The Believer is based on a true story about a Jew who became an anti-Semite. His reasons for hating Jews are fascinating but difficult to discuss. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the Jewish anti-Semite in this movie, is able to reveal his reasons for hating Jews and give further reasons for what to do about them because he is a Jew. But as I am not a Jew, my repeating what he said in a review almost seems to be off limits. It is a variation on the old principle, “I can criticize my family, but you cannot.” It is the same as when a black comedian is able to get away with using derogatory words to refer to African Americans because he is one, while a white comedian would be pilloried for using those very same words. Nevertheless, the ideas advanced in this movie may actually provide insight into anti-Semitism and thus are worth understanding, even if those are ideas are repugnant.
As the movie opens, we see Danny working out with dumbbells, making it clear that strength is important to him. His head is shaved, and on his arm, we see a tattoo of the triskele, a three-sided swastika. What we hear, however, is a flashback to a time when Danny was a young boy in school. The teacher is telling the story of when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The teacher asks the class what the meaning of the story is, and a boy gives the standard answer, that it was “a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to God.” Then the teacher calls on Danny, noting, somewhat derisively, that as usual Danny has something to add. Danny replies that it is not about Abraham’s faith, but about God’s power: “God says, ‘You know how powerful I am? I can make you do anything I want, no matter how stupid. Even kill your own son, because I’m everything and you’re nothing.’”
The scene changes to a subway station, where we see a teenager wearing a yarmulke. He looks down as he walks, as if he is afraid to look anyone in the eye. He gets on the subway, sits down, and opens a textbook, with his shoulders squeezed together, as if trying to make himself as small as possible. He wants for all the world to be left alone. But it is no good, because Danny sees him. Filled with hatred, Danny begins stepping on the boys shoes, until the boy gets off the train. Danny follows him knocks the book out of his hand. The boy just stands there meekly. Danny picks up the book and sees that it is a textbook from an institution that teaches Orthodox Judaism. Danny hits the boy, knocking him down, and then starts kicking him. As he does so, he alludes to the story of Abraham, asking the boy if he thinks this is a test, if God is going to provide a ram instead of him.
Then he tells the boy to hit him. “Do me a favor. Why don’t you fucking hit me. OK? Hit me! Hit me! Hit me! Hit me! Fucking hit me, please! You fucking kike!” At first, this sounds like the standard act of a bully, sticking his chin out, daring someone to hit him, after which he intends to beat him up. But it is more than that. Danny really wants the boy to hit him. And that is because what Danny hates about Jews is that they won’t fight.
At this point, we must stop and ask the obvious question: Is it true that Jews won’t fight? The answer would seem to be “No.” The Old Testament is full of stories about Hebrews fighting. The history of organized crime in America includes Jews like Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky, who didn’t get where they were by being afraid to fight. More respectably, of course, there are the Jews of Israel, whose willingness to fight is beyond question. However, as important as it is to note this discrepancy between what Danny believes and the facts, let us simply continue with what Danny believes for the moment.
Danny locates a fascist group on the internet headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), and he and three of his friends attend a meeting, where Zampf is comparing the good old days with the way things are now, which is bad. He says that is why he is a fascist, because only a fascist government can straighten things out. When a man asks about race, Zampf says this isn’t the time for that, even though he did make reference to all the black faces one now sees in the neighborhood. Danny interrupts, saying that race is central to problem, that the modern world is a Jewish disease, the disease of abstraction. And the solution to that disease, he says, is “killing Jews.” Zampf objects, saying that it will be Germany all over again. “Isn’t that what we want,” Danny replies, “Germany all over again, only done right this time?” Later in the movie, when one of his neo-Nazi friends suggests that the holocaust was a hoax, Danny replies, “If Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, why in the hell is he a hero?” As far as Danny is concerned, if Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, then he was a “putz.”
Danny says that people hate Jews, but then qualifies it: “The very word [Jew] makes their skin crawl. And it’s not even hate. It’s the way you feel when a rat runs across the floor. You want to step on it. You just want to crush it.” So, it’s a kind of hate arising out of disgust. Danny says, “You don’t even know why. It’s a physical reaction, and everyone feels it.” But as we have already seen, from the example of the Jewish boy he bullied, as well as the example of God and Abraham, it is the refusal of the Jew to fight back Danny believes is the cause of that feeling.
