The Believer (2001) is a simple story of a modern Neo-Nazi but unlike American History X, this isn’t a tragic redemption story. No, the twist in this tale is the protagonist is a Jew.
The story is about Danny Balint, a young man committed to the Nazi ideal. It starts with him beating a young Jewish man in the street and berating him for his unwillingness to fight back. Danny and his friends are sent to sensitivity training with holocaust survivors after damaging a Jewish store. Confronted by one survivor who tells the story of how he stood helpless by as a stormtrooper murdered his child, Danny berates the man for his cowardly inaction. Better to fight and die than live with the shame of cowardice. As the story progresses, Danny imagines himself as both the murdering solider and the helpless father.
After he joins a retreat for like-minded people, Danny encounters writer Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and begins sleeping with her daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix). Danny leads seminars on anti-Semitism and raises money for the cause. At one point he and his friends vandalise a synagogue and he steals a Torah. He and his friends plan to bomb a high-profile Jewish target. His actions lead to public exposure by an investigative journalist.
The heart of the film is not Nazism but Judaism and Danny’s struggle with the contradictions of his faith and its history. Danny’s defining moment is shown to be his conflict with his Torah teacher as he articulates an unorthodox reading of the story of Isaac and Abraham, seeing them as helpless victims of God’s violent authority. He transfers this to his faith and the Nazis.
The Believer is a magnificent film, one that intelligently asks questions of faith and action. What would you have done as someone murdered your child? The movies have taught us to imagine ourselves the hero, reality proves otherwise for the vast majority. Danny’s is a story of a character trying to emphasise with victim and be as empowered as the perpetrators. His anger at his faith is motivated by their comfort with their role as holocaust victims.
The star here is Ryan Gosling, a revelation as Danny. How it took a further decade for his star to rise is unfathomable. His performance here is incredible, all anger, lust and (self)hatred – a man tortured by his own irresolvable contradictions.
The writer/director was Henry Bean, author of screenplays for Internal Affairs, Deep Cover, Venus Rising and Noise. Sadly, he also wrote Basic Instinct 2.
The Believer won the dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2001.
Very few intelligent films about the contradictions of faith have ever been made; this tops that list. This isn’t a 50s technicolour yawn, or a Life of Brian satire. The audience doesn’t need to share Danny’s religion or his views to empathise with his internal conflict.
Bean’s triumph here is making a difficult and challenging subject this cinematic and entertaining. It’s to cinema’s shame he never came close to this good again.