The movie

The Believer is a movie that follows the life of Daniel Balint, a Jewish neo-Nazi played by Ryan Gosling. Danny is a brilliant, incredibly eloquent man who, though raised as an Orthodox Jew, is violently antisemitic. He is also violent towards other non-Aryans, but his obsession is the destruction of Judaism.

Early in the movie, Danny meets a group of rather wealthy, intellectual self-described fascists who contrast with his tough Nazi friends. He suggests that anti-Judaism become a key aspect of their agenda, and becomes part of the organization. Meanwhile, he becomes interested in Judaism again, to the point where he is living a double life as a sometimes observant Jew and a bomb-planting neo-Nazi.

This might sound far-fetched, and it is a little bit, but the script, by director Henry Bean (himself, incidentally, a Conservative Jew), is brilliant enough that it works. As I noted, Danny is amazingly eloquent, and Bean provides him with some of the best monologues I have ever heard. As Bean notes in his director’s commentary on the DVD release, though, Danny’s criticisms of Judaism are not original, but are in many cases based on rabbinic and modern midrash, as well as other arguments made by Jews against specific aspects of Judaism. He thus in a sense turns Judaism against itself, and has an aspect that actually leads Bean to describe him as a rabbi figure.

The editing of the movie (much of which is revealed in the director’s commentary to have been last-minute) is also great, blending the main plot (shot with a hand-held camera for a documentary look) with images of a classroom argument about the binding of Isaac when Danny was a 12-year-old yeshiva student. As Danny reflects on the Holocaust, during a scene in which Gosling demonstrates perhaps the best acting in the movie, a third set of footage is used, in which Daniel grapples with his identity as both oppressor and victim.

The inspiration

The Believer is loosely based on the real-life story of Daniel Burros, who was for a while the National Secretary of the American Nazi Party and later a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Burros committed suicide in 1965 after the New York Times published an article revealing his Jewish ancestry and upbringing. The question of whether the Times was responsible for his suicide led two of its journalists to write the book One More Victim, essentially a biography of Burros. This event is also described in an interview with Henry Bean on The Believer DVD and in a 2003 New York Press article. As Bean notes, Burros almost compulsively gave away his Jewish background while a Nazi, and this aspect of the story inspired him to create The Believer.

The movie again

I should add that the movie also stars Summer Phoenix as Danny’s girlfriend, Theresa Russell as her fascist mother, and Billy Zane as Curtis Zampf, another fascist organizer. There is also a book entitled The Believer: Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred, which includes the screenplay and essays on related topics by scholars. Incidentally, the title of the movie is not, as one reviewer asserted, ironic; according to Bean it actually reflects Danny’s character as someone living a real and deep contradiction.

So finally, is is worth noting that the subject matter of the movie is in a sense open to debate: one of the director’s friends expressed a great deal when he said that it is a movie not about a Jewish Nazi, but simply about being Jewish, but others have suggested that the concepts of contradiction and self-hatred it expresses are even more universal.

Sources: (official website) (unofficial website) (New York Press article)
The Believer DVD

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