The Believer is a movie about a Jew who is, of all things, an American Nazi. It is based on a true story. However, I suspect it’s just some of the basics of the story—a Jew becomes a Nazi, and then after his identity is revealed by a newspaper reporter he commits suicide—that really happened. Much of the film is more of a rumination on what might drive a Jew to become a Nazi, and I don’t know that any of that speculative psychological stuff is based on the actual case.
Danny is a young Jewish skinhead who wears Nazi T-shirts and such. We’re first introduced to him beating up a Yeshiva student he follows down the street from the subway. Then we see him getting into mischief with other skinheads. They visit a local wealthy couple who see them, especially Danny, as having potential to help them advance their slightly less extreme right wing agenda (i.e., they’re basically mainstream Republicans rather than quite being Nazis, so they stop just short of calling for out-and-out extermination of Jews and other undesirables).
In flashbacks we see that Danny as a boy was a highly intellectual contrarian type, always questioning, debating, and criticizing authority figures and Jewish dogma, thus earning the respect and/or annoyance of his peers and teachers. He was seen as having great potential, when his cockiness and eccentricity did not rub people the wrong way.
He keeps his identity as a Jew hidden from his skinhead friends and most of the world, though his family is well aware of the fact that he’s a Nazi. Actually they seem to underreact to it, in effect just shaking their head at the latest crazy phase their mixed up kid is going through.
But returning to the question of why Danny is a Nazi, I suppose some of it is simply that he’s nuts. You can’t expect there to be a reasonable justification for such a thing after all. But over time The Believer offers enough pieces of evidence to enable going beyond that in getting some sense of Danny’s worldview and ideology.
Danny has a profound contempt for weakness and victimhood, and he associates these things with Jewishness.
So far that’s not all that uncommon amongst Jews. Many Jews over the years have struggled with the way their people always seem to be taking it on the chin—the Holocaust being the most extreme example—making them self-conscious of their Jewishness.
But what makes Danny different is that he doesn’t make use of the obvious counterexamples to this stereotype of the weak and unmanly Jew unable or unwilling to fight for himself.
He insists that Jews are an inherently nomadic people with no land to defend, always living as foreigners in other people’s lands, that they won’t stand up for themselves, and that they lose themselves in intellectual pursuits and making money as middlemen and wheeler dealers because they don’t have what it takes to build something, to work the land, to engage in honest, practical labor.
When he is challenged with the example of modern Israel, which certainly seems to fly in the face of all these stereotypes, his response is that Israelis aren’t Jews.
Huh? It turns out that for Danny these traits of weakness, lacking a connection to the soil, being greedy, conniving moneygrubbers and effete intellectuals and such are defining attributes of being a Jew, like being unmarried is a defining attribute of being a bachelor. So if someone lacks these attributes, then, in his mind they are not a Jew, by definition.
On the flip side, just as not all Jews are Jews, not all non-Jews are not Jews. He has a meeting with a rich young banker-type who naturally loves the pro-business fascist aspects of the ideology of Danny and his associates, but who smilingly warns him that nowadays it can be bad PR to link such an agenda too closely to blatant racism and anti-Semitism. Danny angrily insists that the anti-Semitism is the most important element of all, and that ironically this capitalist is acting like a Jew himself, focusing on what will make him the most money. The man tells him, “Well, I guess we’re all Jews now,” an assessment that Danny agrees with, and that causes him to expand his hatred to those who may not be Jews in name but who manifest these same sickening traits.
So his odd semantics explains how Danny can look at Israel or the Jewish Defense League or whatever and not change his disparaging view of Jews as wimps. Yet it also seemingly undercuts a key part of his worldview.
He has become a Nazi basically to deliver “tough love” to his fellow Jews. He believes that the only way to toughen them up is to brutalize them until they finally realize their only viable choice is to fight back.
But you can see the tension. On the one hand he believes that what makes someone a Jew is that they behave in certain despicable, cowardly, unmanly, money-obsessed ways, and on the other hand he wants to provoke Jews into not being that way. But that wouldn’t make them better Jews or Jews worthy of respect, it would make them, according to his philosophy, non-Jews, like the Israelis.
So is that the point? Is that the way to relieve the tension in his belief system? Wipe out Jews by killing some and causing the rest to cease to be Jews? Is that the ultimate manifestation of his Jewish self-hatred, that he wants there to be no more Jews?
