A Film Divided

Hollywood made some healthy contributions to the "rogue cop" genre in
the 1990s. One was Internal Affairs, in which Richard Gere, as a cop gone
bad, was corrupt, porkily sexual, running rackets, and siring children like a
Greek god. Gere's character had no conscience; his ethical sense was entirely
displaced onto the person of the grim, obsessed Internal Affairs officer who was
investigating him. The screenplay for Internal Affairs was written by
Henry Bean, who then expanded his brief with Deep Cover, the story of a
narcotics agent (played by Laurence Fishburne) who is taken over, werewolf-like,
by his undercover identity. Split men, men swallowed by their own shadows: Bean
clearly had an interest in the roles and counter-roles of a divided world, but
who could have predicted that he would one day write and direct a film about a
Jewish Nazi?

The Believer gives us Danny Balint, former yeshiva boy and current
racist skinhead, swastika T-shirt and all. The film won prizes at Sundance but
then had a cold year without distribution, allegedly because of the amount of
specific, articulate anti-Semitism it contains. It finally popped up on Showtime
and is now in the cinemas. So let's have a look.

The skinhead in his ideal form is an animal, which is his appeal. The
bristled, chronic stare, the aggressively perfected skull -- for Danny (played by
Ryan Gosling) these are antidotes to Jewish weakness and neurasthenia. As a
schoolboy he argued bitterly with his religious teachers against Abraham's
preparedness to sacrifice Isaac, to lie down before God and thus inseminate the
Jewish people with victimhood for all time. "Modern life is a Jewish disease!"
he rants, and leaps into the electrically violent life of the skinhead. In the
film's first scene he follows a Jewish student onto a subway train and attacks him.
The contrast between the mumbling, book-laden victim and the energized aggressor,
static crackling around his head like a halo, is sharp and seductive. Beating the
boy to the ground Danny screams, "Hit me! Just hit me! PLEASE!"

As a skinhead he is almost too good, too effective, too full of ideas -- he
stands out from the pack. (Gosling's face is hard but delicate, lacking the
gristle and blockage of the classic skinhead.) Of course he cannot escape
himself. Lecturing a reporter on the squalor of Jewish mysticism and Jewish
sexuality, his style is pedagogic, musical, even rabbinical. "Deracinated!" he
insists. "Did you get that word?" The Believer channels implacably down
this psychic fault line, the wound of a man who has become his own antimatter,
sucking in light and broadcasting darkness. A possible resolution is suicide.
When the reporter threatens to expose Danny's Jewishness, the neo-Nazi pulls out
a gun and says "If you put that in the paper, I'll kill myself."

Danny's trajectory through the white-power movement finds him keeping some odd
company. Theresa Russell is a mysterious actress -- I have seen her described as
"reliably awful." Better, perhaps, to say that in The Believer, her
strange, heavily sauced delivery, the arched eyebrows putting naughty quotes
around everything, is not inappropriate to the character of Lina Moebius, fascist
doyenne. Every scene Russell has ever been in has seemed about to lapse
into sex, to come apart in sticky webs of erotic languor, which is an interesting
quality to bring to a far-right discussion group, a roomful of plain, potbellied
extremists, their trouser fronts straining in illicit joy as the buzz-cut young
man at the back stands up and calls for the killing of Jews to begin. Lina's
co-host and ideological playmate is Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane in a shaggy wig).
"But it'll be like Germany all over again!" he blusters. "Isn't that what we
want?" asks Danny (the buzz-cut young man) "Germany all over again -- except this
time done right." Lina's daughter is Carla (Summer Phoenix), who, smoldering,
stares darkly at Danny from across the room -- she likes to be hurt when they are
making love.

The Believer is too intensely preoccupied to admit much in the way of
wit or zesty one-liners, but there are some lighter moments. Out at a white-power
retreat in the countryside, Danny sees two skinheads hunched over a board, moving
pieces across a map. "Stalingrad?" he asks. "Gettysburg!" is the enthusiastic
reply. "We're fighting it with World War I technology -- it's a fuckin'
!" Later, Danny takes the crew into a kosher deli for a bit of fun;
the faces of his brother skins are clear and happy as he goads the waiter with
his knowledge of kashrut. "Why can't you serve chicken with dairy? Do
chickens give milk?" "It's my religion." "Religion is about the incomprehensible,
not the idiotic! FUCK YOU!"

Nothing compromises, however, the awful, raging solitude at the film's core.
Danny is alone with his situation. He has no foil, no one to take him on. His
fellow goons are the usual pack of also-rans, lumpily various (a fat one, a
little one, a nasty one with big muscles) and easily manipulated. Friends and
family from his other, Jewish life regard him with bemused weariness. The only
effective challenge to his system is mounted by slow, sullen Carla. "Why do you
talk about Jews so much?" she asks. "Hitler and Goebbels talked incessantly about
Jews!" he protests. "Is that why you became a Nazi," she asks, "to talk
incessantly about Jews?" Carla seems stunned by life, somewhat incomplete, almost
without will. She has no interaction with any other character: one could imagine
her as Danny's private hallucination. What she is, in fact, is his soul -- injured,
half-dormant, morbidly loyal, groping for truth or growth. In a kind of kinky
experiment (or is it?) she asks Danny for Hebrew lessons and instruction in
Jewish law. "Know your enemy, right?" she says, gently drawing him out, eliciting
from him the full complexity of his Jewishness.

The symptoms of faith chaotically reappear. Under his white T-shirt he wraps
himself in tzitzit. Vandalizing a synagogue with his urine-spraying
buddies, he finds himself unable to desecrate the Torah -- all this even as he rises
through the ranks of the Zampf-Moebius organization, becoming a spokesman and
then a fundraiser. "We're going to build bridges to mainstream politics!" vows
Curtis, improbably. "We'll have guest speakers! Chomsky! Stanley Crouch!"

A film this dense with ideas and argument risks becoming not a film at all but a
text. The published screenplay of The Believer, for example, is a text.
Daftly subtitled "Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred" (next week: Macbeth:
Confronting Regicide
), it comes freeze-dried with its own scholarly
responses -- a series of appended essays, including one by a professor of
rabbinism. Whether the publishers were too nervous to let the work stand alone or
whether Bean thought it a genuinely good idea to swaddle his art in hermeneutic
discourse -- midrash -- I don't know. It's an ironic fate, in any case, for a
script whose main character fulminates punctually against the Jewish compulsion
toward exegesis.

What saves the film from this swarm of commentary is the acting (Gosling and
Phoenix are magnificent) and the brutal, essential purity of its central conflict.
As a character Danny is faced classically, head-on, because -- freak of modernity
that he is -- he lives in the old world of Isaac Bashevis Singer, of The Slave
and The Magician of Lublin. His relationship with Carla, his magnetic
attraction to his own fate -- these are signs from the Singer universe, which is a
place of testing but also a machine of revelation calibrated, with a precision
that is either infinitely cruel or infinitely forgiving, to crack you right down to
your center. To experience the fullness of this, both Singer and Bean suggest, is
to achieve a kind of sainthood. Danny puts a bomb in the temple, timed to explode
during a friend's premarital ceremony, and then insists on leading the ceremony
himself. Alone at the altar, mouthing prayers, he waits for the blissful, upward
drench of light that will release him. Having taken a Nietzschean hammer to his
faith, having passed it through the white heat of its opposite, Danny finds he
cannot duck the terms of his contract with God -- having been the only real
skinhead in the film, he must now be the only real Jew.