“Take the greatest Jewish minds ever: Marx, Freud, Einstein. What have they given us? Communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb.”
“The Believer” contains one of the most compelling portraits of a psychologically unstable young man ever captured on film. Where “American History X” explicated racism and inter-cultural hostilities as products of social circumstances and somewhat vague domestic indoctrination through its central characters, this film looks at the internal struggle of its protagonist and illuminates his path to fascism and anti-Semitism as one littered with self-hatred and formed by insecurity.
Written and directed by Henry Bean, “The Believer” tells the mostly fictionalized story of Daniel Balint, a 20-something Jewish neo-Nazi living in New York City at the turn of the 21st century. His story is loosely based on the real life of Daniel Burros, an anti-Semite of a previous era who had ties to both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party and who killed himself when his Jewish heritage was revealed by the New York Times in 1965.
Born and raised Jewish, Danny Balint is first seen in the film stalking a Jewish teenager on the subway and attacking him in the street, knocking his books to the ground and kicking him repeatedly. As Danny, Ryan Gosling is extraordinary. It’s this performance that certified him as one of the best young actors at work in Hollywood and, truthfully, any other outcome would’ve been perplexing. It’s astonishing seeing what he’s up to, here (especially when you have the retrospective advantage and can also see him in stuff like “The Notebook” and “Half Nelson”).
As written, the character is rich with idiosyncratic, neurotic detail. Early scenes show him debating God’s brutality and Judaism’s perceived frailty with his teachers and classmates in Hebrew school. At just about every moment, he seems ready to burst. He’s furious, wired, and poised to dismantle and even in moments of post-coital serenity, his rage is present, looming in the background. His existence as a skinhead is tailored meticulously to every nuance of his extremely complicated, deeply personal sociopolitical belief system and every shred of that is made clear to us. It’s such a testament to the skill involved that his despicable outlook is made pitiable and heartbreaking and not simply into some abstract, foreign notion of “bigotry” that we can all feel good about opposing. It’s not even dignified with consistency. Above all, Daniel hates himself.
Much like Edward Norton’s character in “American History X,” Daniel Balint uses his preferred ethnic target as a scapegoat for a welter of personal problems. In Norton’s case, his character’s resentments focused on African-Americans and Mexican immigrants and they stemmed from misplaced blame for his father’s death. For Daniel Balint, it runs much deeper than that. The entire fabric of his personhood repels him. He projects all of his self-loathing onto Jews as a group and Judaism as a religion (one he refers to as a “disease”). One of the most interesting things about him is his rejection of his own intelligence. Being told he’s “articulate” puts him ill-at-ease and when a fellow fascist refers to him as an intellectual, he cringes and swiftly dismisses the notion. Characterizing Jews as cerebral nomads, submissive and victimized by nature, he almost seems to hate and accost them as a means to elicit their retaliation.
In one scene, during a raid on a synagogue, the Torah is taken out of its place and spat on and torn. Seeing this visibly affects Daniel in a very profound way, and when he picks it up and puts it back into place with immense care and reverence, we understand: on some level, Judaism is his to hate and nobody else’s.
Throughout the film, Daniel’s involvement with a fascist organization and his bizarre, primal relationship with one of its daughters (Summer Phoenix) propels him toward his eventual demise. It’s these mechanisms and the finale of the film that force upon it a parabolic quality. His pain is real. His guilt is real. All his seemingly contradictory pronouncements and behaviors are painfully real. But the way the story concludes transcends all that realism and basically contextualizes a quasi-redemption for Danny. That it takes place in a synagogue seals the deal.
As a whole, the film is a real onslaught on the emotions. We see Daniel belittling Holocaust survivors for not fighting back in one breath and repudiating his white supremacist cohorts for denying that that very genocide took place (“If Hitler didn’t kill 6 million Jews, then why the hell is he your hero?”) in the next. The more I see it, the clearer the film’s purpose becomes. It’s not out to pat us on the back and reassure us that we’re all good, sensible liberals and that anti-Semites are detestable abstractions beneath our contempt and that we’re so much better than them. It’s not even really about anti-Semitism (apart from what one character might have you believe, Daniel is the exception, not the rule). It’s about a young man whose self-loathing and insecurity formed a self-destructive worldview. It’s about identity. It’s about the resilience of Judaism and its place as an enduring religion.
Considering all that I’ve discussed, it’s no wonder the film was overlooked. Taboo subjects explored in provocative films don’t have too much marketing potential and often fall by the wayside. But as a piece of art and as a personal exploration of many gut-wrenching issues, “The Believer” is just about unparalleled. Its power and precision are a staple of documentary filmmaking, and the amount of “ecstatic truth” present here would make Werner Herzog blush.