ith a premise that would make Jerry Springer weep in ecstasy (“I was a Jewish Nazi!”) and a tempestuous history to match, Henry Bean’s The Believer slips almost quietly into theaters this week, a year and a half after it stormed Sundance then almost disappeared amid a gust of criticism. Based on fact, it’s the story of Danny Balint, a former Hebrew school student (Ryan Gosling) whose relentless questioning of the Torah devolved into a blind hatred of Judaism. (Plot rundown: In between beating an Orthodox student on a subway car and planting a bomb in a crowded synagogue, Danny infiltrates a neo-fascist group, whose leaders are played by Billy Zane and Theresa Russell, and runs into a newspaper reporter who instigates a tragic denouement.)
After winning Sundance’s Grand Prize, the film was denounced by a prominent rabbi and shunned by distributors. If it isn’t as abhorrent as its detractors claim, it’s also a bit more “risky” than fully realized (for one, the film’s depiction of fascist culture as a) polite drawing-room society and b) led, in any capacity, by Billy Zane, is a bit hard to swallow). But Gosling is acetylene in the title role, and Bean works from a canvas with an unusual amount of ethical shading. The director recently sat down to talk about the Holocaust as Hollywood industry and censorship by distribution.
The film is based on the life of Daniel Burros, a Jewish member of the American Nazi Party who committed suicide in the ’60s after a New York Times reporter revealed his origins. How did you discover his story?
Maybe ten years after it happened, a friend of mine told me about it. It’s been on my mind for 25 years. Burros was really a classic example of Jewish self-hatred in 1965, and weirdly enough, it’s not that different today. I found his kind of self-hatred interesting as a starting point. But he didn’t go anywhere with it. The more I thought about this story, the more I was interested in a dialectical figure. So the film became about the conflicting, paradoxical, contradictory feelings we have for our religion, our families, our children, our lovers, whatever.
What struck you about this story as eminently filmable?
When I heard it was the story of a Jewish Nazi, I loved it. But what was really interesting to me was Burros’ ambivalence. When he was a member of the American Nazi party and obviously desperately hiding his origins, he would still bring knishes back to Nazi headquarters. He would hang out with girls whom all the other Nazis assumed were Jewish. He was hiding it and giving it away at the same time.
How did your own faith play a part in shaping Danny’s character?
I’m Jewish, from a very assimilated family. There was a sense of a Jewish identity, but it has almost no content other than, “There have been all these people who hated us.” No religious content. And for a long time, I thought about the film as a way to explore that aspect of my life. I didn’t want to be Jewish, but I didn’t want not to be. I married a woman who was from a religious background. I loved talking about religion with her. Not about what people believe, because it’s not really a religion about believing. It’s about what you do, and so I got very interested in that. I made the movie because I’ve come from nothing. I don’t think someone from a really religious background could have made it. It’s my fascination with religion, me talking about how exciting it is for me, because it’s so argumentative, and it lends itself to this kind of contradiction and endless commentary.
How do you feel about the way the Holocaust and the Jewish experience is portrayed onscreen? Is the film, in any way, a response?
In some way, it is. It’s not like I sat there and thought of it as a response, but implicitly and intuitively, I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that the Holocaust had become an industry. That the Holocaust is now a genre of filmmaking. That the Holocaust has become really the religion of so many American Jews. That’s the form their religion takes: it’s about their slaughter. And I think it feeds into the conflict in the Middle East — this competition of martyrdoms: who’s going to be a bigger martyr? Why are people bragging about how much they’ve suffered? Why shouldn’t they be ashamed about how much they’ve suffered? I hated the Roberto Begnini film. And I hated, for similar reasons, Schindler’s List.
You weren’t the only one, from the reviews I remember.
In many ways, those films are about triumphs of the human spirit — and where the Holcaust is concerned, there should be no triumph. It’s a catastrophe, and to make it upbeat is horrible. I’ve read that Schindler’s List has convinced some doubters that the Holocaust existed. There’s an irony in that: in some way, it’s almost a form of Holocaust denial. It doesn’t deny that it existed, but it denies what it was. It pretties it.
Have you ever seen a depiction you liked?
I don’t think so. I liked The Passenger. The thing is, when I was a kid, there was nothing on “the Holocaust.” There wasn’t the word “Holocaust.” Nobody called it that. It was 1973 before someone used the word “Holocaust” in conversation with me. I don’t want to say it was invented — it was a real event — but it’s been invented as the cultural phenomenon that it is.
Back to the film: Were any of the subcultural scenes — from the fascist meetings or skinhead compound — drawn from situations you saw firsthand?
I did internet research, and I got contacts to some reputedly racist white kids in Queens. I went out there, and I hung out with them a little bit. They were pathetic. Everything I discovered was so much more pathetic than it was scary that I was dispirited. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Because I felt that the reality would never stand up. I needed something that would — seem like a reasonable alternative to the Jewish world.
