’s life in the novel to the character of Jakob in the film and establishes that, unlike the novel, the film is telling Jakob’s story, not simply a story. This sets events in motion and the camera follows Jakob as he chases a single sheet of newspaper through the streets of the ghetto until he ends up at a square where it follows his gaze up to four bodies hanging from an execution scaffold. At minute 00:03:14, the text “Based on the book by Jurek Becker” flashes on the screen. Such explicitness is warranted, given that only a select few American viewers would be familiar with Becker and his work. It also draws attention to the fact that the film is an adaptation of a novel originally in German.

Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: 
Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

, Rachel J. Halverson
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Jakob looking at the site of his and Hannah’s first kiss

Translating Narrative Complexity for the Screen

One scene common to the novel and both cinematic adaptations aptly exemplifies the novel’s narrative complexity and its filmic translation. This particularly disturbing scene depicts Herschel Schtamm’s efforts to communicate with the occupants of a train car when the ghetto inhabitants, including Jakob, are working on the railyard one day. In the novel, the intra- homodiegetic and the extra-homodiegetic narrators alternate in recounting the events that transpired at that pivotal moment. The intra-homodiegetic narrator explains how they are carrying sacks of cement to the edge of the railcar where Jakob and Schmidt are standing. It is their job to stack the sacks against the back of the car. In addition to snippets of Jakob’s and Schmidt’s conversation, this narrator recounts Schmidt’s backstory (126-128). The intra-homodiegetic narrator commentaries the German officer’s reprimand to stay away from the train car (134), gives insights into the behavior of other ghetto inhabitants in the scene (135), and discloses that he can see Herschel’s lips moving as he speaks to the occupants of the train car (137). Here he implicitly undermines the factuality of his narration; the passage of time has confirmed Herschel’s words in that moment for him, although Herschel himself was unable to do so (137). It is also this narrator who, with a turn of his head, can see the small gable window in the stone house where a gun is propped on the windowsill, two hands repositioning the barrel of the gun. At this very moment, he thinks of Chana and how she was shot in front of a tree whose name he does not know. The scene concludes with the intra-homodiegetic narrator directly quoting Jakob: “[…] Jakob erzählt mir:  »Er hat mich angesehen, als hätte ich seinen Bruder erschossen«” (“Jakob tells me: ‘He looked at me as if I had shot his brother’”; 141; Vennewitz 103). The extra-homodiegetic narrator supplies the remaining information that constitutes the scene and provides the context in which the intra-homodiegetic narrator is operating; it is a consistent interplay of external and internal points of view, a moving narrative lens, which offers the reader a series of views of the events as they play out on the railyard that day, thus never fully verifying any one account.

The narrative complexity of this passage in the novel manifests itself in unique ways in each film. This scene (00:49:24-00:53:11) in Jakob der Lügner is 3 minutes and 47 seconds in length and consists of 19 distinct shots. After Jakob tells Kowalsky that the radio is broken, there is an abrupt shift to the railyard where this news is spreading like wildfire. Throughout the scene, the camera alternates between offering wide-angle views of the railyard and shots that introduce different perspectives of events as they unfold. For example, we see the officer blowing a whistle and warning Herschel Schramm to stay away from the train car. Then, as the camera follows him as he returns to the group of workers, the viewer is privy to action that Jakob and Schmidt are unable to see (00:50:15). The subsequent high angle shot from over Jakob’s shoulder allows the viewer to see Herschel through Jakob’s eyes as he stands at the end of the loading dock and explains to him that he approached the car because he heard human voices (00:50:47). In contrast, when Herschel goes between the train car and the fence and climbs up the side ladder to speak to its occupants, the viewer is privy to action and dialogue that Jakob and others cannot see or hear. It is the camera following the trajectory of Jakob’s gaze upward to a close-up of the soldier taking aim and shooting (00:52:09) that places the viewer in a position to look up the barrel of the gun, a perspective experienced by no one else on the railyard (see Figure 3). At the conclusion of the scene, the camera forces the viewer to see the event through both Jakob’s and Roman’s eyes. The combination of a low-angle shot of Schmidt and Jakob as they look down from the platform at what has happened on the railyard (00:53:00) and a high-angle shot of Roman standing at the loading dock looking reproachfully at Jakob (00:53:07) captures both Roman’s anger toward Jakob for having brought news of hope and his sense of powerlessness as a resident of a ghetto controlled by the Germans. Paired with the minimal dialogue in this scene, the camera emerges as the dominant narrator as it moves with clear breaks from one shot to the next. The viewer sees events as they unfold through Jakob’s, Herschel’s and Roman’s eyes; a view limited to what one person can see and hear intercut with multiple points of view of the railyard that day.

Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: 
Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

, Rachel J. Halverson
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: View up the barrel of the guard’s gun

Unlike the East German adaptation’s reliance on the nonverbal narration of the camera, dialogue and camera work function in tandem to narrate the parallel scene in Jakob the Liar. It is (00:34:11-00:38:18) 4 minutes and 7 seconds in length and consists of 18 shots. Here too, alternating wide-angle views of the railyard and the ghetto residents and close-ups of Jakob and other select characters shape the narration of the events portrayed. As the scene opens, the camera pans the inmates standing in the soup line at the railyard (00:34:11). The Schmidt character is absent from the cast of the American adaptation. In contrast to the East German film, the arrival of the train on the railyard is audible, verbalized, and visually dramatic; an off-camera train whistle announces its arrival, followed by an off-camera loudspeaker announcement in German ordering the men to stay away from the train. The camera then draws in for a close-up of Jakob’s face (00:34:36). As the announcement is repeated in English, the camera cuts to the train arriving in a billow of steam, a locomotive monster transporting human victims to the depths of hell. The insertion of the close-up into the footage of the train’s arrival reinforces that we are seeing events through Jakob’s eyes. Similar to the parallel scene in Jakob der Lügner, Jakob’s gaze up to the armed guard sets the camera angle (see Figure 4); as the guard fires, the camera follows the trajectory of the bullet (00:36:50), panning down to show Herschel’s body dropping to the ground. A shot-reverse shot (00:37:07) captures the intensity of Jakob and Roman’s ensuing confrontation with Roman screaming accusations at him and holding him responsible for his brother’s death. By the end of the scene, Jakob’s face dominates the screen as he stares downtrodden in the distance (00:37:28-00:37:46). Here the dialogue and camera work make the dire consequences of Jakob’s imaginary radio abundantly clear to viewers, and they leave no doubt about the moral quandary in which the main character finds himself. To this end, the camera is an omniscient presence in this scene. However, the combination of close-ups of Jakob with group shots of the workers at the railyard that day underscores the dominant role Jakob plays in the story being told; his lie about the radio has set him apart from the ghetto masses literally and figuratively. By consistently returning to Jakob, the camera imparts a sense that we, at times, are understanding the implications of events that have transpired only through Jakob’s eyes.

Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: 
Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

, Rachel J. Halverson
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Following Jakob’s gaze to the guard in the watchtower

Closing Scenes

The novel and its two cinematic adaptations bring Jakob’s story to its conclusion in decidedly different ways. In the closing pages of the novel, the extra-homodiegetic narrator wrestles with the decision of which ending to tell:

Und jetzt stehe ich da mit den zwei Enden und weiß nicht, welches ich erzählen soll, meins oder das häßliche. Bis mir einfällt, alle beide loszuwerden, nicht etwa aus fehlender Entscheidungsfreudigkeit, sondern ich denke nur, daß wir auf diese Art beide zu unserem Recht kommen. Die von mir unabhängige Geschichte einerseits, und andererseits ich mit meiner Mühe, die ich mir nicht umsonst gemacht haben möchte. (258)
And now here I am with the two endings, not knowing which one to tell, mine or the ugly one. Until it occurs to me to get both off my chest, not because I lack decisiveness but merely because I think that this way we will both have our say. On the one hand the story that is independent of me and, on the other, myself with all the effort I would like not to have made in vain. (Vennewitz 189)

For the narrator, bringing Jakob’s story to a conclusion is not limited by factuality and definitiveness, but rather the offering of two endings gives those involved the closure they are due: the ending experienced by Jakob and all the others involved independent of the extra-homodiegetic narrator’s intervention; and the additional ending that he has created. In both cases, the interaction between the intra-homodiegetic and extra-homodiegetic narrators figures prominently. This explicit narrative duality in the novel’s conclusion is lost in translation in both film adaptations.

