I Believe in Controversy

Controversy takes shape in many places. You can find controversy most commonly in any art form. One art form that happens to speak for itself in regards to most controversies is film. Film has the advantage over other art forms in that it captures both visual and audio aspects of what the film is projecting. Since art is a form of expression, it isn’t uncommon that artists speak freely thus occasionally causing a stir among the media. When an artist portrays something in a different light or in an innovative or provocative way, people tend to disagree or and question what is being said. Controversy is very common in all art forms, however it would appear that film is one of the larger mediums through which art receives controversy in today’s society due to popularity and accessibility. One film, The Believer, is such a controversial film because it happens to deal with many issues. The film violently depicts what is known as a “living contradiction”: a Hasidic Jew, by day, who turns into a Neo-Nazi, by night, as he struggles with his faith. The three main controversies surrounding this film regard the nature of the Jewish faith, desecration of sacred relics, and Jewish establishments “control” over art. Since this film displays many negative perspectives on society as well as presents many pressing issues such as questions of faith and self-hatred, this film is considered a controversial piece of art. Controversy, such as the plot to the film, is actually beneficial to the art itself. The reason this is so is because the actual controversy adds weight or substance to the themes or messages portrayed in the art. This film is an important piece of art due to its unconventional aspects on the issues it deals with, as well as its genuine characteristics as a controversial film.

The film, written and directed by Henry Bean, was originally based off the life of a man named Daniel Burros. Like the character of Danny in the film, Burros was raised as a Hasidic Jew. After high school, Burros joined the Army in which he was ridiculed for his thick glasses and over-energetic nature. It was around this time that he gained an admiration for Adolph Hitler and a hatred for the very religion he was raised on, Judaism. When he was discharged, he moved to Virginia where he joined the American Nazi Party. After several years of weaving in and out of many different Nationalist parties, he finally joined the infamous Klu Klux Klan. After becoming the highest Klan official of New York, he and other Klan members assaulted African-Americans at a local White Castle. A New York Times reporter, who identified Burros as a Jewish man, threatened to expose him upon interviewing him, however Burros threatened to commit suicide if the reporter did so. The reporter inevitably ignored Burros threat and published the article. That same day Burros took a gun to his head stating he had nothing left to live for. (Bryk 1-3)

This background information was the basis for the film, but unlike Burros’ character, the article is not published therefore not causing the suicide. That famous reporter confrontation actually made it into the film; however the main character does not commit suicide. Instead the character continues his Nazi ways as he falls for the daughter of the leader of a Nationalist Party. As she questions his knowledge of the Jewish faith, Danny teaches her Hebrew, he is thus reunited with his Jewish faith thus beginning his inner struggle.  Throughout the film, Danny struggles between his faith in Judaism and his violent ways of a Nazi. Danny finds himself torn between the two, which leads to the majority of the controversy surrounding the film. One conclusion that can be made of Danny’s decision to be a Nazi is that he believes one must suffer as Jesus Christ to enter the Kingdom of God. Since the Holocaust was over long ago, Danny feels that Jews still need to suffer in order to reach heaven, therefore he rationalizes his assaults of individual Jews by thinking that he is redeeming them. Many religions, especially those involving Jesus Christ, are based off of suffering which leads to salvation. In order to be saved, one must live like Christ. In a review by Harriette Yahr in the Jewish magazine Tikkun, she states that:

The film offers up the possibility that Jews today are latching on to a story of oppression that is no longer valid…Where is a Jew without his or her suffering? If we were to let go of out pain, what would we hold on to? Can we begin a new story or is freedom too scary? (2)

The author is merely elaborating on the main character’s point of view in the film. This stance alone allows for many argumentative points of view as well as defensive. Since the author discusses the harsh views depicted by the character, many people, especially those of the Jewish faith, could argue against this belief stating that either they suffered enough through the Holocaust or that his claim is irrelevant due to everyone personally suffering in some form or another as human nature. The protagonist’s personal beliefs is just the core of the controversy surrounding the film.

Throughout the film, there are many scenes in which would make anybody cringe due its discriminating nature. The film opens to depict a violent Danny stalking a young Jewish student and verbally harassing him in Hebrew then attacking him.  Henry Bean, the film’s director, states in his screenplay’s commentary that his plan was to “start with an unforgivable act, then seduce the audience, against its will, into sympathizing with someone it hated” (Bean 185). As the film progresses and we learn more and more about his character, we never really find out in the film how he became who he represents in the present. Many of the reviewers of this film, commented on what they believed to be a lack of narrative and character development. Bean commented on Danny’s origins saying, “it did really interest me, in fact, it seemed irrelevant. I thought of his Nazism as a mystery too deep for explanation…[it’s] so obvious [the film] didn’t need one.”

Probably the most controversial scene in the film involves Danny and his Nazi party planting a bomb in a synagogue while they also manage to desecrate the holiest Jewish Scripture, the Sefer Torah. In the scene the boys spit on and rip at the scroll while Danny tries to stop them. This scene also stands, as Danny’s turning point in the film in which he realizes his faith in Judaism is still very strong. Yahr notes this revelation in her review a few times “it is at this precise moment, during the horror of his actions, that Danny feels the power of his Judaism—whether he shaves his head or not” (2). These scenes lead to much controversy especially with leaders in the Jewish community.