In another flashback to that day in the classroom, we hear another student point out that Abraham never killed Isaac, because God provided a ram as a substitute. First, Danny argues that Abraham really did kill Isaac on that day, just as God wanted, but that the story was changed later to make it more acceptable. Then Danny points out that even if the traditional story was the correct one, once Isaac raised his hand with the knife in order to plunge it in, he had already killed Isaac in his heart. Abraham, Danny continues, would never have been able to forget that and neither would Isaac. Furthermore, he says, the whole Jewish people were permanently scarred.
One of the people at the meeting headed by Zampf was a free-lance reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), who is doing research on right-wing groups. When Danny started speaking, he could immediately see that there was something special about Danny’s ideas. He manages to get Danny to agree to an interview. Guy asks Danny to elaborate on his remark at the meeting to the effect that the modern world is a Jewish disease. Danny begins, “In this racialist movement we believe there is a hierarchy of races. You know, whites at the top, blacks at the bottom. Asians, Arabs, Latins somewhere in between.”
Conspicuous by its absence is the place of the Jews in this hierarchy, even though it is supposedly an answer to the “Jewish disease” question. It is almost as if the Jews cannot be ranked with the rest because they are qualitatively different from the others. Guy presses Danny about the Jewish disease.
Danny begins by using sexuality as an example. He asserts that Jews are obsessed with oral sex because a Jew is essentially female. “Real men—white, Christian men—we fuck a woman. We make her come with our cocks. But a Jew doesn’t like to penetrate and thrust. He can’t assert himself in that way, so he resorts to these perversions…. So after a woman’s had a Jewish man, she’s ruined. She never wants to be with a normal partner again.” When Guy asks if that means the Jew is a better lover, Danny says it does not. “I said he gives pleasure. That’s actually a weakness.”
This notion that a Jew is essentially female goes with his views that Jews will not fight, because physical fighting tends to be a masculine trait. As for this last remark that giving pleasure is a weakness, it is interesting that Danny’s girlfriend, Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix), whom he met at the Zampf meeting, told Danny she wanted him to hurt her just before they had sex, and the next morning she had a bruise on her mouth. I guess she is his kind of woman.
Danny continues, saying that the Jews control the media and investment banks, and “they carry out in those realms the exact same principles they display in sexuality. They undermine traditional life and they deracinate society. Deracinate. Tear out the roots. A real people derives its genius from the land, from the sun, from the sea, from the soil. That is how they know themselves. But Jews don’t even have soil.” Guy makes the obvious objection that Jews in Israel have their own soil, their own country, but Danny responds that the Israelis are not Jews.
If we balked at the notion that Jews will not fight, Danny’s declaration that Israelis are not Jews seems preposterous. However, this is not the first time I have heard this claim. Most notably, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative is, not surprisingly, a book about the importance that territory plays in the behavior of many animals, including man. He argues that Jews are not a race the way Caucasians or Negroes are, but are a group of people distinguished by their lack of territory. Once they acquired territory, the citizens of Israel ceased to be Jews. According to Ardrey, people in Israel are different in every way from the Jews of the Diaspora:
It is not just physique. It is posture, a manner of walking, a manner of speaking, a manner of thought. The “Jewish personality” has vanished, replaced by that of the Israeli, a being as confident, as resolute, and as willing to do battle as a roebuck on his wooded acres. You go to a party in Tel-Aviv and someone asks the inevitable question, “How do you like Israel?” and you answer, “Fine. But where are the Jews?” And the party goes off into the greatest laughter, for it is the nation’s joke. [p. 286]
The fact that Ardrey and Danny are in agreement does not mean they are right, of course. But the point is that as bizarre as Danny’s claim that Israelis are not Jews seems to be, it is not unique to him. If it is an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, it is apparently a common one.
Danny continues with this line of reasoning: “Notice the Israelis. It’s fundamentally a secular society. They no longer need Judaism because they have soil. The real Jew is a wanderer. He’s a nomad. He’s got no roots and no attachments, so he universalizes everything. He can’t hammer a nail or plough a field. All he can do is buy and sell and invest capital, manipulate markets. And it’s, like, all mental. He takes the life of a people rooted in soil and turns it into a cosmopolitan culture based on books and numbers and ideas. You know, this is his strength.”
When Danny said at the meeting that the Jewish disease was the disease of abstraction, we may not have understood what he meant, but the above quotation gives us a fuller sense of what he was driving at. He continues: “Take the greatest Jewish minds: Marx, Freud, Einstein. What have they given us? Communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb. In the three centuries it’s taken these people to emerge from the ghettos of Europe, they’ve ripped us out of a world of order and reason, thrown us into class warfare, irrational urges, relativity, into a world where the very existence of matter and meaning is in question. Why? Because it’s the deepest impulse of a Jewish soul to pull at the very fabric of life till there’s nothing left but a thread. They want nothing but nothingness, nothingness without end.”