Counter to the chronology established in the text preceding the two endings, the narrator begins with the ending that he invented to suit his tastes and explicitly steers the story to his desired conclusion, including comments, such as: “Jeden Fall findet der Einbruch nicht statt, nicht in meinem Ende” (“In any event, the break-in does not take place, not in my ending”; 263; Vennewitz 193); “Weil meiner Willkür keine Grenzen gesetzt sind, lasse ich es eine kühle und sternenklare Nacht sein […]” (“Since there are no limits to my arbitrary inventions, I say that it is a cold and starry night”; 268; Vennewitz 196). In so doing, he creates an ending in which Jakob removes the yellow star from his coat, flees through the streets of the ghetto, and is eventually shot. This imagined ending evokes a world where Kowalski is still alive and discovers Jakob’s body on the street and where the Russians improbably arrive to free the ghetto inhabitants. The extra-homodiegetic narrator interrupts at key intervals to contemplate numerous explanations for the sequence of events (268), including the fact that his ending costs Jakob his life (270).

Given that he himself was in the ghetto with Jakob, his presence is to no degree diminished in the actual conclusion of Jakob’s story, as he explicitly reminds readers that he was among those in the ghetto that day (273), a subtle acknowledgement that he, unlike Jakob, survived. The final pages of the novel unfold just as though the narrator were at Jakob’s side watching his every move; they are, in fact, both in the same railcar as the train departs the ghetto. The intra-homodiegetic narrator as well is amongst the crowd of men who gather to read the proclamation announcing the ghetto evacuation, and he recounts how the crowd parts to open a small path for Jakob to make his way to read the posting. The extra-homodiegetic narrator commentaries the scene further in an inner monologue encouraging Jakob to tell everyone that this latest development is just a bad joke and that the train ride will be a journey into the wild blue yonder with many pleasant surprises (274). The omniscient narrator recounts how Jakob and Lina pack for the deportation (275-278). The next section reintroduces the voice of the intra-homodiegetic narrator who finds himself in the railcar next to Jakob. He confesses that he does resent him for the lies he has told (279) and yet kindly explains to Lina the clouds in the fairy tale that Jakob had told her earlier (281). Here the narrator discloses to the reader that just a few days later Jakob told him the story of the imaginary radio even though neither had any way of knowing who would survive. The serendipity of survival, both of people and stories, is implicit in this disclosure. Harking back to the beginning of the novel, the narrator reflects on the significance of trees in his life as he watches the trees pass by through the railcar window: a fall from a tree prevented him from becoming a violinist, under a tree he lost his virginity, his wife was shot under a tree, and his time in the ghetto was marked by a lack of trees due to a ghetto regulation. Although the narrator’s return to the symbol with which he began Jakob’s story seems to close the narrative loop, disjointedness and discontinuity remain to the end prominent features of Becker’s novel, underscoring the rocky path Jakob has chosen with the twist of truth and fiction he has woven with his imaginary radio.