So I thought, what if Clinton tried to start a neo-fascist movement? How do you build what the people can go for? I took a lot of neo-Conservative ideas, and I just pushed them slightly. If you talk to these neo-Conservatives, they’re very into Aristotle. They want to return to the ways of Ancient Greece, they want to return to the Classics, Judeo-Christian society. So I did with that character what I did with Danny — I tried to see him on his own terms. And I found I could believe some of that stuff. I could have that reactionary critque of the modern world as bereft — of people making religions out of martyrdom. It’s so anti-classical.
So it’s an extrapolation.
It’s an invention. I’m basically making it up. Although I think it’s plausible, I just don’t think it exists. You know it was funny, when I was doing this I was talking to friends who were political scientists. It was the late 90s, and everybody was saying to me, “Nobody’s going to be into that stuff. It’s too prosperous. Things are going too well.” Now we look at the world so differently.
Did you expect success at Sundance?
Look, let me tell you the truth. When I made the film, I thought I was fucking up totally. When I was editing, I used to lie awake at night thinking, “How can I get into the vault and destroy the negatives so I don’t humiliate myself with this embarrassment?”
Why were you so embarrassed?
Because it was so personal. You know, when something is so close to you, you know how you’re just creeped out by it? But also, I dreamed of some masterpiece, some masterful film, and it’s the first film I ever directed, and it’s clunky in a lot of ways. I was saved by a number of things: Ryan Gosling, obviously, one of them.
I read that his being Mormon convinced you to cast him.
The main thing was, he knew what religion was. I thought, “I have to cast a Jewish kid,” but I found that when I auditioned, Jewish kids didn’t know much more than anybody else. Ryan understood something abut religion. Mormonism is very demanding, and it isolates you the way Judaism isolates you. And he got all that.
Right after Sundance, a rabbi with the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the film “a primer for anti-Semitism.” Did you speak to him?
No. I kind of feel sorry for Rabbi Cooper. He didn’t go out of his way to trash the film, but he’s kind of the Jewish specialist of Hollywood, and studios called him, and he said he didn’t like it. I think he didn’t understand. Somebody told a writer that the thing that really bothered him was that we desecrated a Torah. And I said, ‘Does he think we desecrated a real Torah, or does he just object to even the depiction of it?’ Well, it turns out he thought we desecrated a real Torah, when we went to considerable lengths not to. We were real good about what we dropped on the floor.
When you were making the film, did you have any inclination of the coming shitstorm?
I always thought the film was very pro-Semitic, but I didn’t think that many people would see that, especially older Jews who would say, “You can’t say things like that.” So I’m startled people like the film. The whole history has been much more positive than negative.
How pervasive is this sort of censorship by distribution?
If a film is commercial, it’s desirable. That’s the basic censorship in this country. But I’ll tell you what’s more pervasive than that. Nobody in Hollywood wants to be picketed. Everybody remembers Lou Wasserman, the dean of Hollywood, being picketed when they released The Last Temptation of Christ. And they don’t want that.
It goes on in every conventional film. Once, I was writing a scene when cops are in a murder victim’s house; they’re discussing what they can infer about what happened there. One cop says, “We know that the victim is obviously gay.” And the other said, “How do you know he’s gay?” “‘Cause no straight guy ever had such a nice apartment.” Then they go on to talk about gays, and if you’ve ever known cops, you know they’re obsessed with gays. They don’t say anything derogatory; they just talk about gays in their obsessed-cop way. But the producers said, “Take it out.” I said, “Why? It’s not derogatory! They say it’s a nice apartment, that’s a good thing, right?” The producers said, “I had a film three years ago where I got into trouble with the gay alliance, and I just don’t want to deal with those people.”
What’s interesting to me about Danny’s character is that he’s almost more of a questioner than a believer — his rage is not blind or inarticulate.
In my head, for twenty-five years, the movie was called The Jewish Nazi. But commercial reasons aside, it’s very difficult to rent locations for a film called The Jewish Nazi. When it came time to go to Sundance, we thought, we’ll just go as The Believer. Then it won Sundance. So it was The Believer. I don’t like the title; it’s a little soft for me. I would have called it The Fanatic, but My Son the Fanatic had just come out. So, bad title.
Did you intend to explain Danny’s self-hatred?
My intention was to show what I thought was truthful. I didn’t have an opinion about it. I’m fascinated by Danny, and I have a lot of admiration for him.
One of the main criticisms of the film is that it doesn’t answer that big endless ‘why’ — why Danny got to be the way he is.
It was a very conscious choice of mine not to explain. And there are two reasons why. One is that every human being is ultimately mysterious. The other is that Danny is Everyman. Everybody’s like this. We’re all not as exaggerated as Danny, but he embodies the kind of contradictions that lie in all of us. Most of us censor them; we manage them more skillfully than he does, or more dishonestly. Kafka doesn’t explain why it is that Gregor Samsa wakes up a giant insect, because everyone wakes up feeling like they’ve turned into a giant insect, right?
The Believer opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 17, and in other cities on later dates.