I don’t think so, because it turns out he actually has a deep reverence for Judaism. Hebrew, Torah, synagogues—all the symbolic trappings of Judaism—inspire devotion and loyalty in him. So it certainly appears that part of him at least wants to save the Jews, not destroy them. Yet his very philosophy seems to make that an incoherent goal.
Whatever his peculiar purpose is, clearly it overlaps only in a quite limited way with that of regular Nazis and skinheads. So while he is allied with them, he also has a superior, contemptuous attitude toward them (though admittedly that’s pretty much his attitude toward everyone). Their movements are of use to him, but he’s largely faking being one of them.
One interesting turn his connection with them takes is actually funny in a way. His mentors—that wealthy fascist couple—decide that someone as intelligent and articulate as Danny should be molded as a spokesperson, as a leader, as the face of the movement. He strongly prefers to be a tough guy, out with his partners beating up Jews and committing vandalism and such, but they insist that that would be an unwise waste of his talents, that the one thing movements like theirs are never short of is Neanderthals to bust heads.
So it’s as if he cannot escape his fate, that even as a Nazi he’s expected to be the bookish intellectual who uses his words instead of his fists and manipulates other people to take the risks and do his fighting for him.
He’s disgusted by this and gets his revenge by embarrassing his benefactors. They present him in laudatory fashion to a roomful of fancy schmancy conservatives for a pep talk and fund raiser, and he takes a dive.
He begins with a message consistent with his philosophy, namely that the only way the Jews will ever overcome their perpetual victimhood and effeminacy is if they are shocked out of it with oppression. So, he says with a sarcastic smirk, the thing to do if you really hate Jews is to never oppress them. Instead, love them and treat them phenomenally well. And since they are so cunning that they will be able to recognize if you are only faking this as a pragmatic strategy, you need to truly commit to loving Jews as fully and sincerely as possible until your deepest beliefs and attitudes match your outward benevolent behavior toward them.
Of course the people in the room are stunned by this message, and his mentors are incensed. That pretty much ends his career as their hand-picked spokesperson.
As I said, Jews who fight back and don’t manifest the wimpy traits he abhors aren’t really Jews to him, and so he treats them as irrelevant. On the other hand, Jews who fit his negative stereotypes he immediately recognizes as Jews, and he hates them for their weakness.
The most extreme example of this is when he and some of his skinhead buddies are forced by a judge to confront actual Holocaust victims. An elderly Jewish couple shares with them their memories of that time, including witnessing their child being bayoneted. The skinheads hoot and laugh and insult them, trying to avoid feeling any empathy for them or opening their mind to the possibility of doubting their Nazi beliefs.
Danny’s is the most intense reaction of all. His partners have kind of a triumphalist attitude that these hated “others” suffered and that’s great, whereas for Danny, he is furious that his own people let down their side in his view by allowing themselves to be victims. How could you not fight back, he berates them, how could you just passively accept their murdering your child? They try to explain how there was obviously no choice, that they or anyone who attempted to stop what was happening would have been slaughtered on the spot. But he’s having none of that. Even if it means being martyred, he insists, as a human being with any self-respect at all you have to attack your tormentors at that point, to go down fighting.
Again, though, the problem is that if they had—if this were instead a confrontation with Jews who had taken up arms against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto or whatever—they presumably wouldn’t count as Jews to him. So he still would have contempt for all Jews (that he acknowledges as being Jews).
Along the way, Danny acquires a Nazi girlfriend. She seems to strongly suspect he’s Jewish. (His efforts to hide it from her are perfunctory at best. He tries to explain away his knowledge of Hebrew, immersion in Jewish culture, etc. as being motivated by a “know your enemy” strategy, but she’s no more convinced by that than you’d expect.)
But it doesn’t drive her away, doesn’t make her hate him, doesn’t cause her to rat him out to their fellow Nazis. Actually it seems to turn her on in some perverted way, as the breaking of the ultimate taboo—letting a Jew fuck her, and letting him teach her all about Judaism and practically convert her to it.
In the end, there’s enough that’s interesting and thought-provoking about The Believer to make it worthwhile. I don’t know that it’s even a weakness of the film that Danny’s philosophy is ultimately incoherent, since this is after all a study of someone with a mental illness. I didn’t love this movie, but it’s no worse than average.