The 2001 film”The Believer” is an extraordinary and disturbing movie.
Ryan Gosling gives a powerful performance as Daniel Blunt, a 20-something Jew who grew up in New York City and became a neo-Nazi after unsuccessfully struggling to resolve the tensions he experienced in his faith. The story is based loosely on the true story of Daniel Burros who was a member of the American Nazi Party before committing suicide on October 31, 1961 after the New York times revealed that he was a Jew.
“The Believer” offers an extraordinary portrait of a young man who finds himself unable to escape from the faith of his childhood. The stories with which he grew up continue to haunt him. In spite of his violent rejection of Jewish practice, he is still moved by the rituals and symbols of his tradition.
The power of the film stems in part from the fact that it takes Danny’s struggle seriously. His evolution from years of faithful Jewish practice to violent anti-semitic Nazi ideology is shown as a natural outcome of his struggle to understand the role of power in the spiritual life.
As a child he wrestled with the vision of God he found in the story of Abraham and Isaac. In response to his yeshiva teacher’s question about the implications of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah, Danny suggests,
It’s not about Abraham’s faith. It’s 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.’
Nazi ideology grows out of Daniel’s feeling of powerlessness and his awareness of the suffering of Jewish people at the hands of those violent political forces throughout history that have worked for the destruction of the Jewish people. If passivity allowed the Holocaust, the only answer is to take matters into your own hands and respond to your persecutors with greater violence.
The crisis comes for Danny when he begins to realize that power does not work. Violence cannot bring freedom. He continues to be drawn to the symbols and practices of his faith. As much as he flees from submission, he longs to submit to some reality greater than himself. Nazi ideology is unable to satisfy this longing.
Danny’s Gentile girlfriend Carla, lives with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. They enlist Danny’s help to found a legitimate fascist political party.
Through her relationship with Danny, Carla begins to be attracted to the unfamiliar, yet compelling rituals and teachings of Judaism. Confronted by the Torah scroll Danny has stolen from a Synagogue Carla questions him about Jewish faith. Listening to his explanation that God is beyond human conception, she responds with exasperation,
Carla – Not only can you not see Him or hear Him, but you can’t even think about Him? What’s the difference between that and Him not existing at all?
Danny – There’s no difference.
Carla – Christianity’s silly, but at least there’s something to believe in. Or not believe in. I mean, Judaism there’s nothing.
Danny – Nothing but nothingness
But, as much as he tries to convince himself, he knows it is not true. There is something more here than “Nothing”. As Carla begins to practice the rituals of the Jewish faith, something inside her begins to open. She begins to trust in a force beyond herself. As Danny tries to discount the power of practice, it seems he is trying to convince himself that the power of the symbols and practices of his faith are dead.
Danny – Judaism’s not really about belief. It’s about doing things. Keeping the Sabbath, lighting candles, visiting the sick.
Carla – And belief follows.
Danny – Nothing follows. You don’t do it because it’s smart or it’s stupid. You don’t do it because you get saved, because nobody gets saved. You just do it because the Torah tells you to and you submit to the Torah.
Strangely, by this point in the film, Carla’s heart no longer recoils at the thought of submission and so she asks,
Carla – Why should I submit?
Danny – You shouldn’t.
Carla – You think I should just because there’s no reason.
Danny – I think you shouldn’t.
But in the end she does. And so does Danny. Carla was right “belief follows” practice.
By the final scene of the film, both Danny and Carla have chosen submission in their own way and faith is the triumphant outcome.
It may not strike many viewers, but it seemed to me at the end of the film, that Danny had left the vicious ideology of Nazism and returned to being “The Believer.” Carla had left her nihilistic cynicism and she too had come at the end of the film, to be “The Believer.” Through practice, their hearts opened to submission. Submission enabled them, each in their own way, to choose the higher goodness of love and the true power of self-sacrifice that is the heart of living faith.
“The Believer” is a story of conversion. It is ultimately a tale of the triumph of faith over power, and submission over violence.