The reporter is awed by the intricate weaving of ideas that Danny puts forth, but then asks him how he can believe all this when he is a Jew himself, something he discovered in the course of his investigations. Danny becomes angry, threatening to sue Guy if he publishes that. He sticks a pistol in Guy’s mouth and says he will kill himself if he prints that. His anger is in part that he is ashamed of being a Jew, but it is also in part that he is still struggling with his Jewishness, with his affinity for the Jewish race. His threat to commit suicide is a harbinger of what is to come.
In the earlier scene where Danny tried to get the Jewish boy to hit him, I argued that this was more than a bully’s dare. It was, in a strange way, a desire to help the boy, to get him to fight. Danny hates the Jew, but he also loves the Jew. This struggle against his Jewishness becomes clearer as the movie progresses.
After deliberately provoking a fight in a kosher restaurant by making fun of the dietary laws, Danny and his friends are ordered by the judge to undergo sensitivity training. They listen to some survivors of the holocaust tell their stories. A man tells of how a Nazi soldier bayoneted his three-year-old son right in front of him. While Danny’s friends are sitting around with looks of insolence on their faces, we see, just barely, the moisture in Danny’s eyes. He is clearly distressed by the story. He berates the man for not fighting back against that soldier. As he does so, his hands move across his face, as if to surreptitiously wipe the tears away. A Jewish woman argues back, saying he would have been killed. Danny replies that death would have been better than surviving with the memory of having done nothing. Again the woman challenges that, quite effectively, pointing out that it is easy to talk like a hero, but braver men than Danny were broken by the Nazis. Danny gets up saying that he and his friends have nothing to learn from the holocaust survivors, that they should be learning from Danny and his friends, to kill your enemy.
Throughout the movie, Danny has done more than talk about killing Jews. He has been planning something, either an assassination or a bombing. He and his friends break into a synagogue and begin trashing the place. As they start to plant a bomb, someone discovers a Torah Scroll. Danny becomes protective of it, while his friends want to desecrate it. After they spit on it, tear it, and stomp on it, Danny carefully rolls it back up. Somewhat later, as he carefully and lovingly tapes the torn part of the scroll back together, he fantasizes about being the Nazi soldier who bayoneted the child. I’d say this guy is pretty mixed up.
When the bomb fails to go off, a Rabbi on television explains that the power cell in the timer gave out thirteen minutes before it was set to explode. He goes on to say that once again God intervened to save the Jews. He begins elaborating a kind of mystical doctrine in which God has thirteen attributes, the highest of which means “nothingness without end.” When we heard Danny say, in the interview with Guy, that Jews want nothingness without end, many of us might have thought this was just part of his strange theory, but this statement by the Rabbi indicates that much of Danny’s thinking is based on his scholarly knowledge of Judaism.
At the Zampf meeting, Danny had talked about killing Ilio Manzetti, a Jewish investment banker. One of his friends, Drake (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is a sharpshooter, asks Danny if he wants to kill a Jew, who turns out to be Manzetti. When Manzetti walks out of the synagogue, Danny aims and shoots, but misses. Drake accuses him of doing it on purpose. Then he discovers that Danny is wearing a prayer shawl beneath his shirt. “Fucking kike!” he exclaims. “I knew it.” They fight over the rifle, and Danny shoots Drake in the leg and gets away.
There is another flashback to that day in school when Danny gave his interpretation of the meaning of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in some ways recapitulates the story of the Jew, his child, and the Nazi soldier. As noted above, Danny had maintained that what really happened that day was that God did not substitute a ram at the last minute. And just as Danny insisted that the Jew should have fought back against the Nazi, even if it cost him his life, so too does Danny think that Abraham should have fought back against God to protect Isaac.
Picking up where the last flashback left off, Danny continues, “The whole Jewish people were permanently scarred by what happened at Mount Moriah. And we still live in terror.” When a fellow student says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Danny replies, “Fear of God makes you afraid of everything. All the Jews are good at is being afraid, at being sacrificed.” Someone asks if he even believes in God, to which Danny replies, “I’m the only one who does believe. I see him for the power-drugged madman that he is. And we’re supposed to worship this deity? I say, ‘Never!’” The teacher tells a student to go get Rabbi Springer to remove Danny from the class. He then turns to Danny, saying that if Danny had come out of Egypt, God would have destroyed him in the desert with all those who worshipped the Golden Calf. “Then let him destroy me now,” Danny replies defiantly. “Let him crush me like the conceited bully that he is.” He looks up, as if at God in Heaven, and says, “Go ahead.” We next see Danny running from the classroom, going down the stairs, symbolically suggesting his descent into the world anti-Semitism, into hate, into Hell.