It is this second ending that is included in the East German adaptation of the novel. As train cars roll into the ghetto, the camera shifts to the male ghetto inhabitants gathered and toggles between the edict they are reading, which mandates that they report at 3:00 pm for deportation (01:30:46), and close-ups of their faces with their reproachful glances as Jakob joins the group. We see Jakob packing a suitcase in his apartment with Lina, who is bursting with excitement about the pending trip. Three views from the train car window with the trees streaming by intercut panning shots of Jakob and others in the train car. A strikingly color-saturated flashback to a sleigh ride with Jakob, his girlfriend and Kowalski harkens back to earlier, happier times (01:34:28). The camera returns to the interior of the train car to show Mischa holding up Lina so that she can look out the window (01:35:00). The next shots of the film focus first on the blue sky, then the white clouds and finally the green treetops. The film closes with a view that encompasses all three elements and then segues to a panorama of blue sky and white clouds. The intense, concentrated colors in this final scene epitomize Beyer’s intentional and selective use of color throughout the film to emphasize to the viewer the utter lack of color in the ghetto where the SS had removed every tree and bush (Beyer 190-191). Yet in this final scene, the color saturation goes one step further to eclipse the drab color palette of the ghetto left behind and the interior of the railcar and reinforces a closing statement that the vibrant, natural world outside the train car still holds the promise of life, albeit one that is not accessible to them. The soundtrack recalls the tune that Jakob hummed when he voiced the imaginary radio for Lina and that was played during the parallel flashback to the dance. The combination of the multiple cinematic features employed in the adaptation – the use of flashbacks, the selective use of color, and musical signatures – that converge in these final minutes of the film imbues the film’s open ending with a poignant sense of loss. Just as Jakob in the novel passes the baton to the narrator who must tell his story, the film’s conclusion juxtaposes the characters’ unknown futures with the audience’s knowledge of the fate of the Jews transported in railcars. It is, however, a conclusion without perpetrators literally in the picture, a train car of Jewish ghetto inhabitants heading into an abyss. The reasons for this within the context of East Germany are abundantly clear. The country with its censorship of all modes of communication, including film and literature, instrumentalized Germany’s Nazi past, including the Final Solution, to cement its identity as an anti-fascist state (Fox 8-9). The ambiguity of the final minutes of the film in terms of responsibility for Jewish internment thus appeased East German censors sufficiently to reach East German screens. Yet, at the same time, it creates a narrative vacuum in which viewers may choose to reflect on the presence of German officers and guards throughout the film and their absence at its conclusion (see Figure 5). The final headshot of Jakob in the film as he looks out the window of the train car at the trees, blue sky, and clouds reflects this agenda’s priority. Jakob is not alone; he is simply one of many in the railcar that day departing from the ghetto. Here, even the victims of the Holocaust can be viewed as part of a collective.

Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: 
Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

, Rachel J. Halverson
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Final head shot as Jakob gazes out the window of the train car

Jakob the Liar offers two dramatically different conclusions from the novel, although the events leading up to them are the same. Jakob turns himself in at the police station (01:39:59), mirroring the opening scene and essentially bookending the story the film tells. The Germans are emptying the offices, clearly in retreat; a map on the wall confirms the approaching Russian forces. The footage that follows is a rapid-fire sequence of images and events: officers vacating the police station, officers brutally rounding up ghetto inhabitants, Mischa and Rosa breaking from the pack to search for Lina at Jakob’s apartment. A shot from Jakob’s perspective under the water looking up toward the German officer’s face introduces a torture scene (01:43:44) in which Jakob is strapped to a pallet and repeatedly submerged headfirst into a bathtub filled with water to encourage him to confess possession of the radio. Following his water torture, he is taken to the officer’s room where the officer continues to pressure him to disclose the location of the radio. Finally, Jakob points to the officer’s radio and declares it one and the same with his (1:46:31). With a macabre gesture of compassion, the officer allows a bloodied and bruised Jakob to eat some of the food that is on his desk. Shots of Mischa, Rosa and Lina intercut the action in the police station. As they pass Kowalski’s barbershop (01:48:19), they see him hanging with a noose around his neck through an open door. A German officer films this and the deportation. In sum, the camera offers competing multiple perspectives in this first section of the conclusion: communicating the experience of underwater torture as seen through Jakob’s eyes, documenting the rounding up of the ghetto inhabitants, and filming the site of Kowalski’s suicide. With the latter camera embedded within the scene, the significance of this additional narrative perspective on the events in the ghetto that day emerges, that of the German perpetrators documenting the success of their mission to eradicate the Jews. As stated explicitly in the prologue to the documentary Who Will Write Our History (2018), the photographs and camera footage taken by the perpetrators predominates in the visual documentation of what occurred in ghettos and concentration camps. In filming the perpetrator as documenter, the camera confronts viewers with this fact and thus foreshadows the significance of Jakob’s fate within the broader context of dwindling victim eyewitness accounts.    

