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Raising a fist to God
on 20 October 2003
Towards the end of THE BELIEVER, I mused on the similarity of the film to the 1975 screen production of THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH starring Maximilian Schell. In the latter, Schell stars as a reclusive, wealthy, Jewish, Manhattan industrialist, Arthur Goldman, who (apparently) has used his connections and financial resources to create the fiction that he's a former Nazi prison commandant, a fabrication (apparently) leaked to the Israelis. Without knowing this beforehand, It comes as a surprise to the viewers and Goldman's associates, but not to Arthur himself, when he's kidnapped (as was Adolf Eichmann) and removed to Israel to stand trial as a war criminal - on display in a glass booth wearing full Nazi regalia. Schell is stunningly powerful as the concentration camp survivor who goes to extremes to exorcise his personal guilt at having outlived the Holocaust, and what he sees as the collective guilt of his people for not fighting back.
In THE BELIEVER, Ryan Gosling is Danny, an incredibly intelligent, literate and articulate 22-year old who spends his days as a neo-Nazi skinhead preaching hatred and expressing the desire to kill Jews. His activities run the full gamut from planting bombs with a group of like-minded, mindless thugs, to fund raising in a suit and tie for an upscale Fascist organization. The thing is, you see, Danny is himself a Jew with deep emotional ties to his heritage.
It's perhaps an over-simplification to say that Danny hates Jews. Rather, he hates the message that Orthodox Jews preach, i.e. that Jews are but the pawns of God and must be submissive to His will - even to the point of abject pacifism in the face of the most extreme persecution. Danny is not, nor has ever been, submissive to his religion and its appointed teachers. He doesn't loathe his Jewish self so much as the thought that his religion automatically makes him a submissive creature. Basically, he wants the Chosen People to fight back. This is evident early on as he savagely beats a meek, yarmulke-wearing teenage boy while screaming, "Hit me! Hit me!" Moreover, he figuratively shakes his fist at God, daring Him to strike him dead for his rebellion.
At one point, Danny asserts that the Jews are naturally a wandering people thriving on the prejudice they encounter, and that the Israeli's have risen above their Jewishness because they now have a land to call home. Since the Israeli's are aggressively militant in their own defense, it seems to me that Danny might just as well be a staunch Zionist. Why he isn't is a mystery. But, no matter, because Gosling, like Schell, is stunning as a guilt-ridden and psychologically tortured individual seeking inner peace. While the film's conclusion is the ambiguous sort that invites extended coffee house discussion, it's evident that Danny goes to an extreme to find it. And the very last dialog that is heard, "There's nothing up there", leaves an aftertaste of the nihilism that Danny suspects is true.