Loosely based on a 1965 true story about a Ku Klux Klan member who was exposed as a Jew, The Believer revolves around the conflicted and charismatic neo-Nazi skinhead Daniel Balint (Ryan Gosling). Sophisticated and intelligent, violent and intense, Danny hates Jews. He also is a Jew. As the film exposes the inherent complexities of hatred and right-wing dogma, it goes on to destabilize identities of all kinds: Jewish and Gentile, conservative and liberal, self and other. The opening scene juxtaposes a skin-headed and tattooed Danny pumping iron with the echo of his childhood yeshiva lessons. Rather than reconcile these contradictions, the film shows how they coexist in Danny. Such difficult content impeded the film’s distribution.
Writer and director Henry Bean, sensitive to the offensive potential, arranged a screening for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, but rather than give The Believer his blessing, Associate Dean Rabbi Cooper panned it, going so far as to call one scene — where Danny and his friends vandalize a synagogue — “a primer for anti-Semitism.” Cooper’s reservations were enough to spook studios into passing on the film’s distribution. Fireworks Pictures eventually handled a limited theatrical release.
As the title suggests, Danny is a believer, as dedicated to the notion that Jews are “a modern disease” as he is, paradoxically, to his reverence for the Torah. His oratory talent and charisma catch the attention of neo-Fascists Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), whose name is particularly appropriate in a film that continually confuses notions of inside and outside. What makes him particularly dangerous is his ability to use his yeshiva training — in research, analysis, and critical thinking — to advance his neo-Nazi cause. In response to a reporter’s question, Danny outlines his philosophy using the very tools of the religious practice he’s condemning.
Meanwhile, Lina’s daughter Carla (Summer Phoenix) seduces Danny. Initially, the relationship is sexual, but it becomes more complex when she discovers the Torah in Danny’s bedroom and begs him to teach it to her. Supposedly, Carla wants to learn to “know the enemy better,” but as her preoccupation with Danny’s teachings increases, so does his own rabbinic role. Again, he finds himself in a position where his (still closeted) Jewish heritage enables his anti-Semitic authority, and vice versa.
Such tension appears repeatedly. Danny is filled with self-loathing, even as he strikes out at others: when he stalks and assaults a Jewish yeshiva student early in the film, Danny cries, “Hit me! Hit me! Please!” When he goes to vandalize and plant a bomb in a synagogue, he takes care to respect and even preserve the sacred objects; he wraps his torso in a prayer shawl and then performs a hybrid Nazi salute, throwing up a stiff arm, but extending only his little finger when the Torah is read.
Or again, after their arrest for starting a brawl in a Jewish eatery, Danny and his cohorts are sentenced to sensitivity training, where they encounter Jewish Holocaust survivors. The scene provides the vocabulary for Danny’s subsequent transformation: after one of the survivors narrates the slaughter of his son at the hand of the SS, Danny berates him for not fighting back. Danny’s anger here is underscored by his imagining of the scene where the child is impaled on the SS guard’s bayonet. As this faux-flashback recurs, Danny appears in different roles in the scene: he’s the father, the child, and the SS guard.
For Danny, the story of another father and son, Abraham and Isaac, serves to dramatize his own irreconcilable contradictions. Arguing that the story is “ultimately about power,” he says it shows God as a “bully,” intent on proving that “I am everything and you are nothing.” The resolution of reinforced faith — where Isaac is spared and Abraham rewarded — folds back in on itself; God is unmerciful and demanding, while Abraham is at once murderer, victim, and bystander. The echoes between the two stories — one biblical, one historical — are surely troubling, for viewers as well as Danny. “The film’s about the human impetus toward contradiction, about our need to exercise those contradictions, to live them,” Bean asserts in the DVD’s interview.
Danny’s double life — espousing anti-Semitic ideology one moment and assuming a rabbinic role by teaching Hebrew and Jewish customs to his girlfriend the next — isn’t a simple matter of a split-identity. Rather, Danny’s neo-Nazi affiliations seemingly have less to do with simple self-hatred and easily explainable childhood traumas than with difficult philosophical and religious contradictions embedded deep within his worldview. Therefore, the film explicitly engages existing questions about Jewish “self-hatred,” victimization, and dedication to “nothingness without end” in addition to detailing Danny’s internal struggles.
Shot largely with handheld cameras and grainy film stock, The Believer has a documentary-like texture. Bean says that he sought to make the audience feel unstable, and indeed, the mobile frame is disorienting, the framing claustrophobic. This restlessness is most noticeable in those moments when Danny is most conflicted: when he’s acting as a rabbinical teacher with Carla; when he’s plotting the bombing of a synagogue; when he “saves” the Torah from being destroyed and secretly restores it. Here, viewers and Danny are similarly uncertain and uncomfortable.
And so, while The Believer is concerned with questions of belief, it offers very little to believe in. This makes for plot gaps that distract from Danny’s journey. How did he move from being an outspoken yeshiva student to being a skinhead? Why did he choose neo-Nazism and not militant Zionism? Neither is Carla’s preoccupation with Judaism fully explored or explained. Coupled with her kinky sexual tendencies (which include a repulsive post-vomit kiss with Danny), her obsession pathologizes her and reduces Judaism to a fetish to be indulged.
Palm Pictures’ DVD includes the previously mentioned interview with Bean (which provides an overview of the backstory and development of the script, but is awkwardly edited). More useful is the Sundance Channel’s “Anatomy of a Scene,” which focuses on the scene when Danny “rescues” the Torah after vandalizing the synagogue. The episode examines Gosling’s performance, as well as mise-en-scène elements, editing, and post-production.
Despite its occasional gaps and resistance to resolution, The Believer is grounded by Gosling’s riveting performance and Bean’s careful direction and smart writing. It’s an explosive and disturbing film that forces the audience to ask difficult questions about the nature of belief.