Upon completion of his film and winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Henry Bean decided to bring his film to both the Anti-Defamation League and the Wiesenthal Center as a courtesy as to not offend anyone before the film’s set release in September of 2001.  After viewing the film, the rabbis from the Wiesenthal Center were not pleased at all. The only good thing Rabbi Cooper had to say about the film was that “ the frame of the Believer is about God testing man, while Danny seems to be testing God: How far can Danny go before being stopped? A sacrifice is the answer” (Bean 199). He also went on with his criticism about the lack of narrative as well as the desecration of the Sefer Torah. Once the word spread out at what the Wiesenthal had said about the film it “scared away distributors who had once shown interest in The Believer” (Deziel 2). Therefore the film was halted from its release. The tragic events of 9/11 didn’t help the situation either, as many viewed the film’s release as an unneeded damper on America’s hearts as they wept. In a review by Shanda Deziel, she states: “The question that it raises is as provocative as the movie itself. At this time, it is dangerous – or pertinent- to release a film that demands sympathy for a Jewish protagonist attracted to fascist movements…” (1). Although the Wiesenthal Center was able to stop the film from reaching theaters, the Showtime network decided to be the first to play it publicly.

With this being said, it raises questions as to how big of a role censorship had to play in this ordeal. Another big question is how and why did these community groups gain so much influence and power over the films that are released? Rabbi Cooper seems to be defending himself when it comes to whether or not he has any power in regards to censorship. It appears as though this case will make many filmmakers feel scared to pass a political-correctness test as to not offend anyone. As it began to look like a worse time to develop any more Anti-Semitism films, American History X was dropped off at the Wiesenthal Center. The only reason this film, which shares similar elements of violence, racism, Anti-Semitism all involving Neo-Nazis, was approved by the Center was because at the end of the film the protagonists realizes his mistakes and puts down the swastika. However, this was not the case in The Believer, again Rabbi Cooper comments saying that he “doesn’t see a pedagogic line that eventually dispels the character’s anti-Semitic rants. Instead, it appears that the characters is sanctified in spite of his beliefs; he’s destroyed in the end, but it seems that it’s a martyr and not in retribution” (Bean 199).

It would appear that Rabbi Cooper only saw the controversy and not the true meaning of the film, which deals with themes of self-hatred. The director of the Sundance Film Festival commented about the film stating, “‘it’s about that crisis of cultural identity, which is a universal subject, and of this very particular self-loathing of Jews that has been a tradition of Jewish art and literature’”(Bean 199).  Then, commentator Beth Pinsker continues the thought:

This self-hating or even just bare exploration of religion happens to be one of the most touchy subjects in American Judaism today. Bean’s film takes it to an extreme, but if Danny Baliant had merely gone from being a yeshiva student to eating bacon cheeseburgers- while expressing the same ambivalent emotions about his upbringing and God- the filmmaker might have enraged the same groups of people. (Bean 198)

What she is most definitely suggesting is that the Wiesenthal Center took this film way too seriously and completely over-looked the whole message of the film. She presents irony as well as humor as she relates the weight of problem the Wiesenthal Center saw to that of disobeying the kosher standards of the Jewish faith. It is clear that community groups, such as the Wiesenthal, would care solely about the negative depiction of their own depiction. Since the Jews were almost seen in a negative light, Wiesenthal immediately despised the film. Any artist should never have an obligation to have his or her work reviewed or inspected before released. This defeats the purpose of free expression and can mislead the audience as far as the portrayal of important messages.

Should people really make this big a deal over a film? Since we have the freedom to express ourselves freely then I think we should be able to say what we want without offending too many people. The fact that the film had one scene desecrating the Torah should be no reason to ban the film, if anything it should be more of a reason to release it due to it’s powerful message. Although this film is now over eight years old, I believe that the film should be distributed into theaters and mass publicized. Why hide what’s on screen when it is right in our faces anyway? Today, hate and even discrimination still lurks through our society. The messages that the film portrays of self-hatred and the fight within oneself and the strength of faith are much more important than any other film that is commercialized every two minutes on network cable. I think that the controversy surrounding the film definitely has added to its popularity since the film was actually released on DVD and I was able to hear about it. At least now I know, as an aspiring filmmaker that I do not have to pass a correctness test. I will stand for what I believe in and portray any message I feel the need to when and if I become a filmmaker. I will not let my voice be censored and I will let my voice be heard because I believe in controversy.

Works Cited:

Bean, Henry. The Believer: Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred. Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Believer, The. Dir. Henry Bean. Perf. Ryan Gosling. Palm Pictures. 2001

Bryk, William. “From Jew to Jew-Hater: The curious life (and death) of

Daniel Burros.” (2003): 1-3. Nypress.com. 25 Feb. 2003. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <http://www.nypress.com/article-7077-from-jew-to-jew-hater-the-curious-life-(and-death)-of-daniel-burros.html&gt;.

Deziel, Shanda “EYE OF THE BELIEVER.” Maclean’s 115.33 (2002): 50. Academic Search

Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.

Yahr, Harriette “A Jewish Nazi?.” Tikkun 17.4 (2002): 71. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.