Carla’s mother, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), and Zampf have decided to launch an intellectually serious fascist movement, and they want Danny to give speeches to help with the fundraising, rather than get involved in assassinations or bombings, because, as Lina says, they already have enough thugs. He likes the idea, but he is disturbed both by the idea that he is an intellectual and by the idea of fundraising, presumably because he thinks of intellect and money as Jewish concerns. In fact, he is so disturbed that he rushes outside and throws up.
Carla follows him outside, and starts kissing him. Kissing someone who has just vomited is disgusting, and nothing like it has ever been seen in a mainstream movie before or since. In the interview with Guy, we recall that Danny said that oral sex was a perversion, and sexual perversion is something Danny associates with Jews. We have already seen that Carla likes Danny to hurt her during sex, and on a previous occasion, she invited him to her room, telling him to come to her window at midnight. When he got there, she was humping on Zampf. While Danny watched, she looked right at him and had an orgasm. So, we have masochism, exhibitionism, and scatology (of a sort). Presumably this represents another conflict of emotions for Danny in his sexual relationship with a perverted Gentile girl.
Danny gives a speech in front of a handful of people, most of whom admit to being anti-Semites. Danny begins by posing a question as to why we hate the Jews. “Do we hate them because they push their way in where they don’t belong? Or do we hate them because they’re clannish and keep to themselves? Because they’re tight with money, or because they flash it around? Because they’re Bolsheviks or because they’re capitalists? Because they have the highest IQs or because they have the most active sex lives?”
His audience is undoubtedly confounded by this, because he makes it clear that the reasons people give for not liking Jews are inconsistent. He continues, “You want to know why we hate them? Because we hate them. Because it’s an axiom of civilization, that just as man longs for woman, loves his children, and fears death, he hates Jews. There’s no reason. And if there were, some smart-assed kike would try to prove us wrong, which would only make us hate them more. And really, we have all the reasons we need in three simple letters: ‘J,’ ‘E,’ ‘W.’ ‘Jew.’ You say it a million times, it’s the only word that never loses its meaning.” Danny’s views seem to vacillate between giving reasons for hating Jews, such as that they won’t fight or they like abstractions, to saying that the hate is more fundamental than the reasons, which really don’t matter.
In the next scene, we see Danny talking to an investment banker who is willing to give a thousand dollars to the Zampf group, on account of an article that Danny wrote. He advises Danny to forget about all that stuff about the Jews, not because the banker disagrees with Danny’s anti-Semitism, but because it just doesn’t play any more. “There’s only the market,” he says, “and it doesn’t care who you are.” When Danny says that people still need values and beliefs, the banker replies, “No, they don’t. Not the smart ones.” The banker agrees to give Danny as much as five thousand dollars, but adds, “When you fall off this horse, come see me. I could show you how to make a lot of money.”
Danny says, “You’re a Jew. You may not realize it, but you are.”
The banker shrugs. “Maybe I am. Maybe we’re all Jews now. What’s the difference?”
And so, this banker is Danny’s opposite number. Whereas Danny is a Jew who has become an anti-Semite, this investment banker is an anti-Semite who has become a Jew. In a similar way, Carla, who has figured out that Danny is a Jew on account of his obsession with Jews, is becoming Jewish herself, learning Hebrew and wanting to observe the Sabbath.
Danny runs into some old friends of his, who are Jewish, and he is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them at a synagogue. When he gets there, he gets into a heated argument with Avi (Judah Lazarus), with whom he used to argue all the time at school. Avi accuses Danny of being a fascist, saying he thinks “Jews are wimps.” When he says Danny is a Jewish Nazi, Danny replies that Avi is a Zionist Nazi, that Zionists acts like Stormtroopers. A woman standing nearby asks, “And you hate them because they’re wimps or because they’re Stormtroopers?” It is the very thing Danny warned about in his speech, the contradictory reasons people give for hating Jews. In fact, there are cross-currents of inconsistency running back and forth through this movie too numerous to mention them all. And the inconsistencies point back to Danny’s more fundamental point, that the hatred of the Jews is irrational, and reasons are something people struggle to come up with to make sense of their hatred.
