By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 24, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

A bittersweet fable about a lovable eccentric who brings hope to fellow Jews during the Nazi reign of murder has a lot to answer for, coming less than a year after Life Is Beautiful so triumphantly made the Holocaust palatable to the squeamish. But Jakob the Liar — starring Robin Williams in his moist, empathetic mode — actually benefits from the comparison.

Where Life is a generalized parable anchored by the brazen presumption that a determined father could protect his son from harm in the concentration camps, Jakob is a specific story about one man who does one thing: Based on a snippet of news he has overheard on a radio in the Nazi commandant’s office, Jakob (Williams) tells his ghetto neighbors that the Soviets are making military advances on the Germans. The news spreads, with facts embroidered by the desperate. Jakob owns a forbidden radio, they say, so his announcements must be true: Liberation is just around the corner! Before long, people who had been contemplating suicide are filled with renewed determination to live. Telling them the truth would kill them.

Although the plot and characters sound like folkloric constructions out of Isaac Bashevis Singer, they’re from a novel by concentration camp survivor Jurek Becker. And while a 1974 East German movie version ended on a much bleaker note than this Hollywood production allows, Hungarian-born director Peter Kassovitz establishes an effectively grim, cramped yet barren setting, making respectful use of locations in Poland and Budapest.

Of course, there’s still the Williams schmaltz factor — and pickled-herring performances from such sad-eyes-to-heaven regulars as Bob Balaban, Alan Arkin, Liev Schreiber, and Armin Mueller-Stahl among the ghetto populace. But Williams (who shot this before pulling out all the stops in Patch Adams, suggesting he was testing the limits of shtick while playing a sort of Patch Abramowitz) manages to contain his most indulgent mugging.

Only when Jakob is entertaining Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), a mournful 10-year-old girl who adopts him as her guardian after her parents are sent to the death camps, does the full lather of Williams at his most improvisationally excessive threaten to submerge Jakob the Liar‘s small poignance. That it doesn’t is proof enough that even though Life Is Beautiful tried to package it with a satin bow, the Holocaust defies easy artistic capture. B-