As the action moves to a tribunal on the square just across from the building where Jakob’s restaurant had been, the camera pans the gathered deportees with close-ups of key characters and their facial expressions as they witness Jakob’s public “trial” and execution. A shot-reverse-shot technique alternates between Jakob and the officers on the tribunal and close-ups of select characters; their facial expressions communicate additional frames of reference for and the different narrative perspective of events unfolding. A view from behind the tribunal introduces the perspective Jakob and the officers have of the gathered crowd, and a close-up of Jakob’s face in the final moments of his life captures his defiance of the Nazi authorities.

Following his execution, the camera pans across the empty plaza scattered with abandoned suitcases. The scene concludes with an aerial view of Jakob’s body and a voiceover comments on his demise: “And they all went off to the camps and were never seen again. But maybe it wasn’t like that at all” (1:52:52; see Figure 6). This harks back to the opening sequence where Jakob’s narration casts doubt on the story that is being told and segues to the second ending. It opens with a close-up of Lina’s face behind the window grating as she sees the approaching Russian troops and tanks, a female vocal group on top of one of the tanks performing American-style jazz with English lyrics, and remembers dancing with Jakob to music in the style of the Andrews Sisters. Unlike the repeated use of flashbacks in the East German film, this is the only one in the American film. Rather than delivering its occupants to their death, this train transports them to their freedom. Although it does not alter the fact that Jakob has suffered torture and public execution, this second ending ensures the survival of Lina, Mischa, Rosa, and her parents. Furthermore, the inclusion of Lina’s memory of dancing with Jakob confirms that his life in the ghetto will be documented by her survivor account, not just by his executioners. Similar to the novel’s narrator, Lina here is tasked with telling her version of Jakob’s radio, not Jakob’s.

Jakob’s Story in Fiction and Film: 
Narrating Truths and Lies in Jakob der Lügner (1974) and Jakob the Liar (1999)

, Rachel J. Halverson
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Aerial view of Jakob’s body on the tribunal


Using a transdisciplinary approach, the East German and the American adaptations of Jurek Becker’s Jakob der Lügner for the screen become more than simply adaptations of the same novel. The unique genesis of Becker’s and Beyer’s Jakob der Lügner and Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar underscores that they are neither a standard pair of original foreign film and American remake, nor are they simply adaptations of the same novel. They are the products of a series of adaptations from which a statement on the Holocaust and eyewitnesses emerges, a statement that juxtaposes lies and truths. As the scenes discussed reveal, the camera work and editing of both the East German and American adaptations of Becker’s Jakob der Lügner incorporate far more of the novel’s narrative complexity than has been acknowledged previously. Awareness of the series of adaptations that they embody and the narrative complexity they exude confronts viewers with the conundrum of hearing the many voices that tell the story of the Holocaust with its vastness and myriad facets and a single voice that fabricates a radio, a seminal story element that does not physically exist in the ghetto, but becomes quite real in the minds of its inhabitants. The importance of this realization of narrative complexity could not be more timely. With each passing day, there are fewer living Holocaust survivors. Fortunately, preservation of these voices began decades ago. The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University opened in 1982 and currently has holdings of 12,000 hours of recorded testimonies made by 4400 survivors (https://fortunoff.library.yale.edu/). The Shoah Foundation, established by Steven Spielberg in 1994 and housed at the University of Southern California since 2006, has almost 55,000 videotaped testimonies, the bulk of which are by Holocaust survivors and witnesses (https://sfi.usc.edu/about). Both endeavors exemplify the importance of individual narratives to preserving and protecting the history of genocide. Within a few short years, no one who personally experienced the horrors of the Final Solution will be alive. When viewed and analyzed in tandem, Jakob der Lügner and Jakob the Liar elevate viewers’ awareness of narrative voice at a key point in our evolving access to eyewitness and survivor accounts of this genocide. Moreover, they codify not only the integral role the multiple narrative voices that compose the collective legacy of all who witnessed and survived the Holocaust play in the remembering, understanding and preserving the knowledge of the horrors experienced in Nazi Germany, but also the significance of transmitting stories from witness to listeners, from oral history to fiction, and from fiction to film.