The speech that Danny gave making this point was to an audience casually dressed, who appeared to be working class. But following the scene at the synagogue, Danny is back at Lina’s house, which is filled with well-dressed people, “right-wing money,” as Lina puts it. She has hopes that Danny’s speech will be what it takes to really get the movement going.
Danny gets before the crowd and begins singing a Jewish prayer. He then explains why he did so: “Who wants to destroy the Jews? Who wants to grind their bones into the dust? And who wants to see them rise again? Wealthier, more successful, powerful, cultured, more intelligent than ever? Then you know what we have to do? We have to love them. ‘What! Did he say, “Love the Jews?”’ It’s strange, I know. But with these people, nothing is simple. The Jew says all he wants is to be left alone to study his Torah, do a little business, fornicate with his oversexed wife. But it’s not true. He wants to be hated. He longs for our scorn. He clings to it, as if it were the very core of his being. If Hitler had not existed, the Jews would’ve invented him. For without such hatred, the so-called Chosen People would vanish from the Earth. And this reveals a terrible truth and the crux of our problem as Nazis. The worse the Jews are treated, the stronger they become. Egyptian slavery made them a nation. The pogroms hardened them. Auschwitz gave birth to the state of Israel. Suffering, it seems, is the very crucible of their genius. So, if the Jews are, as one of their own has said, ‘A people who won’t take “Yes” for an answer,’ let us say ‘Yes’ to them. They thrive on opposition. Let us cease to oppose them. The only way to annihilate this insidious people once and for all is to open our arms, invite them into our homes, and embrace them. Only then will they vanish into assimilation, normality, and love. But we cannot pretend. The Jew is nothing, if not clever. He will see through hypocrisy and condescension. To destroy him, we must love him sincerely.”
It is clear that this is not something that Danny has believed all along, but has only recently concluded as the last, logical, inexorable step in his philosophy. If it is the essence of the Jew to be hated, as Danny has claimed, then only love will destroy him, will deprive him of the very thing he needs to be Jewish. It also represents the synthesis of Danny’s own psychological struggle, the fact that he both hates and loves the Jew.
Danny has always been more than just the typical anti-Semite, has always taken things beyond what his audience is used to, starting when he was just a student in school; but this speech is so paradoxical and confusing to his audience that he starts losing them. Guy, the reporter, moves forward through the crowd, for he is the one person in the room who is able to follow Danny’s reasoning. He asks Danny if this destruction of the Jew through love would not make the Jew more powerful than he already is.
Danny answers, “Yes. Infinitely more. They would become as God. It’s the Jews’ destiny to be annihilated so they can be deified. Jesus understood this perfectly. And look what was accomplished there with the death of just one enlightened Jew. Imagine what would happen if we killed them all.” With that, Danny suggests they accompany him in the Jewish prayer with which he began. But, of course, the people in the room are leaving bewildered.
Lina is furious with Danny and wants him out of the organization, but she is interrupted by Zampf to come look at a news report that Manzetti has been assassinated. Danny has been bothered for some time that he only talks about killing Jews but has never actually killed one. He knows Drake was the assassin, and what really bothers him is that others suspect Danny did it, rubbing it in that it was not him. And so, he reverts to hate. And because the newspaper shows a picture of him as a boy and reveals that he is Jewish, his hatred becomes suicidal.
Danny and his friend plant a bomb in the pulpit of a synagogue timed to go off during Neilah, a service for Yom Kippur. His friend tells him that the pulpit has been reinforced, which will inhibit the outward blast, but Danny says that all that matters is that the pulpit be destroyed. Because Danny earlier said that he intended to daven, to recite the liturgical prayer at the service, it is beginning to look as though Danny intends a mass-murder-suicide. When he arrives at the synagogue, he not only sees the people he was arguing with on Rosh Hashanah, but also Carla, who refuses to leave the service. As he sits behind Carla, he again imagines himself as the Nazi bayoneting the child, but also imagines that he is the child’s father, who then attacks the Nazi, effectively struggling with himself as both Jew and Nazi.
Danny davens as he said he would, but as the clock approaches the designated time, he has a change of heart, telling everyone about the bomb and to get out of the room. He remains at the pulpit, recalling the day in school when he defied God to destroy him. And then the bomb explodes. In the last moments of his life, he sees himself back at school as an adult, only this time climbing the stairs instead of descending. His teacher tells him that maybe he was right, that Isaac was killed on Mount Moriah, but then was reborn in the world to come. But Danny keeps ascending without really knowing toward what, toward nothingness.