I would like to thank Dr. Carol Anne Costabile-Heming for her thoughtful reading of this manuscript and insightful suggestions for its improvement as it evolved from conference paper to article.


1  This incorrect classification is widespread in scholarly references to and treatments of the film as well; several scholars misclassify the American film as a remake of the East German original (Brockmann, 231; Hake, 146; Insdorf 292; Levine Ginsparg 711; Kerner 10, 28, 90; Klein 24; Heiduscke 112).

2  Ó Dochartaigh exemplifies the practice of evaluating adaptions with respect to their original literary source in commenting that: “In some respects the DEFA film version went even further than the novel in attempting to be true to the central tenets of the novel, while the American version has radically altered the novel’s focus” (462). See Corkhill 99 for a similar evaluative statement.

3  Beyer is one of the victims of the 1965 Eleventh Plenum or Kahlschlag Plenum, which resulted in banning DEFA from producing films that critically portrayed the depressing reality of life in East Germany (Heiduscke 86).

4  See Doneson (6) and Insdorf (4) for additional statements on the significance of the mini-series Holocaust. Cole provides a contextualized statement on the broadcasting of Holocaust in 1978 and the series of events which followed culminating in the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the release of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993 (12-14). Although the miniseries was widely viewed in West Germany, it was not broadcast in East Germany (Fox 14).

5  Corkhill hypothesizes that Kassovitz may not have seen Jakob der Lügner, since Icestorm Video first released it commercially in 1999 (98).

6  For an examination of the novel’s narrative as a form of resistance, see Bjornstad, Heiduschke 107-113, Ó Dochartaigh, and O’Doherty.

7  In his now standard Novel To Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation (1996), Brian McFarlene articulates how the camera takes on the role of narrator in filmic adaptations of literary works (17).

Works Cited

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Becker, Jurek. Jakob der Lügner. Suhrkamp, 1982.

Berghahn, Daniela. “Resistance of the Heart: Female Suffering and Victimhood in DEFA’s Antifascist Films.” Screening War: Perspectives on German Suffering, edited by Paul Cooke and Marc Silberman, Camden House, 2010, pp. 165-186.

Beyer, Frank. Wenn der Wind sich dreht: Meine Filme, mein Leben. Econ Verlag, 2001.

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Cole, Tim. Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler; How History Bought, Packaged, and Sold. Routledge, 1999.

Cooke, Paul and Marc Silberman. “Introduction: German Suffering?” Screening War: Perspectives on German Suffering. Edited by Paul Cooke and Marc Silberman, Camden House, 2010, pp. 1-14.

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Doneson, Judith E. The Holocaust in American Film. The Jewish Publication Society, 1987.

Fox, Thomas C. Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Camden House, 1999.

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Halverson, Rachel J. “Jurek Becker's Jakob der Lügner: Narrative Strategies of a Witness’ Witness.” Monatshefte, vol. 85, no. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 453-463.

Hake, Sabine. German National Cinema. 2nd Edition. Routledge, 2008.

Heiduschke, Sebastian. East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Hofman, Michael. The Seventh Well. By Fred Wander, W.W. Norton, 2007.

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Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. 3rd Edition. Cambridge UP, 2003.

Jakob der Lügner. Created by Jurek Becker, directed by Frank Beyer, DEFA, 1974.

Jakob the Liar. Created by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin, directed by Peter Kassovitz, Columbia Pictures, 1999.
“Jakob the Liar.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 24 Sept. 1999, www.imdb.com/title/tt0120716/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1. Kapczynski, Jennifer M. and Erin McGlothlin. “Introduction.” Persistent Legacy: The Holocaust and German Studies. Edited by Jennifer M. Kapczynski and Erin McGlothlin, Camden House, 2016, pp. 1-16.

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Ó Dochartaigh, Pól. “Americanizing the Holocaust.” Modern Language Review, vol. 101, 2006, pp. 456-71.

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